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The Haunting War

Photo by KafzielI dropped out of grad school because I wanted to help stop the Iraq War. There were other factors involved, but it was 2004 and the Republicans were coming to New York City to re-elect George W. Bush, and therefore continue the war. We had to make a stand.

February 15, 2003, that march to oppose the Iraq invasion was my first street action in New York City. Stephen Duncombe told me about the “Carnival Bloc” that would assemble on the steps of the New York Public Library, and it was there I met Reverend Billy, Savitri D and the (then) Church Of Stop Bombing Gospel Choir — people I would would call collaborators, friends and family for the next 7 years.

My experience of the war, as a citizen who has not served in the military and has not lost any loved ones to it, has been one of cognitive dissonance. For months, leading up to that march, the same tape-loop of anxiety kept playing in my head: “We’re not really going to invade this country, right? Surely people can see this is a scam. Just look at the history, it’s obvious. We learned from Vietnam! They can’t fool everyone again. Oh god, their fooling everyone again. But we’re not really going to invade this country, right…?”

And so on. So we marched, demonstrated our fervent creativity, and Pete Seeger sang and the cops penned us in some areas and trampled us in others. Most of it is on tape. Millions turned out, around the world, and Bush referred to us as a “focus group”. Noam Chomsky points to those early mobilizations as progress, because it took 7 years of napalm, drafts, and massacres before anything like that turned out against the invasion of Vietnam. That’s a good point, and I will be forever grateful that I can say “I was there. I stood with thousands of people who screamed, out loud and in public: ‘There are no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and anyone who has bothered to look knows that. This invasion is a monumentally stupid, criminal act.'”

(More cognitive dissonance: when no WMDs were discovered, the protest movement was never legitimately credited with making the right call. We were treated like the broken watch-face that is right twice a day. And all the liberal war-believers were so surprised and outraged. People I loved and respected stood with mouths agape, and on some level I loathed them for it. Still, at least Senator Hiliary Clinton’s vote for that war factored into her loss to Barack Obama…which of course is also refused due credit outside activist circles…)

But the comfort of standing up and being counted is small, because we still failed to stop the invasion and many thousands of Iraqis are dead because of it. We kept going into public space, a spirited crew of Missle Dick Chicks, “Billionaires”, Raging Grannies, Radical Cheerleaders, puppeteers, stilt-walkers, Living Theater Not-In-Our-Namers, brass bands, art stars, Green Dragons, Code Pinkers, and Axis Of Eve vixens. We lived in New York, and this city was the motivating symbol of the entire wartime propaganda effort. We had an obligation to battle against being used.

There was the feeling, leading up to the summer of 2004, that the pens were getting tighter and every mobilization was really an exercise in being outmanoeuvred. The NYPD had shiny new gear and even shinier (and more bizarre) new laws to enclose public space and box us in. Because the second front in the Iraq invasion was the invasion of civil liberties here at home. One necessitated the other.

In the winter and spring of 2004 I was trying to balance a job, finishing a master’s degree, and contributing everything I had to what (we hoped) would be a summer of mass mischief and dissent for the ages. The GOP said they would waltz through Manhattan on their way to election day and we would make them choke on those words. We’d been in Iraq just over a year, there were no WMDs found, and the atrocities were just struggling into daylight. We could do it! We could stop a war. Result? I was laid off, went AWOL from school, and George W. Bush was re-elected.

Leaving aside the Democratic party’s dismal performance that year (and every year, really), we had failed again. The country, again, chose to indulge fear over justice. Insanity over reason. We were supremely outmanoeuvred and anticipated during the convention, from the Fuji blimp in the sky to the NYPD scooters on the ground. Just tallying the ways the Boys In Blue trampled on the Bill of Rights that week would take years.

And that’s about when I, and many people I worked with at the time, dropped out of the peace effort. Or at least we down-shifted. After all, there were other things to fight — gentrification, the above-mentioned trashing of civil liberties, climate change. Some documentaries and books carried the torch forward, as far as educating the masses was concerned. But we had done everything we could think of, short of lighting ourselves and/or other things on fire, and could not get this country out of Iraq.

A few years later Barack Obama began campaigning as an anti-Iraq war candidate (never as an anti-war candidate, mind you), and he said something about no permanent bases, and that was enough for a lot of people. But the US embassy in Iraq will be the size of Vatican City!

And, of course, Afghanistan. I opposed the invasion of Afghanistan from the beginning, but the time of the story I’m telling here was really more focused on Iraq. Maybe that was a strategic blunder, but we had enough trouble convincing people we shouldn’t even be in Baghdad.

This blog entry is an exorcism of sorts, and I appreciate you indulging it, coming from comments at the Left Forum about the demobilized anti-war movement. The reason many of us downshifted the fight for peace is because we ran out of energy and ideas. I’m ashamed of that, but we did not know what to do. Nothing seemed to have traction. To find that traction we have to interrogate the early years of opposition, remember what worked and what didn’t, figure out why we stopped. I doubt I’m the only one with a few things to get off my chest.

Because it’s past time to get back on the streets, to fight for complete withdrawal and reparations for Iraq and Afghanistan. We may not get everything but we’ll only get what we demand. We only *really* fail when we quit. That’s the first lesson. Second, I give credit to those individuals and groups who never stopped using their voices and bodies against the war when other activists sought cover in campaigns closer to home. They are waiting for us, they’re ready for us. We must drag this country out of empire and into peace!

This post is a contribution to today’s GreenChange.org day of blogging about War and Peace. You can find less whiny essays there. Photo by Kafziel.