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Where's the Antiwar Movement?
In America, we get what we pay for
A question I hear often concerns the lack of a strong antiwar movement in America. The last large protest against war I remember preceded the Iraq invasion in 2003. The nuclear freeze movement of the early 1980s was sharply focused and somewhat effective in raising concerns about nuclear escalation between the US and USSR. But I can’t recall a truly powerful and effective antiwar movement since the Vietnam War days, when the draft was still in force and American troops were dying in the tens of thousands in a useless and atrocious war in Southeast Asia.
And those are, of course, two key reasons why America lacks a strong antiwar movement today: there is no military draft, and Americans are not dying in large numbers in a deeply unpopular war.
Another obvious (I think) reason: we get what we pay for. America pays for war and weapons, we even speak of “investing” in them, so at some (deep) level we believe in war and its efficacy. We are caught or even enraptured by it; our culture is infused with it, whether you speak of movies like “Top Gun: Maverick” or video games like the “Call of Duty” franchise or sporting events that routinely celebrate “our” troops and their weaponry. We “invest” in wars and weapons, and that investment sure pays dividends for the military and all its weapons makers.
There’s another reason as well, perhaps more subtle: the antiwar movement is fragmented whereas pro-war forces are united. What unites them is the pursuit of power, greed, profit, and their own sense they are being patriotic in “defending” America. A lot of people make a lot of money off the military-industrial complex, but it’s not solely about money. They also gain an identity from it and relatively high social status. (The military remains deeply respected within American culture.)
By comparison, antiwar forces in America are fragmented. In talking to some members, I found considerable diversity in what motivates them. This is hardly surprising. There’s no one “big” war to be against, as in the Vietnam War years or in the run up to the Iraq War. Being against war in general is not as compelling a message to fence-straddlers. Meanwhile, Americans are being told by the mainstream media that war works in places like Ukraine and that a new cold war is looming with Russia and China, so how can we afford the hypothetical comforts of peace when we’re afflicted by the grim realities of war?
Again, antiwar forces sometimes disagree about what is at the root of America’s hyper-aggressiveness and how best to counter it. I hear that we must tackle racism first; I hear that the white male patriarchy must be dismantled; I hear that indigenous peoples must finally obtain justice and reparations for the land and livelihoods stolen from them; I hear that BIPOC and LGBTQ+ communities must be heard and empowered; these motivations and agendas, and more, animate antiwar voices and communities. Diversity can be a strength, but it can also make working on a common cause problematic when there’s no clear unity of purpose.
I am perhaps most familiar with antiwar voices on the left, though I also listen to Tulsi Gabbard, Tucker Carlson, Rand Paul, and other voices that are considered right or libertarian. Generally speaking, the left doesn’t want to make common cause against war with the right, and vice-versa. There’s simply too much distrust and distaste. This is perhaps a fatal blow to building a truly effective antiwar movement.
I say this because the pro-war movement in America is truly bipartisan. Democrats and Republicans routinely come together in Congress to vote for more money for weapons and for more war. If we are to resist this, the antiwar movement must also be bipartisan. It must also pitch a big tent and let all people in, irrespective of their political affiliations.
I’d add as well that some antiwar voices in America are also anti-military. Perhaps I’m biased as a retired military officer, but I don’t think an anti-military message is attractive or compelling to most Americans. Anti-militarism, yes. Antiwar, yes. Anti-military, no. That said, I strongly believe America needs to reject warrior and warfighter nonsense and return to its roots and traditions with citizen-soldiers and a much smaller standing military.
Back in 2016, I wrote a similar article on the absence of a concerted antiwar war movement in America. Looking at that today, I think I should repeat the point I made about fear and threat inflation. To wit:
“Finally, a nebulous factor that’s always lurking: FEAR. The popular narrative today is that terrorists may kill you at any time right here in America. So you must be ready to “lockdown“; you must be ready to “shelter in place.” You must always defer to the police and military to keep you safe. You must fully fund the military or YOU WILL DIE. Repeated incantations of fear reinforce the master narrative of war.”
So, perhaps the biggest reason America lacks an effective antiwar movement is simply that we get what we pay for. America spends roughly a trillion dollars a year on wars and weaponry and an imperial military presence, so that’s what we get. We’re not spending a trillion a year on peace and diplomacy and conflict resolution. We reap what we sow, and what we sow is almost entirely favorable to more war.