Life in the Empire Part 1: Where is the American Anti-War Movement?

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George Collins 

Ask any American who experienced the assassination of John F. Kennedy what occurred in their lives that day, and they will be able to recall every detail: where they were, whom they were with, what they ate for breakfast that morning, all as fresh as if it took place only an hour prior. Ask Americans who experienced the fateful morning of September 11th, 2001, and you will see the same phenomenon. I happen to belong to the latter group.

 

Young George was in third grade when the twin towers fell. My parents would sometimes inform me of events on the morning news before we headed to school. Much of it constituted local happenings with the occasional national issue they thought I could comprehend. I would soak in this information and then forget much of it by the time class began a couple hours later. The usual morning update took place that day. My mother explained to me that two airplanes collided with these gigantic buildings in New York City, and that people all over the country were paralyzed with fear. She left it at that, as the complex implications of the geopolitics behind international attacks are often lost on eight-year old children. I filed the information away to be forgotten a couple hours later, and we travelled to school like any other day. The realization that this news was more than just another insignificant tragedy somewhere in the country arrived the moment I strolled through the classroom door. All of my peers were discussing the same story I heard that morning, which had never occurred with my other morning news reports. More significant to my childhood mind was the fact that all the adults in the school expressed concern, sorrow, and other strong reactions to the tragedy. The message was loud and clear by the time of the morning bell: something massive had taken place, enough to catch the attention of every adult inside and outside the school, and we would be hearing about it for years to come.

 

News of the United States’ numerous armed conflicts in the wake of the tragedy permeated the rest of my K-12 education. The school began receiving the kids edition of Time magazine the following year, and the publication never avoided the topic of the Iraq War and the political buildup surrounding the eventual invasion. The facts were simplified, and much of the corruption regarding Saudi Arabia’s involvement in the attack or the payouts for Haliburton never made those pages, but everyone stayed aware that the tides of war were on the horizon. One teacher even took the time to talk to us about the Patriot Act and the various ways it violated our constitutional freedoms. The 2004 election took place a few years later with the status of Iraq taking center stage as an election issue. The name Afghanistan surfaced with increasing frequency not long after that until it superseded Iraq as the primary recipient for American aggression. The roster expanded over the years to include many more countries filled with sand, oil, and brown people such as Libya, Syria, Yemen, and more.

 

Growing up in wartime is an experience common to my age group in the United States. We may have existed in a time when our military was not exhausting its bomb supply on civilians in West and Central Asia, but we lacked the political consciousness to understand the shift between the two eras. In 2017 at the age of 24, I still do not know the security of a peace-driven country where scapegoats and fear-mongering about innocent people I will never meet do not occupy some portion of the news cycle every day. Every American generation witnessed armed conflict, but those in my age group who knew the name Iraq before we learned long division lack one thing that most other generations saw in their political awakenings: a strong anti-war movement. This is even worse to me than the American empire’s imperialism itself.

 

Donald Trump’s ascension to power spawned a resurgence in activism throughout the United States. Early 2017 painted a hopeful picture for progressive politics in the country. The monumental Women’s March, the Sanctuary City movement, the March for Science, the boost in donations to the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and related organizations, and other landmark happenings suggested the American left was awakening at last from the apathetic slumber fostered for almost a decade under former president Barack Obama. Yet one vital fervor remains absent: the anti-war streak. Amidst all the protests, new blood for political office, explosion in support for independent media, and other hallmarks of an active progressive movement, little to no energy can be found in resurrecting the national-level anti-war efforts that destroyed the legacies of presidents like George W. Bush and Lyndon Johnson.

 

The absence of anti-war sentiments puzzles me, as nothing has changed on a fundamental level across the Bush/Obama/Trump administrations when it comes to American imperialism abroad. Troop surges still occur every year in various countries across West and Central Asia, the U.S. military still constructs new bases abroad, and each administration surpasses its predecessor in launching drone strikes that kill a disproportionate number of civilians relative to the terrorist cells they intend to target. Many more examples of the American empire’s imperialistic expansion can be seen with every passing month.

 

The need for the kind of pressure felt by the Bush administration in the wake of the atrocities committed in Iraq never diminished, but somehow this fact escaped the left during the Obama years even though many of those same atrocities persisted or even escalated in an expanding roster of countries. Such facts are well known among average Americans, but we can’t seem to muster the courage to launch a nationwide movement to oppose the killing of children across the world while we sing the praises of anti-war movements of generations past. We praise figures like Walter Cronkite and Muhammad Ali for their bravery in risking their livelihoods to oppose the Vietnam War and tell ourselves we too would land on the correct side of history, but we have nothing to show for such rhetoric. One could argue the ordinary citizen has nowhere near the level of influence of either of those two figures, as we don’t all have heavyweight championship gold to forfeit as a show of solidarity. However, even community-level action can achieve significant strides in building national resistance, as other contemporary movements demonstrate every day. Even that level of action is missing in the anti-war wing of the left.

