While attending an antiwar rally in Seattle on Saturday, March 19, I had profoundly mixed feelings. From an organizer's standpoint, the rally was a success: 5,000 people came out in the rain to hear speeches and music and march around town. The turnout was the largest for an antiwar rally in Seattle in the two years since the war in Iraq began. Moreover, it was part of an international day of more than 700 protests in the US alone.
Yet I couldn't shake the feeling that this was not the way to get our troops home, although the germ of an idea was present.
Rallies and demonstrations are not going to stop a war. As a barometer of the depth of public opinion, as a pep rally for activists, and as an incubator of oppositional culture, these rallies have their place. But if the ultimate goal of a movement is to change public policy, we must conclude that even the millions of people in the streets before the invasion of Iraq in 2003 were not, in the end, effective.
Why weren't they effective? There are a lot of reasons, not the least of which being that the White House decision makers had long previously made up their minds, making the entire run-up to the war an elaborate charade in which maximizing public support was a goal — but in the end not particularly necessary. We have to wait until an election to speak our minds, by which point circumstances change. What George Bush called his “accountability moment” came only once in his presidential career; as it happens, he survived it, barely.
He survived in part because the broad antiwar sentiment before the invasion dwindled significantly once the war began. Many of the more conservative and centrist opponents of an invasion felt that once war was under way, it was important to support the mission no matter how fraudulent or ill-conceived its roots. Another large segment felt disempowered — felt that nothing, not even millions of people in the streets, made any difference. And that nothing could make any difference in the future.
That's not quite true.
The Bush administration can be pressured to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, but a tedious rally that mixes too-old protest music with alienating rhetoric isn't going to do it. People who matter to the Bush administration are not going to be swayed by speeches peppered with “fascist” this and “imperialist” that. That's the left at its self-referential worst.
But the White House does care, very much, when members of the military and of military families start speaking out. By far the most powerful speaker at Saturday's rally was a Pacific County woman, Lietta Ruger, who has a son-in-law and nephew about to serve their second tours of duty in Iraq. Hers is a military family; she is middle-aged, patriotic, and able to cast the risks and costs of Iraq in starkly personal terms. In a word, she has credibility that those of us without personal links to the struggle in Iraq do not have.
The potential for a broad and effective antiwar movement was on even greater display the previous Wednesday, March 16, at Town Hall in downtown Seattle, where three Iraq War veterans participated in a panel co-sponsored by the American Legion and the Church Council of Greater Seattle. Of the three, one was antiwar (former Navy Lt. John Oliveira, who also spoke at Saturday's rally), one was pro-war, and one, former Marine Captain Josh Rushing (featured in the movie Control Room), was somewhere in the middle. But the audience was almost entirely antiwar. And the audience came out of that event with a valuable perspective: Iraq as seen through the eyes of the men and women fighting in that effort.
Bush cannot fight this war with a military that doesn't want to fight, or when much of his own political base opposes him. That is the audience to whom an antiwar case must be made. So far, polls show that a majority of soldiers believe in their mission, but a substantial number do not, and even among supporters, morale is often low because of poor supplies, scandals like Abu Ghraib, and, especially, the nature of the conflict itself. If service members and particularly military families can be encouraged to speak out, the Bush administration cannot ignore their voices.
And here, also, is a lesson for the rest of us: to not just vent but be effective. Opposition to this war should be rooted in what is best for this country. Rather than being reflexively antimilitary, antiwar activists should learn to understand and embrace why this war is bad news from the perspective of the men and women fighting it. Supporting our troops is not simply the politically correct or a humane thing to do; it's also the best way to work for an end to this war.