On Anniversary of Iraq Invasion, Time to Rethink Anti-War Activism
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Think back seven years ago to this day. Where were you on March 19th, 2003, when the invasion began? Did you see "Shock and Awe" footage of the orange explosions in the clear Baghdad sky, piped in grainy TV shows, lit at night with the green glow of CNN cameras? Did you read the tickertapes under these images of neighborhoods lit on fire? Over those next days, did you, like many of us, collapse in overwhelmed grief and rage, frantic at not knowing how we could stop our government's onslaught?
It's important to remember how we channeled this into organizing that built dynamic alliances, influenced public opinion, and communicated to the rest of the world that people inside the United States were not all united behind the war. At the same time, we failed to prevent the invasion and have not yet ended the occupation of Iraq, or Afghanistan. We say this, recognizing how many of us tried to put our bodies in the way as best we could, in a million different ways. Many people suffered burnout and heartbreak. The sheer numbers of antiwar demonstrators, which just a month before the invasion of Iraq coordinated the biggest street protests in the history of the world, have dropped precipitously each year as we hit this awful anniversary.
But the antiwar movement is not dead. Over the past seven years, while the number of people in the streets visibly protesting this anniversary has shrunk, the news cameras haven't shown the movement building that has been happening, off the streets, under the radar, in communities. We are now seeing this organizing pick up steam as people have become disillusioned by the Obama administration's continuation of Bush's wars.
Many antiwar organizers shifted focus from prioritizing street protests to strategically directing their work towards pressure points where a mobilized grassroots can directly impact these wars. Strategies of supporting resistance inside the military have focused on withdrawing labor from a war that depends on soldiers' participation, thereby directly undermining the war effort. Iraq Veterans Against the War, one of the leading organizations of veterans of post September 11th wars, has effectively transformed from a speakers' bureau into an actively organizing body, with active-duty chapters and recruitment on bases, and a platform of open support for GI resistance and opposition to the war in Afghanistan. Counter-recruitment movements have been building their bases in schools and communities, organizing against the military's practice of disproportionately targeting and recruiting low income and poor youth and youth of color. Oakland's youth-led group BAY-Peace leads workshops providing information to young people about the truth of military recruiting and to help build alternatives to militarism. U.S. Labor Against War continues building U.S. labor solidarity with Iraqi trade unions.
Another promising development is the slow resurgence of the G.I. Coffeehouse movement that played a major role in fomenting resistance to the Vietnam War. Over the past few years, a handful of coffeehouses in military base towns are supporting resistance within the military. One example is Virginia's Norfolk OffBase, where coffeehouse staffers have also built solidarity relationships with local racial justice organizing, connecting related struggles in their heavily militarized community.
The Iraq war has already outlasted World War II, World War I, and the U.S. Civil War. The most recent Iraqi elections on March 7th were hailed by the Obama administration as a sign of the war's success in "bringing democracy," because of 62 percent voter turnout and less election violence than expected. The U.S. mainstream media is applauding Iraqis for voting despite 136 election day attacks, including bombings, rocket fire, and shootings. This message reflects the extent to which this violence has become normalized and expected; no one should have to face the threat of violence in order to vote. Additionally, we question the extent to which "democracy" has been achieved when one million Iraqis have been killed and 10 million displaced, a whole region destabilized, and ethnic tensions flared by the occupying presence. President Obama has pledged to remove all "combat troops" from Iraq by next September. But even if this timetable is followed, 50,000 occupation troops will remain, in addition to mercenary troops and corporate profiteering personnel. We dispute the reality of a "non-combat" distinction in conditions where the U.S. has clearly established intent to use its infrastructure and influence in Iraq as a strategic base in the Middle East.
The Iraq War was never about bringing democracy, nor about weapons of mass destruction. This is one of several key battlefields in the U.S.'s project of establishing military and political dominance in this critical region. As drones bomb Pakistan at an undisclosed and accelerating rate, and the Afghanistan war continues to erode the means of survival and dignity for Afghanis, we must be looking at the big picture. U.S. military and political support for the outrageous policies of Israeli colonization and apartheid is one of the clearest indicators that establishing dominance in the region, both directly and through allies and puppets, is the major goal of the U.S.
