Left was right

They take no satisfaction in knowing that they were right in opposing this ill-fated Iraq war from the outset. All they want is for people to listen to them now.

And what they have to say is this: If we are ever going to get all of our troops out, it will be because of pressure that starts at the grassroots level and works its way up to the top of the political chain — not the other way around.

When the Bush administration was spewing its lies and the mainstream media marched behind in lockstep, trumpeting myths about weapons of mass destruction and fantasies about invading troops being greeted with tossed bouquets, members of the peace movement were trying to warn us not to make what became a mistake of epic proportions.

But America didn't listen. The drumbeat for war was too loud, drowning out the voices of opposition. Shoved to the margins, they were all but invisible. When not being ignored by mainstream media they were on the receiving end of ridicule from squawking chicken hawks.

Before the start of the war, nearly 60 percent of the country supported an invasion of Iraq. An invasion supposedly made necessary by Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and the dictator's close working relationship with Osama bin Laden and his al Qaeda terrorist network. An invasion that would cost only about $50 million, we were told, with a majority of the troops expected to be back home within a matter of months.

All of which proved to be untrue.

Now, with 4,000 American soldiers dead and another 30,000 U.S. troops wounded in this conflict, with tens of thousands — and perhaps hundreds of thousands — of Iraqis killed and 4.5 million more displaced, there is no room for gloating by those who urged us not to invade. Instead there is only frustration that their voices were not heard.

After five long and bloody years, the doves aren't despairing. Instead, they are determined.

"We just have to keep going," says Phyllis Aronson. "There is no other choice."

As co-chair of the Huntington Woods Peace, Citizenship & Education Project, Aronson is old enough to have witnessed how public protest helped bring about an end to the Vietnam War more than three decades ago. Memories of that era are like a buoy keeping afloat hopes that another mass movement will succeed in bringing this war to an end.

Public opinion has flipped since the start of the war, with polls showing that about 60 percent of Americans now say that the war was a mistake.

"The peace movement hasn't been marginalized, we've been mainstreamed," says Leslie Cagan, co-chair of the national antiwar coalition United for Peace and Justice.

But the shift in opinion has not resulted in an outpouring of protesters taking to the streets.

Wendy Hamilton, director of the Detroit peace group Swords Into Plowshares is perplexed by the lack of outrage: "Where's the anger? Where's the indignation? Why aren't people saying we were lied to and doing something about it?"

Part of the answer is cynicism, she says. People believe that nothing is going to change as long as George Bush remains in office, so why bother to protest.

"A lot of people, I believe, think that speaking out won't make any difference," she says.

Yousef Rabhi, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, has a similar view.

"A lot of people are fed up with the war. You can see that in the national polls," he says. "But there's a feeling that's like despair. Because the task seems so daunting, some people are afraid to do anything at all."

It doesn't help that the 2006 mid-term elections, which were largely seen as a referendum on the war, resulted in the Democrats taking control of both the U.S. House and Senate — yet the Bush administration has continued to wage war unimpeded by the opposition party.

"The Democrats didn't do what some of us hoped they would do, which was use the power of the purse to force an end to the war," says veteran activist Al Fishman, a board member of the group Peace Action of Michigan. "Not enough of them had the courage to face the accusation that cutting off funding meant that they were deserting the troops in the field."

It's a ridiculous charge, Fishman says. You don't support troops by keeping them in harm's way; you show support by bringing them home.

But 2006 "was just the first step," Fishman says. "We're hoping that 2008 will result in us having a more progressive Congress — not just in terms of ending the war, but also in terms of ending the mind-set that allowed us to get into this war. That's where the struggle is going to continue."

Joel Eckel, executive director of the group Michigan Peaceworks in Ann Arbor, agrees with that assessment. He also thinks that the failure of Democrats after the 2006 election left a "lot of people disheartened and cynical."

Another factor is what might best be described as a feeling of disconnection between everyday life on the home front and the wars under way.

During World War II, gasoline, tires and even food were rationed. Instead of being asked to plant victory gardens and buy war bonds in this conflict, we're urged by our president to hit the stores and visit Disneyland as a show of patriotism.

As for Vietnam, it was the draft that motivated many young people to take to the streets. Trying to bring about an end to the war, for them, was a matter of self-preservation.

This time around, the war — as well as the one in Afghanistan that has been under way since fall 2001 — is being fought by an all-volunteer military and an army of private military contractors.

As a result, say many of the activists we talked with, the war has been reduced to a sort of background noise for the vast majority.

"Because people don't feel directly affected by the war, they tend to tune it out," Eckel says.

But that doesn't mean there isn't a cost we're all paying. Rabhi made that point during a speech Saturday at an anti-war protest in Ann Arbor he helped organize.

"People aren't linking the dots," he explains. "A lot of the students I talk with don't grasp the fact that this is something our generation is going to have to pay for."

There are also other issues, especially here in southeast Michigan, that force attention to be focused elsewhere.

"In this area," Hamilton says, "people have so many other kinds of concerns: Will I keep my job? Will I keep my house? Will I be able to afford college for my kids? These are the things that they are most worried about."

The point Fishman wants to make is that those bread-and-butter economic issues and the war shouldn't be viewed as separate.

When Bill Clinton made his first run for the presidency in 1992, James Carville's now-famous quote — "It's the economy, stupid." — formed the foundation for the campaign's success. But in 2008, Fishman says, that credo is only half right.

"It is not just the economy," he says. "And it is not just the war. Those two issues are inextricably linked."

But that point does not yet seem to have hit home, at least in terms of moving the war to the forefront of people's attention.

This perception was reinforced by recent poll that found only about one-fourth of all Americans were aware that nearly 4,000 of their countrymen have died in the war. The survey results were announced with a headline that declared: "Awareness of Iraq War Fatalities Plummets."

On the other hand, says Wendy Hamilton, there are signs that the public is becoming more concerned about our nation's use of military force. She points out that when the group Peace Action brought arms expert Scott Ritter and media critic Jeff Cohen to this area for a presentation addressing such issues as political propaganda, the Iraq war and the possible invasion of Iran, a standing-room-only crowd of more than 500 turned out.

"Only a few years ago that number would have been much smaller," Hamilton says.

The key to change, the activists say, is not to expect change to happen at the top. Work at the grassroots level involving masses of people is what's needed to alter the direction this country is taking.

It is not enough to just show up at the polls on Election Day. You have to become active and make your voice heard on an ongoing basis. Contact your representatives in Congress. Come out for protests. Circulate petitions. Donate to peace groups.

"In this upcoming election, we're going to be working to put the issue of war and peace in the forefront as much as possible," says Fishman, who has been at this for 60 years. "We're going to be very active in this campaign."

But one important question remains:

How many of us will be with them?

Curt Guyette is Metro Times news editor. Contact him at 313-202-8004 or [email protected]
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