Why There Is No Massive Antiwar Movement in America

Roundup
tags: Iraq, Vietnam, I.F. Stone



Tom Engelhardt created and runs the Tomdispatch.com website, a project of The Nation Institute where he is a Fellow. He is the author of a highly praised history of American triumphalism in the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture, and of a novel, The Last Days of Publishing, as well as a collection of his Tomdispatch interviews, Mission Unaccomplished

... Among the eeriest things about reading [I.F.] Stone’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia coverage, 14 years into the next century, is how resonantly familiar so much of what he wrote still seems, how twenty-first-century it all is.  It turns out that the national security state hasn’t just been repeating things they’ve done unsuccessfully for the last 13 years, but for the last 60.  Let me offer just a few examples from his newsletter.  I think you’ll get the idea.

* With last June’s collapse of the American-trained and -armed Iraqi army and recent revelations about its 50,000 “ghost soldiers” in mind, here’s Stone on the Laotian army in January 1961: “It is the highest paid army in Asia and variously estimated (the canny Laotians have never let us know the exact numbers, perhaps lest we check on how much the military payroll is diverted into the pockets of a few leaders) at from 23,000 to 30,000.  Yet it has never been able to stand up against handfuls of guerrillas and even a few determined battalions like those mustered by Captain Kong Le.”

* On ISIS’s offensive in Iraq last year, or the 9/11 attacks, or just about any other development you want to mention in our wars since then, our gargantuan bureaucracy of 17expanding intelligence outfits has repeatedly been caught short, so consider Stone’s comments on the Tet Offensive of February 1968.  At a time when America’s top commander in Vietnam had repeatedly assured Americans that the Vietnamese enemy was losing, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (the “Vietcong”) launched attacks on just about every major town and city in South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon: “We still don’t know what hit us.  The debris is not all in Saigon and Hue.  The world’s biggest intelligence apparatus was caught by surprise.”

* On our drone assassination and other air campaigns as a global war not on, but for -- i.e., to recruit -- terrorists, including our present bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria, here’s Stone in February 1968: “When the bodies are really counted, it will be seen that one of the major casualties was our delusion about victory by air power: all that boom-boom did not keep the enemy from showing up at Langvei with tanks... The whole country is slowly being burnt down to ‘save it.’  To apply scorched-earth tactics to one’s own country is heroic; to apply it to a country one claims to be saving is brutal and cowardly... It is we who rally the people to the other side.” And here he is again in May 1970: “Nowhere has air power, however overwhelming and unchallenged, been able to win a war.”

Demobilizing Americans

And so it goes reading Stone today.  But if much in the American way of war remains dismally familiar some five decades later, one thing of major significance has changed, something you can see regularly in I.F. Stone’s Weekly but not in our present world.  Thirteen years after our set of disastrous wars started, where is the massive antiwar movement, including an army in near revolt and a Congress with significant critics in significant positions?  

Think of it this way: in 1968, the head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee was J. William Fulbright, a man who came to oppose U.S. policy in Vietnam and wrote a book about this country titled The Arrogance of Power (a phrase no senator who hoped to stay in Washington in 2015 would apply to the U.S.).  The head of the Senate Armed Services Committee today: John McCain.  ‘Nuff said.

In the last six decades, the American national security state has succeeded strikingly at only one thing (other than turning itself into a growth industry): it freed itself of us and of Congress.  In the years following the Vietnam War, the American people were effectively demobilized, shorn of that sense of service to country, while war was privatized and the citizen soldier replaced by an “all-volunteer” force and a host of paid contractors working for warrior corporations.  Post-9/11, the citizenry was urged to pay as much attention as possible to “our troops,” or “warriors,” and next to none to the wars they were fighting.  Today, the official role of a national security state, bigger and more powerful than in the Vietnam era, is to make Americans “safe” from terror.  In a world of war-making that has disappeared into the shadows and a Washington in which just about all information is now classified and shrouded in secrecy, the only way to be “safe” and “secure” as a citizen is, by definition, to be ignorant, to know as little as possible about what “our” government is doing in our name.  This helps explain why, in the Obama years, the only crime in official Washington is leakingor whistleblowing; that is, letting the public in on something that we, the people, aren’t supposed to know about the workings of “our” government.

shadowgovengelhardt.jpgIn 1973, President Richard Nixon ended the draft, a move meant to bring a rebellious citizen’s army under control.  Since then, in a host of ways, our leaders have managed to sideline the citizenry, replacing the urge to serve with a sense of cynicism about government (which has morphed into many things, including, on the right, the Tea Party movement).  As a result, those leaders have been freed from us and from just about all congressional oversight and so have been able to do what they damn well pleased.  In practice, this has meant doing the same dumb, brutal, militarized things over and over again.  From the repetitive stupidity of twenty-first-century American foreign -- that is, war -- policy, you might draw the conclusion (though they won’t) that the citizenry, even in revolt, has something crucial to teach the state.