This is the moment for the antiwar movement in the U.S. to develop analysis and tools that can build effective, transformative movements. During Bush's regime, many of our arguments focused narrowly on Bush's brazenness and the "legality" of these brutal occupations. Mass numbers of the U.S. public have recognized over this past year that Bush didn't create the plan behind these wars, and it is continuing beyond him. Now the antiwar movement is being pushed to grow beyond challenging one war at a time. We need a deeper analysis of the structures that underlie militarism and war, to ground our work in values of affirming life and of building cooperative, just structures. We must offer visions of a different way to organize our own society and interact with other countries.
In this time, it is critical to more deeply root our work in an understanding of the root causes of these wars, and to strengthen alliances between movements that are tackling different impacts of a common problem. We see small-scale successes in making these links and we must cultivate and broaden them. As we demand that money be reclaimed from the war budget, and put back into social necessities like schools and healthcare, we must speak clearly to this shift as one that is based in values and vision about what our society prioritizes. Linking wars at home and abroad is not just rhetoric, but is a strategy to strengthen our organizing. Economic and racial oppression inside the U.S. must be transformed not as a means to incapacitate the U.S. military, but because this is our vision for healthy society. And ending U.S. aggressions and occupations abroad is not just necessary to redivert funds into our schools or healthcare, but also because we reject a world based on violence and theft. Our survival depends on it. Violence and destruction will never stay contained, and the impacts of destroying communities and ecosystems in one area like the Middle East will only continue to intensify around the world, especially as resource wars accelerate with climate change. As the world seeks to find just and sustainable solutions to climate change, the importance grows for peoples' grassroots movements to work transnationally in finding alternatives to war.
Every one of us in the U.S. is affected in different ways by these wars and we're all needed to be part of setting a new course. We suffer from the success of U.S. culture in characterizing activists as "others," versus "ordinary people." Hundreds of thousands of people march in the streets at key moments, but do not see themselves as "activists" under this categorization, and trade in the opportunity to be agents of change for a heavy coat of despair. However, the potential for deeper connections is already present within current organizing in schools, community centers, families and neighborhoods, religious communities, military base towns, and all the networks that make up our community lives. There are so many ways we can come together to build collective power, and there are roles for everyone in transforming the policies and priorities of this country. Ordinary people, putting our feet down to say that we won't tolerate the continuation of violence in our names, will be the deciding factor in creating a different future than the one we're being force-fed.
A very real part of finding a human and holistic approach to stopping war is also, simply, to make space to grieve together. The sadness of this anniversary is not just about this one day, or this one war. It is about global relationships based on violence and dominance, about the ways in which these relationships play out around the world, about the lives that have been lost, and the lives that will be lost. And all of those who survive, traumatized, occupied, brave and resourceful.
We are mourning and invite you to join us in whatever ways feel right to you. This intensely painful anniversary offers a milestone to create collective space for our grief. Mainstream U.S. society doesn't do this, and we suffer consequences including the perversion of 9/11's collective trauma into an excuse for waging war. War becomes normalized while grief is sidelined or silenced, individualized, and manipulated. Grieving helps us to heal and to break patterns of violence that otherwise are often perpetuated, and to not choke on our sadness and stay passive.
Mourning is vital to honor the dead, and in this case, we are speaking about people who were murdered in our name. Grieving their loss is critical to our own humanity as well as affirming that all these humans who we've lost matter. Mourning is a direct challenge to the implicit devaluing of Iraqi (and Afghani and Palestinian, as well as those of U.S. soldiers) lives which contributes to maintaining and justifying these wars and occupations.
And the survivors? There is so much to honor and learn from the resilience and dignity of those who are surviving wars and state violence from Oakland to Afghanistan. Let's make our support worthy of their bravery. Let yourself feel these wars, and let it carry you into action.
Our sadness and anger on this day reminds us of how interdependent we are. So what is your vision for March 19th, 2017? What do you hope the world will look like, and what is your role in making that come true?
"Mourn the dead. And fight like hell for the living." - Mother Jones