An Appeal for Continued Anti-War Efforts
Did I just see what I think I saw? Has a growing anti-war movement suddenly become dormant, for the umpteenth time in the past few decades - in this case before the war at hand was even over? Has the US Left once again turned its back, or at least its side, to an ongoing crisis brought about or conflated by the US itself? That's certainly what appears to have happened in the case of the current NATO war on the people of Yugoslavia.
But of course these crises don't end when a peace agreement is signed. The strife in Kosovo and Serbia is still very real. Out of sight, out of mind doesn't apply so well in such cases. The reality we're facing here at home is an endless host of issues with which activists must be concerned, each distracting attention from the others. We aren't even close to a unified movement with a holistic approach to social change and resistance. Instead, we have a fractured array of struggles, each vying for the attention and allegiance of concerned people everywhere, seldom acknowledging connections between causes, never mind combining forces to act on broader issues with common roots. So while this or that crisis may attract extraordinary attention for a time, eventually we return to our cause of choice and devote most of our energy to it.
Wars come and go, as do upsurges in anti-war activity. The problem with this ebb and flow, so to speak, is that while we're retreating to take on various other causes, the Pentagon and State Department get a head start at building toward the next war. Then we play a game of catch-up, over and over again. The problem being there is no significant Left infrastructure capable of struggling against war during times of relative peace.
In this latest case, did we ever become a threat? Some have suggested that the June 5 demonstrations in DC and San Francisco posed a major incentive for the US to concede certain demands on Serbia, to which NATO had been holding fast, and rush forward the peace agreement. It would be wonderful to believe that we had an effect on US policy, but I hardly think five or six thousand demonstrating on each coast had White House officials exactly shaking in their shoes. Our movement never truly got past the pathetic phase. We were never a threat to the status quo; we never actually raised the costs of waging war on the essentially defenseless people of Yugoslavia. We never even managed to convince the population here that the West's intentions were anything other than misguided but noble.
With alarming consistency, we see a few activists vigilant enough to work on unpopular struggles for international peace, only supported in their endeavors when the issue at hand is on the front pages of mainstream dailies. In other words, the Left itself is allowing the corporate media to choose our agenda. After the late 1997 massacre at Acteal, in Chiapas, Mexico, there was an upsurge in activity supporting the Maya people of Southern Mexico who are directly and extremely victimized by US neoliberal policies toward our neighbors to the South. But then, when fewer and smaller massacres were being reported, activity and even awareness declined. Almost exactly a year later, when at the end of 1997 the US resumed a full-scale bombing campaign against Iraq for alleged noncompliance with UN weapons inspectors, there was a flurry of activity. Those who had been organizing long-term against the despicable sanctions which are killing thousands of Iraqis each month, overnight became leaders of a temporarily expanded movement. But since the bombing has slowed down (it's still going on, by the way, sporadically but without halting), so too have our efforts to bring US policy toward Iraq to an end, or a reversal.
Now that a (preposterous) deal has been signed with Serb leaders, and fully-armed NATO troops calling themselves K-FOR have moved into Kosovo to protect Kosovars from each other, we are taking that long-awaited deep breath. I'll admit, I was extremely relieved when the bombing stopped. I got around to seeing my family, and finally slept more than 4 hours in a single night. But when I breathed in again, looking to engage in a new phase of awareness-raising and resistance, I found nearly everyone, including members of my own anti-war collective, had moved on or returned to other pursuits.
I can't argue with anyone that anti-war work is more important than anything else. Working against police brutality, sexualized violence, the threat of nuclear disasters, and an endless laundry list of oppressions is vital, no doubt about it. But since nearly everyone on the seems to stand or even rally against war when one "comes around," it seems to make sense that we start preventing wars instead of periodically scrambling to stop them. The protracted movements against proposed US interventions in Central America during the 1980s were largely successful, by most reasonable standards. They didn't reflect the glory attributed to movements which helped put and end to the Vietnam war, but that's because they helped prevent invasions rather than curtail them.
In February of 1998, a hastily-organized campaign against impending assaults on Iraq was responsible for knocking that option off the Pentagon planning table. At that time, Washington made the mistake of allowing CNN to broadcast a national "town hall" meeting with State Department notables, which radical anti- war activists crashed and spoiled while the whole world looked on. That action forced the government to act more swiftly, with little deliberation, when it moved to crush Iraq that December, perhaps hurrying and thus crippling the effort somewhat. To the degree we are prepared - and make no mistake, preparation requires constant vigilance and organizing efforts which transcend periods between outright warfare - we can make it that much more difficult for our leaders to bring us to war. Which means more time to devote to other issues of domestic or international importance.
But what, really, are our options when a so-called humanitarian crisis like the Yugoslavia turmoil presents itself? First we should be asking which other struggles are presently looming. The primary goal should be not to get caught by surprise, ever again. And to remain consistent in our efforts to expose flash points wherever they are heating up. We need to be keeping our eyes on Iraq, East Timor, Indonesia, Iran, Korea, Sudan, Turkey, and especially Colombia and Chiapas, as well as any number of other crisis areas around the globe.
We also have to remain solution-oriented, from the beginning. Looking at a given crisis, we have to come up with means by which it can be resolved without resorting to invasion forces. In cases like this decade's Balkans crises, many have seriously suggested the use of "nonviolent armies." This refers to large numbers of activists trained in nonviolent tactics, medicine, conflict resolution, counseling, observation and investigation, and so forth. The activists become (1) a physical and political barrier between oppressors and victims, or two warring sides; and (2) aids in the rebuilding of a society and the establishment of peace and tolerance. This may well be the only alternative to exacerbation, or the dreaded "doing nothing" which our leaders only advocate when the "humanitarian crisis" is one they don't care about (like most of those in Africa, for instance).
Finally, we need to start developing national coalitions and local organizations which can carry on the important work of raising awareness and maintaining contact with organizers on the ground in every city, every neighborhood. Most of the national organizations are either strongly religious or ideological in their bases for unification, which is reflected in their preferred strategies, tactics and overall approaches. No one organization will meet the concerns and interests of all activists, to be sure. But the important thing for now is to keep people involved, to maintain connections between those doing anti-war work, to support those doing intellectual work that will help us stay in touch with various crises, and to support those doing grassroots outreach and organizing. These are all key roles of consistent anti-war organizing efforts - each needs to be, and can be, carried out by many more people.
Brian is a member of the On the Ground collective in Syracuse, NY. He is at present working tirelessly on the Z Sustainer Program's technical infrastructure and content (which you're simply going to love).