A true story--The Door-Hanger: OK, so let me start with a story. When I got home from work around midnight last night I found a campaign door-hanger that had been left, I presume, by local Democrats. The door-hanger, paid for by the Missouri Democratic Party, was focused on the Iraq War and was quite colorful and graphic. On the front side there was a picture of a GI in uniform hurriedly walking away from a burning Humvee. On the reverse was the hand of someone in uniform on a helmet, presumably one of a fallen comrade.
Besides the standard entreaties to "Vote Tuesday, November 7" and advice on the hours of voting and a hotline number to report voting problems, the door-hanger's primary message was an implied, but never explicit, statement of anti-war sentiment.
On the front it boldly proclaimed:
"DEMAND a NEW DIRECTION in Iraq and in Washington"
On the reverse the message was:
"GEORGE W. BUSH'S DISASTER IN IRAQ
2,800 COURAGEOUS LIVES LOST.
$300 BILLION SPENT.
If we don't stand up now and express our outrage, when will we?"
OK, so let's look closer, perhaps dig in beyond what immediately meets the eye.
Just exactly what "new direction" is that? Well, let's see. I'm being asked to "DEMAND a NEW DIRECTION in Iraq and in Washington," but the door-hanger never says what that direction should be. And neither of the two Democratic candidates for Federal office I'm implicitly being asked to support are against the war. Claire McCaskill and Duane Burghard, candidates for the U.S. Senate and House respectively, have both studiously avoided taking clear anti-war positions. Both have condemned the botched job the Bushies have done in their execution of the war, but, to the best of my knowledge, neither has come out against the decision to attack Iraq and neither has called for ending the illegal U.S. occupation and bringing our troops home.
So, what exactly am I being asked to be outraged about? And what "NEW DIRECTION" am I to vote for "in Iraq and Washington"? Is it the lack of sufficient body armor for the troops sent over to Iraq? Pleeeze, give me a break. Talk about rearranging the deck chairs on a sinking ship. Is it the fact that Rumsfeld, Cheney and Company tried to pull off a war of aggression on the cheap and didn't send in enough troops to whoop 'em good?
Maybe I'm just not supposed to notice that the door-hanger never comes right out and says anything about the Iraq War being wrong or about what sort of "NEW DIRECTION" I might be voting for if I support the pro-war Democratic candidates for Senate and House. Maybe it's a matter of the politicians trying to tap the anger and frustration that I and many citizens feel about the war. Maybe they think that most people who are outraged will jump at the opportunity to vote for a party that shows them pictures of the horror of the Iraq War, calls it "GEORGE W. BUSH'S DISASTER IN IRAQ," and says in essence "vote for us" and you are voting for "change."
What are they against? Today the Iraq War is going badly and many mainstream politicians, including some Republicans, are critical of the conduct of the war. This is not surprising, but it is also not nearly enough. The fact that Iraq has blown up in Bush's face is tragic for all concerned, but if the war had gone well, it might have been even more tragic. If there was little opposition to the unprovoked and unjustified U.S. war of aggression, it would have only encouraged the neo-cons to invade more countries--Iran, Syria, who knows where else--shedding the blood of hundreds of thousands of additional innocent people.
Those major party politicians who ask for our vote, at least here in Missouri, never say a word about the war crimes. They never talk about the criminality of those in office who have launched a war of aggression, the highest form of war crime according to the Nuremberg Principles established at the end of World War II. Rather, they complain that those in power have done a poor job of it. John Kerry ran on a similar platform in 2004, never once repudiating Bush's attack on Iraq, simply claiming that he would have more success in winning the war.
It seems to me that the main thing that most Democratic politicians, as members of the party not in power, are campaigning against is the failure of the Bush administration and, by extension, the Republicans in Congress to achieve their foreign policy goals. It doesn't seem that it's the Iraq War, militarism or wars of aggression they're against, just failed wars.
It's also what they don't say: The patently offensive door-hanger is also implicitly presents an ethnocentric message. The Iraq War is declared a "disaster." There are two reasons given: "2,800 COURAGEOUS LIVES LOST" and "$300 BILLION SPENT." That's it. It affects us, so it's a disaster.
Well certainly we should all mourn those GIs who've fallen in vain pursuit of Bush's imperial agenda. But what about the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis who've died? What about the millions of Iraqis who've had their society torn asunder; who've been uprooted and made homeless; who've lost limbs; who've lost loved ones; who've lost their livelihood? None of these people did anything to our country. None of them attacked us, threatened us or provoked us. Why are they not mentioned? Not to in any way discount the tragedy of any one death, why are the 2,800 GIs worthy of mention when the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis are not?
