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The Impossible Will Take a Little While

Soul of a Citizen


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By Paul Rogat Loeb

The bombs that fell on Iraq shattered the armies of Saddam Hussein and the bodies of five to ten thousand civilians. They also crushed the spirits of many in the peace movement, driving participants into their shells. In the months before the war, several million ordinary Americans marched and spoke out to challenge it, joined by the largest global peace demonstrations in history. Then we watched the war on TV, or read about it in the papers, and felt hopeless and powerless. Many of us wonder now whether our actions can matter.

 Because so many citizens marched, vigiled, lobbied, and otherwise raised our voices, we felt like we might stop the war. An amazing movement bloomed, seemingly out of nowhere. Then Bush invaded nonetheless. And many of us sank into despair.

 “I did everything I could,” a Minnesota college student told me recently. “I wrote letters and called Congressmen. I marched and held signs. So many other people did too. Then Bush said he wouldn’t listen no matter what we did. I felt all our efforts were worthless.” The student was young, but people thirty years older expressed the same demoralization—a sense of futility and dashed hopes. 

 This response risks creating a self-fulfilling prophecy where a movement that may still be our best hope to transform America dissipates in resignation. To move past the despair many of us are feeling, we’re going to need to look at its roots. And then gain enough long-term perspective to remind us why our actions still matter.

 Think back to the war. Arrogant men of power will always deny that those who challenge them are affecting their actions. But when Bush dismissed the massive protests as no more consequential than a poll-manipulated focus group, it was a calculated attempt to make people feel powerless. Then the attack began, presented by America’s TV networks as a mix of Fourth of July spectacle and Super Bowl cheerleading. Unless we tuned to the BBC, we rarely saw the human carnage, just endless glorification of U.S. technical might. When Iraqis resisted, against all odds, our reporters dismissed them as “fanatics.” They accepted without question the transformation of British and American troops into “coalition forces,” as if the whole world stood by our side, like a child with an army of imaginary friends. We were told again and again that America fought only for freedom and that even to question would betray our brave young soldiers. As a friend said, “I feel all I can do is watch, but watching makes it worse.”

 When the bombs were falling, it was hard to know what to hope for, much less what to advocate. And harder still to feel you could have an influence. The longer the war lasted and the more resistance, the more US soldiers—and Iraqis--would die or be wounded. Our troops didn’t start the war.  We wanted them safe from harm. We also didn’t want to see casualties among ordinary Iraqis, whether civilians or the young soldiers who believed they were fighting for their country.  It tore us apart to go about our daily lives while children were being torn apart by American bombs.

 We also worried about the costs of a quick US victory--the risk of feeding more interventions, more “preemptive” wars, and more imperial arrogance. We feared that this war would not be the last that the Bush administration would wage.

 With the war now over, many of our predictions have proved correct. Looters and fundamentalist Shiites have dominated the post-Saddam landscape. Despite justified relief about the collapse of Saddam Hussein’s brutal rule, most Iraqis have not welcomed us with cheers, but with hesitation and mistrust. Our attacks provoked riots throughout the Islamic world, from Egypt and Pakistan to Indonesia and Malaysia.  Weapons of mass destruction still have not been found, and may never be. Contracts are being handed out like Halloween candy to Republican-linked companies like Haliburton and Bechtel, equal-opportunity dealers who had no problems dancing with Saddam Hussein when he was in power, Haliburton as recently as three years ago.

 The global peace movement may have actually helped pressure the US military to limit what they called “collateral damage,” as they scaled down the initial plans for the massive bombardment they called “shock & awe.”  Now, placed in what psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton called, during Vietnam, “an atrocity-creating situation,” our scared young soldiers have responded to suicide bombers and snipers by shooting up cars full of women and children and firing on unarmed demonstrators. Given the occupation’s continuing chaos and the developing bitterness of ordinary Iraqis, our troops stand to be vulnerable targets for years.

