But now that is changing. The antiwar movement is, to use that great seventies expression, relevant once again. Outside the hearing, chairman Lynn Woolsey told me that the left has the “responsibility to be more than a protest movement.” What makes this moment unique is that, finally, the public seems to believe that the protesters occupy the moral high ground, with a new set of ideas for where to go from here. Is there any chance America will give us the keys to the car?
The first thing you notice about the antiwar movement is that it isn’t your father’s. It has a populist, womanly flavor. In the Vietnam era, the male elite were at the head of the parade—Über-pediatrician Benjamin Spock, Yale chaplain William Sloane Coffin, Harvard intellectual Daniel Ellsberg, and barefoot poet Allen Ginsberg. The campuses were on fire, and The New Yorker had editorials every week telling the privileged what to think.
This time around, the movement’s one household name is a mom in straw hat and white shorts, Cindy Sheehan. “In Crawford, you could drive from the [pro-war] rally at the stadium to the [antiwar] rally at Bush’s ranch and not be able to tell which one you were at,” says David Swanson, an activist with Progressive Democrats of America. “Red-white-and-blue banners and clothing, SUPPORT OUR TROOPS everywhere. It’s no longer the good workers of America against the crazy liberal elitists.”
Today’s antiwar activists describe their movement as grass roots, thereby distancing themselves from three sectors: the press—which they routinely describe as the corporate media or big-business media; the Democratic Party, which they seem to regard with the same fondness as the politburo; and the liberal thinkers who gave such comfort to neoconservative ideas in the run-up to the war.
The antiwar movement is calculated about the importance of putting the military families out front. At rallies, you see more Gold Star mothers than members of Code Pink—the theatrical feminist group whose wardrobe is pink slips. The mom’s message is always from the heart: I don’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve gone through.
“One of the things that used to silence the antiwar movement is, ‘You’re being disrespectful of the troops. Please, please support our loved ones.’ We’ve given permission to the rest of the country to speak out,” says Nancy Lessin, co-founder of Military Families Speak Out.
When you think about it, there is no good reason why the opinions of grief-stricken parents should bulk so large in policy-making. But two things amplify the Gold Star families of Iraq. First is the understanding that there’s never been such a wide divide between the people who decided to go to war and those who bear its greatest costs. During the Vietnam era, middle-class college kids were in the streets because they were in actual danger of going to Vietnam. This time they don’t have a personal stake. “If you don’t have to go over to Iraq, it’s hard to get emotional about it,” says Congressman Charles Rangel. The undemocratic nature of service is understood especially by politicians who are veterans, from either side of the aisle (John McCain notwithstanding). Republican senator Chuck Hagel, a Vietnam veteran who has begun to stake out antiwar ground as a possible prelude for a presidential run, has argued that there’s a “disconnect developing” between the Army and “the rest of society.” Another vet, Max Cleland, says that by offering cash incentives to rural kids, we’ve outsourced the ideal of citizen soldiers. “We are moving close to a mercenary foreign legion, and that’s not the American way. It’s immoral and violates the right to life of these people.”
The second thing about the Gold Star mothers is that they perform for reality television. Vietnam unfolded under the gaze of Walter Cronkite, a sober father figure who almost single-handedly destroyed Lyndon Johnson’s political career by pronouncing the war a “stalemate” in 1968. Today, in the Oprah era, hard-won spiritual truths are the coin of the culture. These moms all have a journey that they can tell you about.
But emotion gets you only so far. After the Cindy wave hit this summer, the left had to “move past the bumper sticker OUT NOW” toward a program—in the words of one of the guys I was passing notes for the other day, Tim Carpenter—that can’t be written off as softheaded and seventies.
In the mainstream as well as on the left, there’s a growing fatalism about Iraq—if not a civil war yet, the situation seems close to it. Partition or fragmentation are real possibilities. Still, a precipitous withdrawal is a difficult sell. “If you look at the poll numbers, people want to have a plan. Everyone thinks the job has been botched, but they don’t want to leave a country in chaos,” says another note-passer, Erik Leaver of the Institute for Policy Studies. “That is the biggest job for the left. How do we make the case for withdrawal? How do we show that the president’s policy is completely bankrupt? We need to put a face on withdrawal.”