Stop a war 101

Vietnam antiwar leaders worry that the Democrats, again, may not be up to the job of stopping the war

Iraq war veterans have become among the most effective critics of the war. This group of vets and family members of soldiers stationed in Iraq marched in a parade in New York City earlier this year.

Iraq war veterans have become among the most effective critics of the war. This group of vets and family members of soldiers stationed in Iraq marched in a parade in New York City earlier this year.

Photo By Susan Ruggles

The Democratic election victories in Congress have encouraged antiwar sentiment, but leaders with practical experience in trying to stop a war say it may not be so easy.

Columbia University professor Todd Gitlin, a former president of Students for a Democratic Society who helped organize the first national protest against the Vietnam War, said he was pleasantly surprised by the election results. In a telephone interview, he said that because the war is “unsustainable,” there’s “a firm majority that wants steps toward withdrawal, wants withdrawal, wants some reasonably rapid withdrawal. … The Baker committee will be the orchestrator of the, you know, more or less graceful exit.” But he said that sentiment does not translate directly into similar sentiment in Congress.

The Baker/Hamilton commission, known formally as the Iraq Study Group, was created by Congress to deliver an independent evaluation of the war. It has been compared to the “wise men” convened by President Lyndon Johnson in 1968 for the same purpose on Vietnam.

Gitlin said withdrawal won’t happen the way many people hope.

“It won’t be a complete exit. There will be arguments between the administration and the generals, between the Democrats and the White House, within the Republican Party, and within the Democratic Party about the terms of withdrawal and the duration of it and the placement of the troops withdrawn. And there may well be other big foreign policy fights, like about Iran, so my optimism is not unlimited. But specifically about Iraq, Joe Lieberman’ll be the last guy hanging in with Bush while everyone else looks for a way out because it can’t be won—the absurdity of it, [of] the winning claims is generally manifest.”

Somewhat more pessimistic is former California state senator Tom Hayden, who also was an SDS leader during Vietnam and traveled to Hanoi where he won the release of some U.S. prisoners. Hayden called the election a victory for the people of Iraq. He also said that the Democrats will probably hold hearings on war contracts and profiteering—which he said is the reason some big U.S. firms are quickly leaving Iraq—but warned against expecting the war to end soon.

“The Democrats refuse to end it,” Hayden wrote in his blog. “The national security elites believe America’s image as a superpower is at stake. We’ve heard it all before. No one is willing to lose a war even when they know the war is unwinnable.”

Hayden said antiwar forces should use a combination of working outside the system while still pushing members of Congress inside the system.

“The White House may wish to lure the Democrats into a bipartisan approach to Iraq in order to extend the war while defusing it as an issue with voters. … It is almost certain that they will replace the current Iraqi regime with a strongman to go after the Madhi army of Moktada al-Sadr, the main Shiite leader who wants the U.S. to withdraw its troops. Finally, both parties will hide behind the recommendations of the bipartisan Baker-Hamilton study group, which is likely to propose a partial ‘redeployment.’

“These are steps in the right direction, but only baby steps. The Vietnam War continued for seven senseless years after the Paris peace talks began. While scaling back its original victory plans, the U.S. still wants to station tens of thousands of troops in a subdued, and perhaps partitioned, Iraq, and it wants the issue neutralized by the 2008 elections. The peace movement needs to gear up for the 2008 elections by establishing anti-war coalitions that no candidate can avoid in the primary states. The first four states—Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada and South Carolina—have large peace-and-justice constituencies.”

Mark Rudd, a former leader of the Weatherman faction of SDS and now a New Mexico college mathematics professor, said in an email exchange with the RN&R that even if the Democrats can be counted on to end the war, there is no assurance that they will act to undo other wartime abuses they supported.

“I’m happy that the Republican grip on Washington is broken. I don’t think the Democrats deserved this victory, though, since they haven’t been clear on opposition to the war or the fascist inroads against civil and human rights of the Bushies. They even supported torture, believe it or not. Here in my congressional district, the Demo candidate discovered the war precisely three weeks ago. She was lame and (so far) has lost the election.

“I also wish that there was a coherent and strong antiwar movement to inform all this diffuse public opinion which is now vaguely anti-war. The two are not the same. An antiwar movement could help people understand why this war happened, for global conquest, rather than being some sort of well-meaning mistake. And why global conquest is not possible. But these are all wishes. Mostly I hope the Demos get it together to withdraw the troops from Iraq and rescind the torture and spying that Bush has put into place.”

The New Mexico contest Rudd referred to, in U.S House District 1, is still unsettled, with 4,000 provisional ballots yet to count.

David Harris, former Stanford University student body president who was imprisoned for draft resistance and now a noted author, said in a a phone interview that he was pleased by the election outcome but has less than complete faith in the Democrats.

“You know, I have my doubts about the Democrats and how far they’re prepared to go with this mandate that they’ve been given, but that it was a mandate was really clear. I mean, there’s no spin that you can apply to this that doesn’t end up a extraordinarily clear rejection and rebuke of the Bush administration and their war policy. So I think … it’s a real watershed moment. Hopefully the Democrats will live up to that instruction from the voters. … So far, so good.”

But he said citizens will have to hold the Democrats’ feet to the fire.

“You know, anybody who pauses to think for a mement will remember that the Democrats certainly let all of our hopes down extraordinarily when this was was being called in the first place. They did not answer the bell. Far from it. They handed Bush a rubber stamp. I think to their credit they’ve been trying to make up for it in the year since but that memory is still fresh enough with me that I’m not going to assume that they’re going to bring sense to this policy immediately. … I think the potential for this just becoming somebody else in the driver’s seat … is immense and we should not lose our vigilance by any means.”

Gitlin said if Hayden is right about the United States installing a “strongman,” it would recall the U.S. search for a strongman in Vietnam.

“Point well taken,” Gitlin said. “Quite likely, I would say. … This is reminiscent to me of the search for the right strongman in Vietnam, in south Vietnam in the ‘60s. There were a number of regimes, 10 or 12, I think, and finally, they found one.”

During the Kennedy and Johnson administration, regimes in Saigon changed with such regularity that it seemed comical at times. Some—notably Duong Van Minh—were willing to reach agreement with the north and so were seen as unsuitable for U.S. purposes. Nguyen Cao Ky and Nguyen Van Thieu finally served as strongmen who were also usually responsive to U.S. wishes.

Hayden also faults one establishment pillar on the issue—the New York Times, which has called for stepped-up military operations in and around Baghdad. The Times correspondent, John Burns, has called for the installation of a “strongman.”