For well over a decade, U.S. troops have been fighting on the other side of the globe in two different countries whose fate most of their fellow citizens know and care little about. Nearly 8,000 Americans have died in combat in Afghanistan and Iraq combined; tens of thousands have been badly and permanently injured. Troops are still risking their lives in Afghanistan to stop the Taliban from overrunning Kabul. In Iraq, after a brief hiatus, the U.S. military—albeit advisers rather than ground forces—is once again attempting to bolster the government that rules in Baghdad but is despised in large stretches of the Sunni-dominated north.
Years ago, most Americans decided that the war in Iraq was not worth fighting. That judgment helped elect Barack Obama president in 2008. Last year, for the first time, a majority of those polled said it had been a mistake to send forces into Afghanistan as well. Support for both wars has been steadily declining since Obama first took office.
So why, given the unpopularity of American involvement, is there not and has there never been a sizable movement to demand that the U.S. military withdraw from either nation? This absence is an extraordinary phenomenon: two of the longest wars in American history entirely lack the kind of organized, sustained opposition that emerged during nearly every other major armed conflict the United States has fought over the past two centuries.
Of course, some acts of organized dissent do occur. Members of Code Pink occasionally get arrested for heckling at congressional hearings, and several websites, such as Antiwar, act as clearinghouses for discussion and publicity. But it has been many years since an act of protest was either large or creative enough to gain the attention of anyone outside of a small circle of leftists who dedicate themselves to the cause. In February 2003, weeks before the U.S. military stormed into Baghdad, hundreds of thousands of Americans did show up in the streets of Washington, D.C., New York, and other cities where they joined millions around the world to condemn the approaching invasion. But, despite the resulting debacle, protests since then have been tiny and rare. This March, on the twelfth anniversary of the invasion, a nationally advertised Spring Rising Anti-War Intervention drew only a few hundred demonstrators to the capital city and no coverage at all in either the mainstream media or the leftist press.
Perhaps the most obvious, and most significant, reason for the absence of a large and persistent antiwar movement is the nature of the enemies the United States has been fighting since the fall of 2001. There are, of course, many distinctions between Al Qaeda and the Taliban, Saddam Hussein’s regime, and ISIS. But nearly all Americans—and most citizens of other NATO countries and Israel—sensibly regard each of these groups (Hussein’s, retrospectively) with loathing. So antiwar activists have focused, just as sensibly, on the innocents—on how U.S. military actions kill and maim large numbers of civilians, particularly with drones that are often directed from a building somewhere in northern Virginia.
But this rhetorical strategy evades the salient question opponents of earlier conflicts could answer with a great deal of confidence: what will happen if the United States simply leaves? In the 1840s, Abraham Lincoln and other critics of the invasion of Mexico were quite content to let Mexicans run their own country (which then included places we now know as California, Arizona, and New Mexico). During the First World War, a broad coalition of dissenters believed a German victory or a stalemate on the Western and Eastern Fronts between the Central Powers and the Triple Entente would have been preferable to the deaths of millions more young men on both sides. During the Vietnam era, antiwar protestors either downplayed the harmful consequences of a triumph by Communist-led indigenous forces or gleefully chanted, “Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh, the NLF is Gonna Win.”
But it’s more difficult to dismiss the prospect that several nations might be controlled by vengeful jihadists who routinely murder anyone who doesn’t share their rigid theology while enslaving women and forbidding them from attending school. Most Americans have grown weary of the nation’s wars in the Middle East. But weariness does not motivate people to attend meetings, give speeches, march down streets holding protest signs, or lobby Congress.
Does the absence of a military draft help explain the lack of an antiwar movement? The massive opposition to the Vietnam War occurred at a time when the Selective Service System claimed the increasingly reluctant obedience of American men between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six. It thus seems logical to assume that a military composed largely of draftees, who would now be of both genders, would spur more resistance to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan and, perhaps, spur a complete withdrawal, as occurred in Indochina four decades ago.
The reality of today’s all-volunteer army certainly means that most Americans, of every age, can be ignorant about the experiences of those who do sign up, most of whom are working-class men and women. This leads many civilians to routinely express “support for the troops,” whether in a reflexive or heartfelt way. Part of their response is motivated by guilt over the treatment of Vietnam veterans on their return back home—although the great majority of vets were actually ignored or pitied rather than vilified, as legend would have it. Warm, if fading, memories of the combative solidarity Americans felt during the months just after the attacks of 9/11 play a role as well. In baseball parks throughout the land, fans still sing or at least hum “God Bless America” during the seventh-inning stretch.
