Dec 10, 2013
Outsourcing War Protest in an Imperial World
Posted on Mar 26, 2007
At the time the invasion was launched, polls showed over 70% of Americans in support of the President’s war (or in a state of terror about terror, should we not stop Saddam Hussein from nuking us). Now, here we are, four years later, and the pundits who were telling us that we should indeed do it are still familiar fixtures on our TVs, while the faces of the pundits who didn’t, and of the Americans, in their millions, who arrived at similar conclusions and tried to stop possibly the maddest, most improvident war in our history, have been erased from memory.
And yet, to offer a little hope to those who believe that the mainstream media holds the idling brains of hundreds of millions of Americans helplessly in its thrall, that we are all merely the manipulated, let’s consider something curious indeed: The general point of view of the minority represented in those giant prewar demonstrations took deep hold as time passed and has now been embraced by a striking majority.
Back in December 2006, when James Baker’s Iraq Study Group released its report—and was hailed in the press for finding genuine “common ground” on Iraq—I argued that the American people, without much help from politicians or the media, “had formed their own Iraq Study Group and arrived at sanity well ahead of the elite and all the ‘wise men’ in Washington.”
The Bush administration, of course, rejected the findings of the Iraq Study Group, while the Democrats, by and large, accepted them. But no one turned out to be particularly interested in the “Iraq Study Group” formed by ordinary Americans whose “findings” were expressed in that least active of all forms: the opinion poll (and later, the midterm election). Nonetheless, the numbers in those polls represent a modest miracle, if you think about it.
Too bad we don’t have similar polls for politicians, opinion-makers, and media gatekeepers. They would surely bear little relation to PIPA’s findings.
In 2007, if anything, such polling figures have only grown more emphatic. A recent Newsweek poll, for instance, offered the following figures: 69% of Americans disapprove of the President’s “handling” of the Iraqi situation; 61% think the U.S. is losing ground in Iraq; 64% oppose the President’s “surge” plan; 59% favor Congressional legislation requiring the withdrawal of all U.S. forces by the fall of 2008.
In the most recent CNN poll, 61% of Americans feel the decision to launch the invasion of Iraq was “not worth it”; 54% think the U.S. will not win there; 58% believe we should either withdraw “now” or “in a year”; in the most recent USA Today/Gallup poll, 58% favor total withdrawal from Iraq either immediately or within 12 months. So it goes in poll after poll, while the President’s approval ratings continue their slow slide into the low 30s.
Let’s remember, by the way, that, unlike mainstream Democratic “withdrawal” plans, the American public is talking about actually leaving Iraq, as in that old, straightforward slogan of the Vietnam era: Out now! In other words, there is a hardly noted but growing gap—call it, in Vietnam-era-speak, a “credibility gap”—between the Washington consensus and what the American people believe should be done when it comes to Iraq.
Add in one more odd fact here: It’s possible that American public opinion is now actually closer in its conclusions to its Iraqi equivalent than to the Washington consensus. A number of recent polls, in which Iraqis expressed grim feelings about what has happened to their country, have been released and, like the American polls, they seem to reflect a belief that American forces are anything but “stabilizing” and an urge simply to have the Americans out. A PIPA September 2006 poll found “that seven in ten Iraqis want U.S.-led forces to commit to withdraw within a year.”
And yet the translation of all this sentiment, of these conclusions, into visible action, despite
Those of us who can use the tumultuous mobilizations of the Vietnam era as a point of comparison—there was even a group called The Mobe then—are certainly aware that this time around nothing comparable has happened. It’s crossed my mind that there might even be a silver lining in the disappearance of those large, boisterous prewar crowds, in the fact that, generally speaking, the country seems, in protest terms, strangely demobilized.
In the Vietnam era, though few realize this, antiwar sentiment was strongest at the bottom, in the blue-collar world. As Vietnam scholar Chris Appy has pointed out, for instance, a Gallup poll in January 1971 “showed that the less formal education you had, the more likely you were to want the military out of [Vietnam]: 80% of Americans with grade school educations were in favor of a U.S. withdrawal from Vietnam; 75% of high school graduates agreed; only among college graduates did the figure drop to 60%.”
What largely neutralized the full development of antiwar sentiment among the majority of Americans in that era was, I believe, the strength of anti-antiwar-movement sentiment, the visceral reaction of many working-class Americans against the crowds of protestors, against the look of that far wilder moment (and a media that invariably focused its cameras and attention on the wildest-looking of the demonstrators, especially those carrying the flags of the enemy and chanting, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, NLF is going to win”). That visceral dislike for antiwar sentiment, as expressed in the streets, was strongest at the bottom. In other words, in those years, angry feelings about the disastrous war in Vietnam were offset by angry feelings about the most visible of those demonstrating against it.
Interesting enough, according to John Mueller of Ohio State University, an expert on the subject, the loss of support the Bush administration has experienced for its Iraqi adventure has followed the same arc as in the Vietnam era (and the Korean War era as well); but, in the Iraqi case, support has eroded far more “precipitously,” based on far fewer American casualties and, Mueller wrote back in late 2005, “there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline.”
On this he proved correct. If anything, the decline in support seems only to have intensified in recent months, leaping well ahead of equivalent figures for the Vietnam era. Only four years into the Iraqi catastrophe, polling figures match or exceed those for 1970 (perhaps seven years into the Vietnam conflict, depending on how you count) on questions like whether you favor the complete withdrawal of American forces. In 1970, for instance, 56% of Americans thought going into Vietnam had been a mistake, already way below figures for Iraq. In the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, for example, a record 64% of Americans say the war was “not worth fighting.”
