Editorial Column: Why the Anti-War Movement is Lost

Philadelphia Daily News

January 12, 2009 – As Inauguration Day approaches, the anti-war movement is working hard to stay politically relevant.

President-elect Barack Obama, the anti-war candidate, has been empowered by a frustrated electorate demanding exactly what he promised in his campaign: change.

But the anti-war movement isn’t buying the “change” Obama is selling. Instead, they’ve crafted unrealistic demands for the next president, and should he not kowtow, they’ll undoubtedly convince themselves he’s no different from George W. Bush. Perhaps they already have.

Most Americans agree that the war in Iraq has been a catastrophe financially and militarily. Some have strictly advocated against the war from a position of philanthropy for the Iraqi people and our service- people killed in action. Whatever the gripe, all aspects have legitimacy.

But many fail to realize that the war isn’t something that can be easily corrected, because it’s festered for far too long. And since day one, a bipartisan majority of Congress has repeatedly voted to give the Bush administration every tool needed to continue the war – even members of Congress who receive the anti-war vote.

In the summer of 2007, I had a meeting with Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.) and his senior military adviser. Davis, former chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, struck me as a concerned moderate looking for a practical and realistic solution to the mess in Iraq.

DAVIS UNDERSTOOD my frustration with the war and said, “We have to be as careful getting out of Iraq as we were careless getting in.” I would hear Obama echo the exact same sentiment repeatedly on the campaign trail.

Later, I and two other vets met with Rep. Mike Castle (R-Del.). He listened for more than an hour. At the end, Castle agreed we needed to get out of Iraq. But he had no concrete solution – and neither did we.

As you can see, Republicans are not so different from Democrats on the war issue.

The main contrast I saw in my years of anti-Iraq war advocacy was that while members of both parties voted the same way, the Democrats griped about their votes. They acknowledge that they were against what they were voting for. So what’s the alternative? Ralph Nader and Cynthia McKinney aren’t getting elected to anything anytime soon.

And here’s what we have to look forward to. On March 19, many anti-war groups will assemble a tumultuous crowd at the post-Bush Pentagon. They’ll scream for the immediate withdrawal of our troops from Afghanistan and Iraq while jumping up and down in opposition to the military industrial complex.

They’ll demand that legal action be taken against Bush for ordering the invasion of Iraq.

But the Defense Department doesn’t decide whether or not we go to war – that’s up to the president and Congress. The military HQ is the wrong venue.

Some Iraq vets will join this protest out of a feeling of nostalgia for a time before they were even born. But it’s no longer the Vietnam war, civil-rights, military draft ’60s. Sporting a grungy military uniform is a tactic that the real policymakers can dismiss as a non-threat to their political viability. Even John Kerry quit that gig more than 30 years ago.

Over the life of the recent anti-war movement, the attempted revival of the ’60s was destined for failure from the beginning.

Too many other issues were dragged into the effort. What middle-of-the-road Americans would attend a demonstration against the war if they knew they’d be standing in a mob of Che Guevara T-shirts listening to chants of “Free Mumia!”?

I support people protesting what they think are injustices, but all issues aren’t linked. It’s not a good tactic to force people to stand under an umbrella of issues, all of which that they may not support.

By alienating the silent majority, the current anti-war movement has dealt itself a bad hand that essentially diminished its credibility.

In a democracy, strength is in numbers. This anti-establishment and absolutist view of the political process is likely to be the real cause of their implosion.

As someone who’s been fighting for years for an end to the war in Iraq, I find this tragic because we need the voices of millions to put pressure on our elected officials to end the conflict and fix the many problems facing our country. But those voices have to be credible to be taken seriously, and circus acts never are.

What pains me the most about the self-destruction of the anti-war movement is the fact that the people behind it genuinely want an end to the war. They’re not phony front groups or partisan hacks using the war as an advantage to promote their political party, in my mind a worse sin than dragging in all those irrelevant issues.

But the truth is that the “real” anti-war movement has become far too radical to be effective.

They’ve pushed themselves into a corner where there’s no possibility of meeting an opposing side halfway. If they ever hope to regroup into a force capable of generating a strong political will, they’ll need to accept that it’s 2009, not 1969 – and be more tolerant of other opinions. *

John Bruhns is an Iraq war veteran from the Philadelphia area. He writes on politics and the war in Iraq.

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