As Washington goes, it was a religious moment.
A slender man with sharp features and a thatch of graying hair in an invisible gray suit flitted down the big marble hallway seeming to want to disappear before he turned into a small room. Wrong room. This was some kind of teach-in crowded with antiwar soldiers. Priests with attitude, maimed Vietnam vets, seventies ghosts with silver goatees, the beaded fringe of the Congressional Black Caucus, and all led by a beatific congresswoman from Sonoma County with great legs and a habit of chanting, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for being here.”
Suddenly, the room was silent. Walter Jones, Republican of North Carolina, took a seat at the end of the table. “Walter Jones is here,” the congresswoman with the legs announced. He will go next.
“Thank you, Madame Chairman.” Jones looked out at the room through narrow eyes. “As you know, being a conservative Republican, I have taken some criticism for doing what I think is right. I believe that those of us, Democratic or Republican, whatever the issue is, if we don’t do what’s right, we cheat the people.”
“But I found last week this quote from candidate Bush chastising President Clinton because he did not have a timetable [for withdrawing from Kosovo]. I would like to read this, then I’ll close.
“April 9, 1999: ‘Victory means exit strategy, and it’s important for the president to explain to us what the exit strategy is … ’ ”
As quickly as he had appeared, Walter Jones—“French Fry” Jones, as he is known on the left, the congressman who once called for renaming the French fry the “Freedom fry” after the French refused to join us in the invasion of Iraq—vanished, and the room rocked to life. Max Cleland, the former Georgia senator who lost both legs and an arm in Vietnam, said that Jones was a profile in courage. The Reverend Ed Bacon said that Jones certainly had gravitas if not charisma. Veteran antiwar leader Tom Hayden said it was the first time he’d ever seen a Republican holy man.
“Didja see, they bowed three times? In California, we only bow the head once.”
I was sitting behind Hayden and in front of Daniel Ellsberg, which meant that throughout the ad hoc hearing it was my privilege to pass along (the many) folded notes of the antiwar past. Hayden never thanked me for doing so, and before long I stopped politely tapping him on the arm and merely smacked the shoulder of his blue suit with the latest piece of origami. I was happy to do it. I demonstrated against the war, have always seen it as misguided and evil. Now I wanted to find out what the progressives’ ideas are, how the playbook differs from the one we got in Vietnam.
It’s the right time. The country is in a crisis of leadership. The deaths of fourteen Ohio Marine reserve troops in Haditha in early August gave the national media a heartland tragedy to focus on. Days later, Cindy Sheehan’s brilliant bivouac in Crawford, Texas, provided a TV-ready image of the president’s aloofness, which was only reinforced by Katrina and its aftermath. Now public opinion appears to be in an avalanche. Polls say a firm majority regard the war as a mistake, with a recent New York Times–CBS poll showing that a remarkable 52 percent of Americans think we should withdraw immediately. Even John Kerry has said that the failures of Katrina underline American failures in a misbegotten “war of choice” (one he voted to fund). And the blood you see running in the Washington gutters belongs to the neocons, their heads now impaled on spikes of They will welcome us with open arms. And last Saturday, in Washington, the movement had its biggest moment since last year’s Republican convention in New York.
All this signals an opportunity for the antiwar brain trust. “The rate of change is going to be very swift, and we’re right in the middle of it now,” says Eli Pariser of MoveOn.org, the movement’s Wal-Mart. Pariser adds that any politician who thinks he can straddle the issue in 2006 is courting disaster—a Democrat who takes the DLC line that success is possible in Iraq or the Republican line that we must stay the course is going to face a challenge from a dark horse who gets a pile of money off the Internet. “People want to see change,” he says. “They want to see Democrats standing up and making policy calls Bush doesn’t want to make.”
“The Democratic Party folded up their mental tents,” says Norman Solomon, an antiwar author and movement figure. “The conventional wisdom was that the war as an issue was a nonstarter. Because the Washington Post and New York Times and the rest of the conventional media were telling them that Bush was not vulnerable on the war.”
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.”
Though it is swarming over the political high ground now, like soldiers coming into Saddam’s palaces, the left is hardly in agreement on what to do. But there’s a growing consensus on one crucial point: The war cannot be won—not now, not ever. And there is an opportunity now, in a way that there hasn’t been since Vietnam, to change America’s view of itself and its imperial reach—all else will flow from that.
The first thing the U.S. has to do is change course—admit its policy is a failure and try to open a dialogue with those it has been trying to erase. We must “publicly give up the war-fighting role,” says Antonia Chayes, a professor with affiliations at both Harvard’s law school and school of government. We must declare that we have no long-term interest in Iraq and don’t want bases there, says Tom Hayden. All the solutions arising on the left look to an international Jesus for Iraq who is not named George Bush, who is not, in fact, American. David Mack, former ambassador to the United Arab Emirates, says America must abandon the neoconservative delusion that “Washington is the new Rome” and allow Iraq’s future to be worked out by an “ad hoc international coalition” that includes two great neocon Satans, Syria and Iran.