 But watching the complications unfold hasn’t helped peace movement morale. During the war itself, communities that had massive demonstrations just a few weeks before saw the numbers of those visibly protesting quickly melt away. Although public witness remained critically important, we wanted to do more, even to stop the bombs physically. We wanted the power to immediately prevent the destructive actions that were unfolding, but within the war’s abbreviated timeframe, that was something we couldn’t do. As a result, many who’d just recently felt a massive common strength, quickly felt isolated and confused, and have remained so. It’s not that we bought into the administration’s propaganda juggernaut, or do now that the war is over. But it’s hard to know how to challenge it, especially in an atmosphere that attacks even the mildest dissent as allegiance to terrorism.  And without the clear focus of working to prevent a looming war, it’s now harder to define our common tasks.

 As conservative pundits talk glibly of moving on to Syria and Iran, we might start with questioning the ethic of arrogance that would make this war just a first step toward a new imperial America, at home and abroad. On the eve of the war, an army mother from El Paso, Texas, wrote to me, describing why she’d began attending peace vigils. She prayed every night for the safety of her son and the others in his unit.  “I have no doubts,” she wrote, “about our military and the job it can do. But does that make it right and just? I know that Saddam is an evil dictator but he is but one in a long list, and I worry that this administration will not want to stop with just him.  I heard Bill Bennett on TV last night and he was actually grinning and saying that we were a superpower and we have every right to show our might.  What happened to ‘being humble’?”

 We need to challenge a view that we our leaders can do whatever they choose without consequence, simply because they have the power. After the UN didn’t support the Bush administration on Iraq, the Bush administration attacked anyway, then spurned post-war international control, leaving our troops as visible occupiers, exposed to attack, blamed for continued disorder, and inflaming the Islamic world with their presence. Whenever treaties on global warming, tobacco use, child labor, ballistic missiles, or landmines threaten to place limits on corporate or military power, the administration undermines them or withdraws, even though this unilateralism makes it impossible for the world to address our most urgent common problems. If the rich want more tax breaks, it doesn’t matter that the funds come out of domestic education, health and social welfare budgets, even the programs that serve military families. Those making these decisions assume that they will have no costs, or none to anyone who matters.

 We need to challenge this politics of denial and contempt, and offer alternatives that honor our common ties: working with other nations, respecting communities at home, treating democracy as more than just a rhetorical cloak for bullying and greed. To do this effectively, we can begin by working to re-involve those millions of ordinary citizens, who, despite all the polls, do not believe the Bush administration’s actions, whether at home or abroad, have made the world safer, more democratic, or more humane.  For the moment, many have grown quiet—isolated, intimidated, and demoralized. But this past year, so many people got involved—either again or for the first time--they could form the core of the largest American peace and justice movement in decades.

 Powerful journeys can emerge out of bleak times. The first local NAACP meeting attended by Rosa Parks, a dozen years before her stand on the Montgomery bus, addressed one of America’s own buried legacies of terror, the persistence of lynching. We also never know what some of those just coming into involvement may end up accomplishing. In the early 1960s, a friend of mine named Lisa took two of her kids to a Washington, DC, vigil in front of the White House, protesting nuclear testing. The vigil was small, a hundred women at most. Rain poured down. The women felt frustrated and powerless. A few years later, the movement against testing had grown dramatically, and Lisa attended a major march. Benjamin Spock, the famous baby doctor, spoke. He described how he'd come to take a stand, which because of his stature had influenced thousands, and would continue to after his early opposition to the Vietnam War. Spock talked briefly about the issues, then mentioned being in DC a few years before and seeing a small group of women marching, with their kids, in the pouring rain. "I thought that if those women were out there," he said, "their cause must be really important." As he described the scene and setting, and how much he was moved, Lisa realized that Spock was referring to her soggy group.

