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The Bureaucracy, the March, and the War
By Tom Engelhardt
As I was heading out into a dark, drippingly wet, appropriately dispiriting New York City day, on my way to the “Fall Out Against the War” march — one of 11 regional antiwar demonstrations held this Saturday — I was thinking: then and now, Vietnam and Iraq. Since the Bush administration had Vietnam on the brain while planning to take down Saddam Hussein’s regime for the home team, it’s hardly surprising that, from the moment its invasion was launched in March 2003, the Vietnam analogy has been on the American brain — and, even domestically, there’s something to be said for it.
As John Mueller, an expert on public opinion and American wars, pointed out back in November 2005, Americans turned against the Iraq War in a pattern recognizable from the Vietnam era (as well as the Korean one) — initial, broad post-invasion support that eroded irreversibly as American casualties rose. “The only thing remarkable about the current war in Iraq,” Mueller wrote, “is how precipitously American public support has dropped off. Casualty for casualty, support has declined far more quickly than it did during either the Korean War or the Vietnam War.” He added, quite correctly, as it turned out: “And if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline.”
Where the Vietnam analogy distinctly breaks down, however, is in the streets. In the Vietnam era, the demonstrations started small and built slowly over the years toward the massive — in Washington, in cities around the country, and then on campuses nationwide. In those years, as anger, anxiety, and outrage mounted, militancy rose, and yet the range of antiwar demonstrators grew to include groups as diverse as “businessmen against the war” and large numbers of ever more vociferous Vietnam vets, often just back from the war itself. Almost exactly the opposite pattern — the vets aside — has occured with Iraq. The prewar demonstrations were monstrous, instantaneously gigantic, at home and abroad. Millions of people grasped just where we were going in late 2002 and early 2003, and grasped as well that the Bush dream of an American-occupied Iraq would lead to disaster and death galore. The New York Times, usually notoriously unimpressed with demonstrations, referred to the massed demonstrators then as the second “superpower” on a previously one superpower planet. And it did look, as the Times headline went, as if there were “a new power in the streets.”
But here was the strange thing, as the “lone superpower” faltered, as the Bush administration and the Pentagon came to look ever less super, ever less victorious, ever less powerful, so did that other superpower. Discouragement of a special sort seemed to set in — initially perhaps that the invasion had not been stopped and that, in Washington, no one in a tone-deaf administration even seemed to be listening. Still, through the first years of the war, on occasion, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators could be gathered in one spot to march massively, even cheerfully; these were crowds filled with “first timers” (who were proud to tell you so); and, increasingly, with the families of soldiers stationed in Iraq (or Afghanistan), or of soldiers who had died there, and even, sometimes, with some of the soldiers themselves, as well as contingents of vets from the Vietnam era, now older, greyer, but still vociferously antiwar.
However, over the years, unlike in the Vietnam era, the demonstrations shrank, and somehow the anxiety, the anger — though it remained suspended somewhere in the American ether — stopped manifesting itself so publicly, even as the war went on and on. Or put another way, perhaps the anger went deeper and turned inward, like a scouring agent. Perhaps it went all the way into what was left of an American belief system, into despair about the unresponsiveness of the government — with paralyzing effect. As another potentially more disastrous war with Iran edges into sight, the response has been limited largely to what might be called the professional demonstrators. The surge of hope, of visual creativity, of spontaneous interaction, of the urge to turn out, that arose in those prewar demonstrations now seemed so long gone, replaced by a far more powerful sense that nothing anyone could do mattered in the least.