There is also no mention of the ecological consequences of the war. We all know that war has a profound environmental impact, even if munitions do not include substances like the highly toxic depleted uranium, which has been used extensively in Iraq. Some might say, "well it's just a door-hanger and they can't include everything," but have any of these politicians raised concerns in their campaign about the environmental impact of war? If they have, I haven't seen it.
Furthermore, by running campaigns that fail to criticize the use of aggressive warfare as a foreign policy tool, and fail to call for any cuts in U.S. military spending at a time when our nation, with just four and one half percent of the world's population is spending 48 percent of the world's military budget, they are implicitly endorsing militarism and the perpetuation of a garrison state that exercises hegemonic power through its dominant military position.
Defining "courage": As I've noted, the door-hanger talks about the "2,800 COURAGEOUS LIVES LOST." This raises several critical questions. Are the Iraqis who've died defending their country from American aggression also courageous? What about the Iraqis who've died just because they've been caught in harm's way? What do we know about their courage? And, most importantly, have any of these politicians spoken out praising the "courage" of those young Americans who've taken a principled stand and refused to fight in Bush's war of aggression, even though they've faced courts martial and time in the stockade?
I certainly don't want to criticize those who've followed orders and paid the ultimate price, but, to be honest, I'm not sure that following orders is always the most courageous thing one can do. In fact, I think that it is probably far more difficulty for most people to swim against the tide than to travel with it. I wonder if the ever cautious politicos would even consider coming out and praising the courage of those who refuse to follow orders? I wonder if they would ever take the risk of noting that at Nuremberg "following orders" was not considered a legitimate defense for those who'd perpetrated war crimes? Now that, in my opinion, would be an act of true political courage.
A few thoughts about expressing "outrage": The door-hanger asks the question "If we don't stand up now and express our outrage, when will we?"
Well to begin with, voters are being asked to express their "outrage" on election day by voting for candidates who fail to express any of their own outrage with the war. What's wrong with this picture?
We are essentially being asked to channel our "outrage" regarding this grossly immoral and illegal war into supporting candidates who, when it comes to the war show more interest in changing the subject than anything else. If you visit Duane Burghard's website there is nary a single reference to Iraq War or U.S. policy in regard to Iraq anywhere on the site. The only mention of Iraq I could find, was in regard to the issue of veteran's benefits. Claire McCaskill offers a bit more. In a section of her site on national security she provides four paragraphs of equivocation, none of which express a word of outrage. If you follow her lead, over the next two years, we will " transition to a multinational security force and redeploy our troops to best protect our long term national security interest." Translate that, if you can. It sounds to me that we would still occupy Iraq but do it "smarter" with more international support and fewer American casualties. This was Kerry's 2004 prescription. Support the war's objectives, just do it better. Outrage anyone?
When will we stand up? The door-hanger's rhetorical question has an obvious answer, albeit one that is uncomfortable for those asking it. The most appropriate time to "stand up" and "express outrage" about making war on Iraq was in the fall of 2002 and the winter of 2003, before the war happened. Where were these candidates then? I don't remember seeing them at any peace marches or reading any statements they wrote opposing going to war.
Moreover, the time to express outrage has also been every single day since the illegal invasion. We in the peace movement were out there expressing our outrage when Bush was basking in the glory of his "quick victory," his "Mission Accomplished." The act of "standing up" isn't something one does just in time for an election when a war is going badly. If one comes from a position of principles, one stands up even when the war is popular and when doing so generates hate mail and death threats, not just when it seems opportune to score political points.
Some of us were actually out there expressing our outrage during the dark years of the Clinton administration when punitive sanctions were killing 5,000 Iraqi children each month. We were expressing our outrage when Clinton's Secretary of State Madeleine Albright went on "60 Minutes" and said that the even though half a million Iraqi children had died due to the sanctions, "it was worth it." We also stood up repeatedly and expressed our outrage when the U.S. military bombed Iraq an average of once every three days for the last two years of the Clinton administration.
None of this is to suggest that those who have come to realize this war is wrong more recently should not be standing up and speaking their truth today. The problem is that "standing up" needs to go hand in hand with advocating meaningful change in policy. In this case it means ending the war, bringing our troops home and providing substantial reparations to the Iraqis to make at least partial amends for the harm done their country and its people. It also means holding accountable those who've orchestrated a criminal war and all those responsible for egregious acts.
