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We're Already Fighting Against the Next War

Those struggling against this war are part of a long-term movement for change and we must retain hope and courage even when the political tides seemed to run against us.
 
 
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Although millions have marched worldwide, Bush's war is now beginning.

But even despite the launch of mass bombing, we must continue to work to lay the groundwork to prevent it from leading to wars on Iran, North Korea, Colombia, and so on. This means we'll need those now surging into the movement to stick around for the long haul, and not melt away when times get hard.

During the first Gulf War, one arguably more justified, the U.S. peace movement got kicked in the gut. Then as well, major protests surged through American and European cities, hoping to stop the war before it started. But once the war began, mainstream American debate over the wisdom of war quickly became supplanted by the insistence that anything other than relentless cheerleading was disloyal to the troops -- and to the country. Americans overwhelmingly supported the first Gulf War, because it worked militarily, and because the hundred thousand Iraqis who died were faceless and anonymous.

Those who continued speaking out for peace quickly felt marginalized, isolated, and silenced. Most quickly retreated into private life, many entering a political cocoon they would stay in for years.

Yet for some who've been active working for justice and peace ever since, that war was their entry point to involvement. What made the difference between the people who retreated and those who stayed engaged? What will make the difference now that many more ordinary citizens are outraged enough to speak out -- opposing both the war and Bush's broader assault on democracy?

Those who persisted back then promptly learned that their actions could matter whether or not they produced immediate results. Connecting with fellow activists, they saw themselves as part of a long-term movement for change -- fighting for basic principles. They retained hope and courage even when the political tides seemed to run against them.

History never fully repeats itself. But if Bush does go to war despite massive global opposition, the peace movement needs to be prepared for some unsettling possibilities.

If the war goes well militarily, Americans are likely to rally behind Bush, as their worst fears seem to be averted. The mainline media will largely avoid covering civilian deaths. But those casualties will be highly visible to the Islamic world. Muslims worldwide will hear of the dead and wounded, the fleeing refugees, the destruction of homes, power stations, and sewage plants. Just as our conduct in the first Gulf War helped shift Osama bin Laden from an ally to a murderous foe, so attacking Iraq now will create further enemies, in ways we can only hope we'll never realize.

An uglier immediate scenario is also possible -- that the attack on Baghdad, and the crackdown on Palestinians that Israel is likely to launch at the same time, will trigger counterattacks on American and allied targets throughout the world -- including on U.S. soil. Islamic terror groups have been planning for this invasion at least as long as the Pentagon.

If terrorist bombs do go off in Chicago, Des Moines, or Philadelphia, America will no longer simply be conducting an invisible war in a faraway land. We will be at war with an enemy that fights back here at home. Most citizens
would be likely to feel overwhelmed with anger and fear. Just as after 9/11, they'll hardly be receptive to the difficult truth that America's own actions will have helped set those terrible events in motion, and that the U.S. as well will have taken innocent lives. It will be hard to resist the administration's permanent evisceration of due process, massive increases in military spending, and further interventions. If unprepared, the peace movement risks being isolated and obliterated.

The best way to avoid this nightmare scenario, of course, is to avert an invasion of Iraq. Failing that, the anti-war movement needs a Plan B. It needs a message that will play well after an invasion begins, even if terrorist counterattacks begin; it needs a plan for getting that message out to the public despite all the media cheerleading; and it needs a strategy for not only retaining its current massive numbers, but expanding them to the point where we can reverse government policy.

We might begin by connecting the waves of new participants just beginning to speak out with communities of longtime activists. There's nothing more demoralizing than staying home in isolation, watching Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld on TV. If we're connected with enough sympathetic people, we can support each other, pass on alternative perspectives, and talk about all the issues that will remain when the 24/7 news coverage ends.

Marches and rallies have grown, in nearly every city in the country, to create carnivals of homemade signs, stilt-walkers, puppets, belly-dancers, marching bands, grandmothers, ministers, punks, and all manner of ordinary citizens. But they've also missed opportunities. Speakers have talked little about what it means to work in an ongoing way to address the root causes of the crises we now face. They have taken for granted the need to give people psychological bread for their journey.