Serving the Country in Opposition

Nonetheless, this demobilization of us should be seen for what it is: a remarkable achievement.  It means that you have to be of a certain age (call me “I.F. Pebble”) even to remember what that urge to serve felt like, especially once it went into opposition on a massive scale. I.F. Stone was an early model for just that.  In those years, I was, too, and there was nothing special about me.  Untold numbers of Americans like me, military and civilian, engaged in such acts and thought of them as service to country.  Though they obviously didn’t fit the normal definition of American “patriotism,” they came from the same place.

In April 1968, not so many months after the Tet Offensive, I went with two close friends to a rally on Boston Common organized by an anti-draft group called the Resistance.  There, the three of us turned in our draft cards.  I went in jacket and tie because I wanted to make the point that we weren’t hippy radicals.  We were serious Americans turning our backs on a war from hell being pursued by a country transforming itself before our eyes into our worst nightmare.

Even all these years later, I can still remember the remarkable sense of exhilaration, even freedom, involved and also the fear.  (In those years, being a relatively meek and law-abiding guy, I often found myself beyond my comfort zone, and so a little -- or more than a little -- scared.)  Similarly, the next year, a gutsy young woman who was a co-worker and I -- I had, by then, dropped out of graduate school and was working at an “underground” movement print shop -- drove two unnerved and unnerving Green Beret deserters to Canada.  Admittedly, when they began pretend-machine-gunning the countryside we were passing through, I was unsettled, and when they pulled out dope (no drugs had been the agreed-upon rule on a trip in which we were to cross the Canadian border), I was ready to be anywhere else but in that car.  Still, whatever my anxieties, I had no doubt about why I was doing what I was doing, or about the importance of helping American soldiers who no longer wanted to take part in a terrible war.

Finally, in 1971, an Air Force medic named Bob Boardman, angered by the stream of American war wounded coming home, snuck me into his medical unit at Travis Air Force Base in northern California.  There, though without any experience as a reporter, I “interviewed” a bunch of wigged-out, angry guys with stumps for arms or legs, who were “antiwar” in all sorts of complex, unexpected, and outraged ways.  It couldn’t have been grimmer or more searing or more moving, and I went home, wrote up a three-part series on what I had seen and heard, and sold it to Pacific News Service, a small antiwar outfit in San Francisco (where I would subsequently go to work).

None of this would have been most Americans’ idea of service, even then.  But it was mine.  I felt that my government had betrayed me, and that it was my duty as a citizen to do whatever I could to change its ways (as, in fact, I still do).  And so, in some upside-down, inside-out way, I maintained a connection to and a perverse faith in that government, or our ability to force change on it, as the Civil Rights Movement had done.

That, I suspect, is what’s gone missing in much of our American world and just bringing back the draft, often suggested as one answer to our war-making problems, would be no ultimate solution.  It would undoubtedly change the make-up of the U.S. military somewhat.  However, what’s missing in action isn’t the draft, but a faith in the idea of service to country, the essence of what once would have been defined as patriotism.  At an even more basic level, what may be gone is the very idea of the active citizen, not to speak of the democracy that went with such a conception of citizenship, as opposed to our present bizarro world of multi-billion-dollar 1% elections.

If, so many years into the disastrous war on terror, the Afghan War that never ends, and most recently Iraq War 3.0 and Syria War 1.0, there is no significant antiwar movement in this country, you can thank the only fit of brilliance the national security state has displayed.  It successfully drummed us out of service.  The sole task it left to Americans, 40 years after the Vietnam War ended, was the ludicrous one of repeatedly thanking the troops for their service, something that would have been inconceivable in the 1950s or 1960s because you would, in essence, have been thanking yourself....




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