This is not anti-American. It is realpolitik, of the sort that used to be practiced by the likes of Henry Kissinger. From the time that it dissolved the army and the Baathist party, the U.S. has erred by repeatedly disenfranchising the Arab nationalist segment of the country—the Sunnis, who regard every development in the new Iraq as a power grab by competing factions. If the new constitution goes into place, there could be fifteen years of civil war, Congressman Jim McDermott of Washington State warns, based on meetings he had with exiled Iraqis in Jordan. The insurgents operate inside a support “envelope” of the Sunni population, explains Ken Katzman of the Congressional Research Service. “The Sunnis have accepted nothing that has happened to them.”
But none of the experts at Lynn Woolsey’s hearing agreed on just when the U.S. should leave. It’s pretty evident in these discussions that, for most of the movement, calls for an immediate withdrawal are a form of sloganeering—a tactical way of calling out the war-makers, forcing them to concede that they failed miserably. At the hearing, no one actually said to get out now. Still, the thrust of the position is to set benchmarks for withdrawal in the next year.
During Vietnam, the left always called for an immediate withdrawal and meant it. Others had started the war we’d entered; the puppet state of South Vietnam had never reflected the will of the people. We could argue that whatever bloodbath ensued was a piece of homegrown postcolonial business long deferred. When Harvard professor George Wald was asked how we could extricate ourselves from Vietnam, he said, “In ships.” This time around, the movement by and large does not have that sangfroid. The thinking is, We created the problem, we have obligations. Iraq could become a failed state, Ambassador Mack says; its quagmire could become a “sinkhole,” destabilizing an entire region. Max Cleland says, “You need the international community to cover your rear end on your way out.”
That is not to say that there aren’t proponents of the out-now program. Norman Solomon says we have to get past the imperial narcissism that says the U.S. is “indispensable,” that if we walk away the whole world falls apart. “Where does it end?” he asks. “Are we going to police every aspect of the Mideast?”
The antiwar movement is, to use that great seventies expression, relevant again.Will America give it the keys to the car?
And the interesting thing about this view is that it seems to be the most popular with the American people—it resonates most strongly with an isolationist strain in the American psyche that has gathered strength only since Katrina showed we have a world of problems right here in our backyard. Senator Russ Feingold says that he held seventeen town meetings in northern Wisconsin this summer, and over and over he heard people say, “You know, if we don’t have an idea of how long this thing’s going to last, let’s just cut and run.”
The redoubtable Walter Jones made a similar comment at the hearing. “If I can use a football analogy, there would be a fourth quarter, and we would declare victory after a fourth quarter.”
In that sense, the amazing irony may be that the American people are out-lefting the left. And ultimately, so could George Bush. There is a growing belief in Washington that, as Woolsey told me she feared, George Bush’s next plan will be “just cut and run.”
It’s a fascinating scenario: Knowing that the war will be a huge liability in ’06, he will slowly withdraw troops without announcing that he is retreating, and within a year, we will simply be out of there. In that sense, the antiwar movement may have already won. Of course, not many on the left accept this scenario. They insist that Bush has a long-term interest in occupying Iraq. After the Woolsey hearing, I waited for Dan Ellsberg to finish talking to various bloggers, then accompanied him to a basement cafeteria. Relentlessly cerebral and oddly egoless at 74, Ellsberg seems undiminished from the Vietnam days. Apart from a suitcase on rollers (full of documents, no doubt), he shows little sign of fatigue.
We got egg-salad sandwiches, and he offered me a grim scenario. It’s 1968 again. The war will go on, as Vietnam did, for many more years. Bush is building bases in Iraq so that an air war in the Mideast can be carried out even after Iraq’s civil war has been Iraqified.
“Public opinion doesn’t do it by itself. It just doesn’t do it. A president can ignore the public or fool it. By early 1968, 20,000 Americans had been killed. Well, another 15,000 were killed in ’68. The people were against the war before we lost them, but we went ahead and lost them. Nixon got in and told people he was getting out. He had no intention of getting out.”
Ellsberg believes that the Bush administration is holding out for another 9/11. “I think they’re counting on a 9/11 to change opinion. Then he gets whatever he wants, and the chances of thwarting the president are very negligible.”
What does Bush want? A draft, a civil-liberties clampdown “that will make the Patriot Act look like the Bill of Rights—the public will ask for detention camps.” And an invasion of Iran, with tactical nuclear weapons to get at the underground facilities.
His sandwich lay untouched amid the torrent of words, and I remembered a phrase from the Watergate era—“Ellsberg’s psychiatrist’s office.”
I said, “You’re nuts, Dan.”
He shrugged, unoffended. “Okay, tell me where I’m wrong.”
“You’re like a general fighting the last war; you’re a prisoner of the Vietnam experience. They’ll never invade Iran; they got a bellyful in Iraq. Bush isn’t Nixon. He’s not a paranoid introvert. He doesn’t want this.”
“I hope you’re right,” Ellsberg said. “If you know Vietnam from the inside, the harder it is to explain that Johnson could have gone ahead in the face of the secret reports of how hopeless it was. But he did. And Iran actually is preparing weapons of mass destruction. I think an attack on Iran is in our future. That likelihood is only increased with Bush’s popularity going down.”
