In 1972, nine-year-old Kim Phúc ran screaming, napalm burns on her back, a black cloud of smoke consuming her village in the background. Associated Press photographer Nick Ut anchored himself on the road and captured the horror of war in a single image. Vietnam and the United States publicly expressed concern for Vietnamese villagers as they concurrently dropped bombs on helpless villagers. Activists shared the image. The global public wept. Nothing changed.
In 2016, medical workers in Aleppo pulled five-year-old Omran Daqneesh and seven other children out of the rubble of a building attacked by either Syrian or Russian fighters. He sat on a medical vehicle next to his sister, both encrusted in blood and dust, tearless, stunned. Images of the stoic child circulated around the world only moments after Mahmoud Raslan posted the photo to the internet. Activists shared the image. The global public wept. Nothing changed.
Is it enough for millions of people to see these images or is there more to be done to help save these civilians from such violence?
Global activists once refused to be silent to these kinds of war crimes. During the Vietnam War, anti-war leaders created a people’s tribunal to try the United States for violating human rights in Vietnam. They treated Vietnam like an active crime scene, gathering evidence and publicizing their gruesome findings to the world. Kids like Kim Phúc and Omran Dagneesh stood naked before a global audience as testimony to the atrocities taking place against the Vietnamese people. Scarred backs. Burnt skin. Missing limbs.
These images incited a global backlash against the war. In the United States, protests erupted against US involvement in Vietnam. In Europe, demonstrators insisted that their governments stop supporting the United States. Everywhere anti-war activists took to the streets to force officials bring the war to a close.
In October 1969, more than 2 million activists physically marched down streets across the United States in a unified front against the Vietnam War. Such a visible anti-war movement forced US officials to respond to their demands. Although the protest didn’t end the war, they made both Presidents Lyndon Johnson and Richard Nixon incredibly nervous about their political futures. Many historians argue that Johnson refused to run for a second term in 1968 because he knew that the Vietnam War had too badly damaged his political reputation.
Where is the anti-war movement today? Is it enough to share images of distraught children on social media in protest of these wars? What will it take to get leaders, like Bashar al-Assad, to resign? What will it take to force the world to defend the human rights of civilians?
Perhaps it’s time we resurrect a global anti-war movement to visibly show our discontent with these violent war crimes. It may no longer be enough to share images of distraught children on social media in protest of these wars. We retweet memes and we sign petitions to demonstrate global solidarity, but armchair activism rarely saves lives. Maintaining individual anonymity behind the safety of a computer cannot create a unified movement. Change requires a grassroots activism, on the ground, in the streets.
The anti-war spirit lived on after the 1960s, but it has yet to gain enough strength to incite a physical protest movement. The images we’ve seen should have been enough to spark non-violent riots from peace activists around the world. Yet there’s been very little movement. The world could use a renewed anti-war movement. The lives of future Kim Phúc’s and Omran Daqneesh’s depend on it.