 The movements of this past year may well have brought into involvement the next Ben Spock, the next Rosa Parks, the next Martin Luther King.  But the tide of new citizen activists will matter only if we can find ways to re-involve them. A prime task, therefore, has to be connecting with those people who participated at the periphery of the movement but melted away when the war began: the neighbor who displayed a peace sign; the co-worker who went to a march or candle-light vigil; the friend who raised hesitations. We need to validate their impulse to participate to begin with, listen to their concerns, refer them to groups that are acting. We need to give them ways to reclaim their voice, and begin reaching out again in their communities. Just the process of working to raise issues together will help us recover some of our sense of power, because nothing is more depressing than watching the bad news in withdrawal and silence. 

 We have powerful potential allies institutionally as well as individually. The recent movement brought together key organizations and voices of conscience in ways that didn’t remotely occur even at the height of the opposition to the Vietnam War. The Win Without War coalition joined the National Council of Churches, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, national peace groups, major union leaders, and cyberactivists like and Working Assets. We saw strong peace statements from every major Catholic leader and the heads of every major mainline Protestant denomination except the Southern Baptists. ACLU memberships have soared in the wake of the Patriot Act’s gross invasion of the most basic elements of privacy. If these institutions and institutional leaders can keep working together, they can offer powerful ways to create a common voice. Add in a continuing global peace movement, and we have a powerful base for change.

 Making progress on any of these issues will be vastly easier, of course, if we can get George Bush out of office. Many peace, justice, and environmental activists are already shifting gears to begin working toward this end. Many are backing the more progressive Democratic candidates, like Howard Dean and Dennis Kucinich. Some are supporting other contenders, like Richard Gephardt and John Kerry. (Though Gephardt’s support of the war and Kerry’s waffling hardly make this an easy task, either would be far better than Bush in a dozen key ways if they got in.) Others are focusing on registering disengaged voters, and on beginning anew to talk about issues buried beneath Bush’s media whitewashing.

 At some point we’ll be left with no choice but to back the last Democratic standing, or tacitly help Bush get reelected. No matter who the Democratic nominee is in 2004, the Republican agenda is ruthless and regressive enough, and the Bush electoral machine so efficient, that we can’t afford Green Party diversions. We have to be united in voting, helping get out the vote, and doing whatever we can.  But between now and November 2004, it will be our energies that do or don’t build both the grassroots movement that can hold Bush accountable for his actions and the political context that can give us a chance to defeat him.

 We live, alas, in a time of lies. If we stay silent, they build up like mud piling in front of a door. The deeper the mud, the harder it is to dig out from it. So we need to find ways to

help our fellow citizens recognize how little this administration has ever cared about democracy, and how much about its own power. And how that power makes both individuals and communities expendable, whether American troops deployed in the Gulf, Iraqi civilians killed by our bombs, or ordinary citizens living in communities seeing cuts in every institution that serves the poor and vulnerable—and even the middle class, as teachers get laid off from all but the most affluent public schools. We need to start local dialogues about our choices and priorities, who wins and who loses, and the long-term implications of everything from waging preemptive war, to ignoring global warming, to transferring unprecedented amounts of money from the poorest to the wealthiest.  We have to start those dialogues now and with people who don’t necessarily agree with us. We need to give our fellow citizens the courage not to just duck and cover when told they’ve no right to speak out, and stand by those who are attacked.

 Finally, we need to persist. The roots of the Iraq war go back decades, from the “Southern Strategy” that handed the Republicans so much political power to the US role in bringing Saddam Hussein and his Baathist party to power to begin with. These roots won’t be instantly untangled. If we look just at the past few months, we didn’t win what we hoped.  We didn’t stop the war.  But we were never in it only to stop just a single war, but to redirect this country down paths that treat the world with respect. Immediately, we need to do whatever we can between now and November of 2004 to elect a different president. But we also have to be in this for the long haul. If we act with enough courage, and persevere long enough in raising the real and difficult issues, the turnings of history may surprise us in powerful and hopeful ways. Despite the Bush administration’s insistence to the contrary, we are far from alone in this task.

 Paul Rogat Loeb is the author of Soul of a Citizen: Living With Conviction in a Cynical Time. See for more information. To receive Paul’s articles directly, send a blank message to