Given that, why were antiwar Americans so mobilized in the Vietnam era and why are they so relatively demobilized now? (And don’t think, by the way, that the Vietnam-era mobilization in the streets, with all its wildness and excesses, made no difference. Seymour Hersh, for example, points out in The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House that President Nixon was considering a major escalation of the war in 1969 when vast crowds of demonstrators descended on the capital. “Those Americans who marched in Washington on October 15 to protest the war,” Hersh wrote, “had no idea of their impact; they were protesting the policies already adopted by the Nixon administration and not those under consideration. Nixon came out of the crisis convinced that the protesters had forced him to back down [from his secret plans to escalate the war]. The protestors thought the Moratorium had been largely a failure.”)
The reason most often cited for the Vietnam-era mobilization is the draft. After all, we still had a citizen army then. Usually, the draft explanation is linked only to fear—the fear, in particular, that middle-class kids had of going to Vietnam; and fear was certainly a factor that drove some young men into the streets. But it wasn’t, to my mind, the predominant one. The draft had a more important effect. It reminded young men (and also young women, who couldn’t be drafted) and their friends, relatives, and parents that the killing going on in Vietnam wasn’t just some distant event, that it touched and affected them. The draft made the war, and anger about it, real in a mobilizing way as nothing has done today.
Here’s a second difference of eras: The young in revolt in the 1960s, whether on campuses or in the military, even those who claimed they were out to change the “system” or bring down “the establishment,” had grown up with a deeply embedded belief that this was a system that could be challenged, could be changed; that real democracy (or “participatory democracy” in the phrase of the moment) was actually possible; that each person could make a difference. We still retained—whether we knew it or not—a kind of faith in the American system and its ability to respond. We had hope.
Similarly—and this is a third point seldom mentioned today—the young in the streets, however frustrated by the moment, however unresponsive or even criminal they found their leaders, still believed that, at some level, they would be, and should be, listened to. And the fact is they were being listened to. When President Lyndon B. Johnson complained about “that horrible song” (“Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?”), he was listening; when Richard Nixon went out of his awkward way to claim that he would be watching a Washington Redskins football game as demonstrators arrived in town, he was signaling that he knew they were coming.
Today, it crosses no young minds that the top officials in the White House might be listening. Many fewer young people, I suspect, have any remnant of that deep faith that our political system could be responsive to them or that anything they could do might change it. When they look to Washington, what they see is fraud, dysfunction, conspiracy, cronyism, cabal, influence-peddling, corruption, fear—in short, a system, a world, beyond response, possibly beyond repair, and utterly alien to their lives. In such a situation, despair or apathy tends to replace anger and hope.
The Iraq demobilization, then, is certainly part of a larger demobilization, a deeper belief that, as Bill Moyers made vividly clear in a recent speech, your vote doesn’t matter; that democracy is a-functional; that none of this has anything to do with you, or your ballot, or your feet, or your sign, or your shout.
Our world has changed radically since the Vietnam era. Today, an increasing part of what matters in public life (and work life) has been “privatized” and subcontracted out, or simply outsourced. The U.S. military has essentially been subcontracted out to small-town and immigrant or green-card America—to, that is, the forgotten or ignored places in our land; as a result, for most people in draft-less America, the war is not part of our lives or that of our children. (The draft itself has been carefully kept off the table by the Bush administration, despite the desperation of a body-hungry, overstretched military.) In addition, war-fighting has been outsourced to private corporate contractors who deliver the mail and the fuel, do KP, wash the laundry, build the bases, and, in the case of tens of thousands of rent-a-cop mercenaries, do some of the guarding, fighting, and interrogating in Iraq and Afghanistan.
And yes, the political system has increasingly been subcontracted out, with malice aforethought, to thieves, looters, cronies, and absolute dopes. Little wonder that Americans, living through the Age of Enron, scanning the horizon from Iraq to New Orleans to Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and watching Halliburton head for Dubai, generally believe their system no longer works; that those high-school civics texts are a raging joke (that, in fact, fierce joking, a la Jon Stewart, is the only reasonable response to the extreme, roiling absurdity of this administration as well as our world); and that, if you took to the streets of the capital, no one in either party would be paying the slightest attention.
No wonder Americans have arrived at a series of striking conclusions on Iraq, but haven’t done much about them.
In an interview with the President, Jim Lehrer recently inquired about why he hadn’t asked the public (other than the military) to “sacrifice” more. Bush, who had urged Americans to show their post-9/11 mettle by heading for Disney World and intensifying their shopping behavior, fumbled around before replying this way:
“Well, you know, I think a lot of people are in this fight. I mean, they sacrifice peace of mind when they see the terrible images of violence on TV every night. I mean, we’ve got a fantastic economy here in the United States, but yet, when you think about the psychology of the country, it is somewhat down because of this war.”
Perhaps the formula wasn’t so much bread and circuses as terror and consumerism. (Stop al-Qaeda, use more gas.) Same idea, though. This was, after all, an administration intent on terrifying and demobilizing most Americans (while mobilizing the foot-soldiers of the political right), all so that they could create a Pax Americana world and a Pax Republicana “homeland.”
It was a mad dream, now in ruins. In response—and this is just my own hunch— Americans performed their own acts of privatization, even as they came to reject this administration, its war, and the way it was gambling with all our lives. That’s not so surprising. After all, we really do all breathe the same air, live in the same world. And so, while they were at it, many Americans may have subcontracted out their war protest to others, to the pros maybe (even if those pros were actually dedicated amateurs, some of whom really were sacrificing something in their place). That, I think, is the forest I see.
Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s Tomdispatch.com (“a regular antidote to the mainstream media”), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch Interviews with American Iconoclasts and Dissenters (Nation Books), the first collection of Tomdispatch interviews.
© 2007 Tom Engelhardt
Originally posted on Tomdispatch.com
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