 

There are a few factors I can think of that may contribute to this particular apathy among American progressives. I suspect the primary culprit to be the support of these armed conflicts from alleged “progressive” figures. Many media outlets critical of Donald Trump applauded his decision to fire missiles into Syria even in the absence of an official United Nations investigation into the nature of the chemical attacks. Many claimed the move was his pivotal step into becoming more “presidential”. Brian Williams and Rachel Maddow of MSNBC both approved of the action with Williams displaying photos of the missiles and calling them “beautiful” while Maddow dedicated half an hour to explaining the efficiency of such missiles. Apparently the fact that real, innocent people were on the other end of those “beautiful” and “efficient” pile drivers was not worth mentioning in these segments. Democrats in Congress also expressed support for the careless attack. Those who did not, such as representative Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii, faced intense vilification even in Democratic circles.

 

The response to the Syria strikes may be the most blatant example of this tone shift among “progressive” figures, but it is nowhere near the only one. The war-mongering rhetoric surrounding the United States’ relationship with Russia in recent months has seen several members of Congress calling the alleged tampering in the presidential election an “act of war”. North Korea entered the crosshairs next and the two nations along with Iran were the target of controversial United States sanctions that were condemned by our allies in the European Union. The bill even threatened to unravel the Iranian nuclear deal achieved by the Obama administration, but this irony escaped most Democrats in Congress because it was more important to rake in profits reaped from a war machine that never stops raging.

 

The current media and governmental climate does not foster any tolerance for an anti-war message among Americans without vitriolic accusations of unpatriotic treachery in a frightening revival of McCarthyistic tactics. Such stigma has never stopped progressives from fighting back in the past, but the anti-war drum suffers several puncture holes when leaders and media figures associated with the left begin siding with the same tyrant they claim to oppose. This blind following of such figures, however fraudulent they may be given their ties to establishment influences, can derail any momentum gained by a movement the establishment does not want to combat. Marches for women’s rights and scientific research can pass through the toll booth because they do not affect oil company and private military contractor profits that extend to members of Congress and the owners of major media outlets. By contrast, stopping wars in West and Central Asia that benefit no common American will be regarded as unacceptable in the corporate media’s eyes because it interferes with their conflicts of interest. Washington Post owner and Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos works as a contractor for the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) for a reported $600 million. It is ludicrous beyond measure to suggest that CIA motives and propaganda do not influence the ways the Post reports on foreign affairs.

 

Flippant approval for these military advances is dangerous for another reason: it sends a crystal-clear message to the Trump administration that no repercussions will come from such actions. The reckless Syrian missile retaliation violated several international rules of war and destroyed any opportunity for the United Nations to enter Syria and determine what occurred in the preceding chemical attack. When silence follows from those entrusted to hold the executive branch of the government accountable as per the description of their jobs, nothing is off the table. The Trump administration now knows with certainty it can launch whatever military action it wants without any consequences for its power over the American empire’s iron fist, international laws be damned. Trump’s increased approval ratings following the strike are another byproduct of such irresponsible reporting, as it proves military action to be a surefire way to boost public approval of the presidency. This is a bad message to send to any president, but it becomes worse when considering the narcissistic tendencies Trump exhibits at every opportunity. Everybody expressed fear at the prospect of Trump launching a nuclear strike against North Korea, but nobody has demonstrated there would be consequences for his doing so. Beyond the possible discouragement from the generals in his cabinet, what is stopping him from throwing that knockout punch? Right now, nothing.

 

A strong anti-war movement needs to happen in the United States, and it needs to happen fast. In spite of my negative tone above, there is hope in me that the left wing can overcome the obvious deception peddled by people like Williams, Maddow, and the whole other brigade of right-wing war pigs we expect to push this narrative. After all, the precedent for such breakthroughs is less than twenty years behind us in history. Think of the timeline of events in the years following the 9/11 attacks: The country at large shook from the aftershock of the initial blow. Media heralded George W. Bush for emerging as a leader in a time of crisis. Support for an invasion of somewhere, anywhere, reached international levels when numerous countries in Europe expressed support for armed retaliation. Anchors and reporters lost their jobs for daring to oppose the idea that war was the solution including Phil Donahue of MSNBC and Pulitzer-Prize winning Chris Hedges of The New York Times. The famous phrase “you’re either with us or against us” dominated American consciousness and hate crimes against Arab-Americans rose 4,000% in mere months following the attack. Despite all of this, the American people eventually pierced the wall of misinformation and propaganda and began to sway public opinion back to the side of saying no to war in West Asia. The war in Iraq was regarded as a colossal mistake by the time of the 2004 presidential election, only three years after that fateful day in 2001.

 

What changed their minds, and can those catalysts appear today when confronting jingoistic rhetoric surrounding Iran, Russia, and other nations designated as enemies by the military industrial complex? I would like to think so, and I will investigate these questions in the next installment of this series.

 

Part 2 Coming Soon

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