Our marches and rallies have also done far too little to connect the tide of new participants to concrete networks that could support their involvement. Most opponennts of war aren't connected with organized institutions. When the propaganda barrage escalates into a full-scale blitz, those just beginning to act will find it particularly hard to resist isolation.

If we even a fraction of those just coming in can be linked to each other and to existing communities of concern, far more will persist when the going gets tough. If war comes, we'll need visions sufficiently compelling to help participants new and old keep going no matter what happens. We need to raise these visions to all who are just beginning to express their concerns, including those who backed Bush's war in Afghanistan, served in other wars, or even consider themselves honorable Republicans.

Given how continually Bush plays the fear card, we might acknowledge that Americans have some reasons for fear. And then make clear that reckless zealotry and a willingness to make entire populations expendable does nothing to bring real security. The Bush administration has already handed a wealth of arguments to Islamic terrorist groups worldwide.

These terrorists wear no uniform and answer to no country. As such, their efforts can ultimately be prevented, not by war, but a combination of police work and persuasion -- ensuring that such tactics are embraced by dozens, not millions, and then working to render those dozens as ineffectual as possible. We need to be clear that those who have rushed to war, not those of us who oppose it, are the real betrayers of trust and security.

Facing crises that have built on own government's actions, we have no magic solutions to resolve every possible global problem. But at any point our country can make the world safer or more dangerous, more respectful or more brutal, more sustainable or more environmentally destructive. The more we elaborate this, the more we'll have credibility even if a nightmare scenario occurs.

If Saddam's armies fold quickly, we'll need even more to challenge the apostles of empire, who insist that because our armies dwarf those of every other nation, we have the right to impose our will however we choose. We need to challenge the entire doctine of "preemptive" (that is, unprovoked) invasions, a doctrine which explicitly threatens every nation on earth (with the diplomatic isolation, arms races, and security nightmares that naturally follow). We need particularly to resist scenarios where the U.S. turns military victory into regional economic and political dominance.

We also need long-term perspective in our own organizing, for the perseverance that creates real change. Rosa Parks didn't just step onto a bus in Montgomery, but had been an NAACP activist for a dozen years, part of a
supportive community that taught people to persist despite every setback. Because we can't foresee every twist and turn, we need to view our involvement as a long-term process. If we give up simply because things get difficult, we create self-fulfilling prophecies of despair.

Our actions have impacts in ways we can rarely foresee. We need to remember this even when our efforts appear utterly futile, when we seem to be rolling the proverbial rock up a hill only to watch it roll back again and again. We may never know when our actions are mattering most. The heads of the Eastern European police states insisted their hold on power was secure until almost the moment peaceful revolutions erupted and the Berlin Wall came down. So did the white rulers of South Africa, almost until the moment when Nelson Mandela was freed. During Vietnam, Richard Nixon seriously considered using nuclear weapons and at one point threatened their use -- then backed down in the face of the nationwide Moratorium demonstrations and a huge march in Washington.

Publicly, Nixon declared that the marchers weren't affecting his policies in the slightest. Yet privately, Nixon decided the movement had so "polarized" American opinion that he couldn't carry out his threat. Participants had no idea that their efforts helped stopped a nuclear attack.

Whatever the impact of our protests on an administration drunk on its own power, they show the rest of the world that vast numbers of ordinary Americans disagree. They help deflect anti-American sentiment, perhaps even violence, away from U.S. citizens. They give us back our dignity as we resist attempts to intimidate and silence us, and they challenge and change us at a personal level.

Global protests have already handed the White House major United Nations setbacks. If enough ordinary citizens here at home have the courage to keep on saying "no" to reckless actions, there's no telling what we can stop. And if we accompany that "no" with a "yes" that demands a world where humans are treated with respect, there's no telling what we can create. Only by persisting do we have a chance to break the cycles of endless enemies, retaliations, and deaths of ordinary people caught in the crossfire.

Paul Loeb is the author of "Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time" (St. Martin's Press) and three other books on citizen involvement. See www.soulofacitizen.org. Geov Parrish is a columnist for www.workingforchange.com, the Seattle Weekly and In These Times.