In Ben Fountain’s caustic antiwar novel Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk (published in 2012), a Marine just back from combat in Iraq who is being honored at a Dallas Cowboys game by the team’s owner and his conservative friends, reflects on the difference between his reception and what he heard took place when his predecessors returned from Indochina:
No one spits, no one calls him baby-killer. On the contrary, people could not be more supportive or kindlier disposed, yet Billy finds these encounters weird and frightening all the same. There’s something harsh in his fellow Americans, avid, ecstatic, a burning that comes of the deepest need. That’s his sense of it, they all need something from him, this pack of half-rich lawyers, dentists, soccer moms, and corporate VPs, they’re all gnashing for a piece of a barely grown grunt making $14,800 a year.
But as the social science cliché has it, correlation is not causation. The movement against the Vietnam War held its first mass demonstration on April 17, 1965. Some 25,000 people gathered at a rally next to the Washington Monument; well-attended teach-ins at dozens of campuses took place that spring as well. But only about 30,000 U.S. troops were then on the ground in South Vietnam. Few were draftees, and they were just beginning to take an active role in combat.
Since Congress revived the draft in 1940, there had been scant protests against it. A few pacifists who refused to be conscripted went to jail during the Second World War and the Korean conflict. But during the late 1960s, opposition to the draft grew along with the size and frequency of antiwar protests—and the punishing but futile escalation of bombings and troop strength which President Lyndon Johnson ordered. Hundreds of thousands of young Americans violated the draft laws during the Vietnam era; most did so with relative impunity. Revulsion at the war thus drove resistance to the draft, not the other way around.
The flourishing of the peace movement of the 1960s did not depend solely on having an unpopular war to stop. Many of its most talented and committed activists came from other movements of the broad left—against poverty, for civil liberties, for nuclear disarmament, and especially for black liberation. These experiences trained them to organize for visible, increasingly popular causes that they continued to advocate.
They had learned to define their politics as a moral undertaking that should and could transform the world. Slogans like SNCC’s “One Man, One Vote—Mississippi, Vietnam,” and Muhammad Ali stating, “I ain’t got no quarrel with them Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger,” when he applied (unsuccessfully) to be a conscientious objector, helped forge the link between the largest of the ongoing movements. As those declarations suggest, a passionate internationalism was taken for granted. The world was full of friends and comrades determined to liberate humankind, although often with quite different methods—the Viet Cong were not in the habit of staging mass marches.
Few contemporary antiwarriors, most of whom toil in the shadows, can convincingly claim to have such allies or antecedents. While most feminist and LGBT activists object to the size of the military budget, few spend time drawing connections between the horrific violence in the Mideast and the injustices they combat at home. After all, misogynistic groups like ISIS and the Taliban burn to reverse every achievement that activists for gender equality hold dear. If any prominent speaker in Black Lives Matter or the movement to halt climate change has tried to link his or her cause to that of pulling all foreign troops out of Afghanistan, they have done so quite discretely. The one exception to this pattern is the BDS campaign, initiated by Palestinians in the West Bank and Gaza, that has become the anti-imperialist cause of choice. But no U.S. soldiers are patrolling the Occupied Territories.
Perhaps one reason most leftists don’t spend time agitating against U.S. military intervention abroad is that they don’t perceive the issue as the property of the left alone. Rand Paul and other libertarians on the right speak out against “imperial overreach” and NSA surveillance as consistently as does anyone in Code Pink, and they command more media attention than do their left-wing counterparts. At Antiwar, one can read a column by Patrick Buchanan defending Vladimir Putin’s proxy war in Ukraine next to an interview with Noam Chomsky, who blames the Taliban’s rise to power in Afghanistan during the 1990s on the U.S. proxy war that toppled the Soviet client state in that country. Neither Buchanan nor Chomsky speaks for a large constituency, and the followers they do have mistrust each other deeply. Right and left opponents of intervention agree that U.S. military power does no good in the world; they do not agree about why. A durable movement cannot be built on such contradictory motivations.
Without strong opposition at home, both Barack Obama and whoever succeeds him will probably continue the militarized policies in the Middle East that most Americans regard, at best, with ambivalence. The “war on terror” may stretch into a third decade, with no plausible sign of a conclusion. Leftists who abhor this prospect will have to explain how U.S. intervention has failed and is likely to continue to fail to achieve its objectives. They should also support the efforts of Muslims and non-Muslims in the region who, at great peril, uphold the ideals of religious tolerance and democratic governance. As always, progressives should care as much about how to create a humane future as they do about how to stop contemporary brutalities. This time, simply demanding that the United States get out is neither a likely solution, nor a moral one.
Michael Kazin is co-editor of Dissent.