It seems to me that the question really needs to be turned around. Forget about asking citizens to "stand up" and "express outrage" about the war by getting out to vote for candidates who won't take a stand against it. Rather, we need to ask the politicians when--instead of triangulating and taking stands based on polls, focus groups and pleasing contributors--they will "stand up" on principles? When will they use their positions of power and influence to actively resist the crimes being committed in all of our names and with all of our taxes?
What can we in the movement do? As we in the peace movement look at the political landscape, it is clear that we have serious work in front of us to win over politicians in either of the major parties to an anti-militarist, anti-imperialist stance. There are a modest number of Dems and a very small number of Republicans who are already with us. Most of the rest cling to the comfort of an ideological mindset that views the United States as a force for good in the world, a nation that promotes freedom and democracy. In general, they support U.S. global domination and massive military superiority, although they couch this in defensive terms and talk about national security, rather than hegemony. They have perhaps come to be critical of the Iraq debacle, as it is so obviously, as the door-hanger describes it, a "disaster," but this has not led to any systemic critique. Rather, Iraq, like Vietnam four decades ago, is viewed as a "mistake."
This said, we are also at an opportune moment. And many of our fellow citizens are far out in front of the mainstream pols. The Iraq War has been a catalyst that has promoted critical thinking. We need to support and encourage this. We need to do more public speaking, show films, organize discussions, reading groups, etc. that help deepen the understanding of large numbers of our fellow citizens as to the nature of the beast.
All of us who are peace activists can actively engage our friends, families, neighbors, co-workers and co-parishioners on a daily basis, and, in doing so, we can each contribute to a general leavening of public understanding and awareness. We need to go deeper than just discussing the Iraq War. While this is an obvious point of departure, we need to engage folks on the nature of our political and economic system. We need to talk about our history; about just what imperialism is; about just what role our nation has played for many decades, and how this is playing out in the early 21st Century.
If we hope to not only end the Iraq War, but also to prevent the next war; if we hope not only to bring our troops home, but to see our country take serious steps toward disarmament; if we want to redirect the trillions of dollars we squander on the military into creating a secure and sustainable future that works for everyone; we will collectively, as a society, need to break out of a conventional worldview. The perspective that most of us have learned since childhood underpins our nation's militarism and justifies its wars.
BUILDING ALLIANCES: While we should not allow ourselves to be co-opted into adopting the partisan agenda of centrist Dems, opposing Republicans without actually getting to the root of what's wrong with the U.S. war on Iraq, we can find points of common concern and build alliances around what agenda we do share. We should do this with progressive Democrats, critical thinking Republicans, Greens, Libertarians and any others who are ready to take a stand against the insanity of the current situation.
The Iraq War is one area of immediate focus upon which alliances can be built. So is the erosion of our constitutional rights and freedoms. The issue of torture is another point of common concern. The need for real energy independence through the rapid utilization of efficiency technologies and renewable energy sources, rather than attempting to control the world's dwindling fossil fuel reserves is another obvious point of potential alliance.
We in the peace movement need to embrace all who are concerned about these issues, whether or not they share a to-the-root analysis of the nature of the issues. We in Peaceworks did this last year when we joined with MoveOn in promoting a peace vigil, even though they were not calling for ending the war and bringing the troops home and we were. As long as we don't have to abandon our message or hold our tongue to work with others, a big tent approach is certainly positive.
For the long haul: Finally, we need to recognize that the process of turning this country around is a process of shifting paradigms. It's a process of making change both in consciousness and thinking, as well as change in the political system. This takes far longer than any of us would like. We need to dig in. We need to be prepared to do this work all our lives. We need to work for victories in the short run, but at the same time, we should not be naive and expect that power will yield without struggle, or that the process will be quick.
Let's hope, regardless of how this year's elections turn out, that two, four and six years from now more candidates will be advocating the sorts of real changes that are needed. Let's not just hope, but let's work to create the climate in which such candidacies have meaningful chances for success. Let's work for the sorts of electoral reforms, like IRV (Instant Runoff Voting), that remove the spoiler factor and allow large numbers of voters the opportunity to support candidates who espouse progressive ideas without unintended consequences.
In closing, if you are outraged, I invite you to take action. This needs to happen not just through the act of voting once every couple of years. It needs to happen through a process of political engagement, day-in and day-out, all year long, this year, and next and the year after. Only through many of us who are committed to a vision of peace, justice and sustainability deepening our commitments to sustained activism will we be able to succeed at making the needed changes.