Ellsberg rushed off, but not before offering one ray of hope. He’s beating the bushes (or the Internet) for the next Ellsberg, a brainy whistle-blower who will show up at the New York Times with the next big box of Xeroxes, this one to show the crime in Iraq-war planning.
“Before the war began, the [former] Army chief of staff Eric Shinseki said that it would take 500,000 troops to stabilize the country, and [Paul] Wolfowitz told him, ‘I think that’s wildly off the mark.’ I never heard a chief of staff reproved in that way by a civilian. But he didn’t pull that figure out of the air. I am sure that Shinseki had a six-foot-high stack of Army estimates. We still haven’t seen those studies.”
A few minutes after saying good-bye to Ellsberg, I ran into Tom Hayden at a Senate office building.
“Ellsberg bummed me out,” I said. “He says this war is going to go on for seven years. Give me a more optimistic scenario.”
He stood leaning on a banister to talk.
“There’s no optimistic scenario. It’s all tragic. We won’t end the war without people seeing all kinds of dead bodies on television.” He sighed. “But okay—here you go. Bush comes in in January wanting $200 billion for Katrina, $100 billion for Iraq. Republicans face a revolt from their base—they say, ‘Big spenders in a losing war.’ Behind the scenes, they say to Bush, ‘We need you to get out of Iraq.’ He gets out, it’s removed as an election issue in 2006.
“On the other hand, it drags on. Hillary will run in 2008 as a hawk [who changed her mind]. Politicians can do that. She’s got to say, ‘Look, I gave them time. Look, I was raised to believe, when you make a mistake, you learn from it.’ ”
This is the next big goal for the antiwar movement: pressuring the leaders who got us into this to admit they made a mistake. The word on the left is that French Fry’s epiphany came because he had made a commitment to write personal condolence letters to all the families of the dead in his district. You can imagine that. “I want you to know that your son died for freedom … ” “I want you to know that your son died for—” Late that afternoon, the antiwar leaders had a demonstration in Lafayette Park, across from the White House. The demonstration showed just how far the movement has to go. Fifty people in the unmoving late-afternoon heat, a lot of shouting into the microphone, rehearsing for the next demo. I found a spot of shade and fell asleep on the ground.
I woke up when a Gold Star mother with curly graying hair was at the mike, talking about her stepson who was killed in Fallujah last November 12.
“David was shot in the throat by someone defending their country,” she said.
It was a riveting statement. When her speech was done, I walked up and asked her if we could talk about the role of Gold Star families. We sat on a park bench. Her name is Tia Steele. David Branning was her stepson. “You know, when you feel all alone, it’s just hard,” she said. “Cindy’s been working hard for a long time. She’s been away from home for months and weeks at a time. Now she’s got incredible support. Bill Mitchell [a Gold Star father] told me that a long time ago Cindy was at an event, and he said to her, ‘Why don’t you talk?’ She said, ‘Oh, no, I wouldn’t know what to say!’ Well—Cindy found her voice. That’s her path. No question about it. But we all have an obligation.”
Steele told me about her son. His biological mother had died when he was 11; he’d resolved always to rely on himself. At 17, he read Atlas Shrugged. “And you know how a book like that affects you when you’re 17?” He was determined to test himself and enlisted in the Marines though his parents had reservations. The family was on hard times. His father lost his job as a data analyst around that time. David let his parents drop him off at boot camp, and the recruiter came up to them with a giant smile and a handshake. “You’ll never have to worry about him again.” David had joked about buying his parents a yacht before long. But war changed him. When his things came home, there was a copy of War and Peace in it, dog-eared from being read. He was 21.
Steele has a photograph of David in Fallujah, taken the day before he died. In the photograph, David isn’t David. It looks as though he is sitting in someone’s house they had occupied. “David wasn’t the kind that wanted to sit in someone else’s house [without permission]. Oh my God. I see it in his face. David was a person of soul and spirit.”
He and another boy were killed a day or two later, when they kicked someone’s door in.
Dusk had begun to descend. The speeches kept going. Ellsberg went to the mike and said his line about the next Patriot Act making this one look like the Bill of Rights.
A guy with curly hair edged up to me. “Who’s he?”
I tried to explain. “How old are you?”
“Thirty-two. I was in the first Gulf War.”
“How do you feel about this one?”
A girl with a long ponytail went jogging right through the demo, right past the podium, on her iPod run. Like we were Scientologists or something. That’s one reason this isn’t going to be Vietnam again. No one has the attention span. Who wants to sit through all those speeches again? The best answer to Ellsberg’s grim scenario is that it’s the old paradigm. We hadn’t perfected television in Vietnam, let alone the Internet. In 1965, antiwar protester Norman Morrison burned himself to death outside Defense Secretary Robert McNamara’s Pentagon office, and more than 30 years later, McNamara finally admitted how much this had disturbed him. He was able to repress that confession through all the years of murder in Vietnam. Such moments play differently today. TV craves emotional immediacy, and it’s majority-oriented. TV will ignore a disturbing trend as long as it can, but when it stops ignoring the issue, it will demand immediate response. It will speed up the Vietnam curve. Cindy Sheehan was just a taste.