Marching Against the War

The conference in Washington, D.C. that I was attending gave us only a few hours of free time on Saturday afternoon, but fortunately that was when the big antiwar march was planned. So I wandered the Mall, where I had thought it was supposed to be held – publicity was not exactly omnipresent – and found nothing that looked like a demonstration. Then I saw a lone elderly gentleman carrying a sign and asked him where the rest of them were. He said he had been at Lafayette Square, where things began with not very exciting speeches, and thought he would catch a few museum exhibits before rejoining the crowd when it arrived at the Capitol building. So I decided to venture into the city proper, toward Pennsylvania Avenue.

And sure enough, there was the march, stretching block after block, long enough that you couldn’t see the beginning and the end at the same time. I’m thinking it must have filled about 10 or12 blocks. The policemen I talked to (you’d be surprised who will talk to you if you’re carrying a reporter’s notebook and look as if you’re jotting things down) told me they figured (unofficially, of course, they don’t like to release official estimates) there were 10,000 to 15,000 people participating.

The Washington Post story the next day went with the lower estimate.

It was an impressive display of antiwar sentiment and organizing ability by the ANSWER Coalition, to the best of my knowledge a relatively hard-left outfit with significant capabilities and a strategy of forming coalitions galore. It was followed by actions at schools and recruiting offices through the week. On Monday my path between two appointments took me past an armed forces recruiting office on L Street, and sure enough there were a few dozen demonstrators on the sidewalk outside.

Some have criticized the ANSWER demonstrations for being too coalition-minded, arguing that there should be a laser-like focus on the war, and while groups with other primary interests might be named in the program, so to speak, and allowed to advertise their website on banners, but admonished/persuaded to speak only of the war during antiwar events. The idea is that groups that might be uncomfortable about associating with, for example, abortion advocates or people who want to trim the government instead of expanding it would be fine talking about the issues on which they agree.

The parts of the demonstration I saw actually did this rather well. There were "Impeach Bush-Cheney" signs and websites (arguably at least related) and some "9/11 Truth" outfits (likewise), but most of the signs were directly war-related – "Occupation is the Problem not the Solution," "Support the Troops: End the War Now," "Occupation is a Crime," along with the occasional "Jail to the Chief."

As far as I can tell, however, the demonstration is likely to have little or no impact on war policies. The numbers in Congress tell the tale there; antiwar Democrats will have to get enough Republicans to amass 60 votes in the Senate – maybe 66 if Bush vetoes anything – and a two-thirds veto-proof majority in the House. So far, despite the fact that Gen. Petraeus’ and Ambassador Crocker’s reports do not appear to have reduced opposition to the war significantly, those kinds of numbers seem unobtainable, as this week’s failure on the Webb time-at-home amendment shows – at least for now.

It will be interesting to see what some Republicans do when it becomes apparent that come election time the war will still be in the headlights rather than in the rearview mirror. Perhaps they will change to outright opposition, beyond subtle distancing from President Bush. Or perhaps they will decide that if their party is going to take a drubbing anyway, they might as well go down with the Iraq war ship, especially if they figure they won’t improve their reelection chances noticeably by switching at the last minute.

I talked to one behind-the-scenes Republican operative who explained to me in some detail why the war was misbegotten and ill-conceived. But he’s unlikely to urge open opposition. Even if the party goes down in flames in 2008, he figures that larger demographic changes make eventual ascendancy inevitable so long as the GOP isn’t too terribly inept, despite the unpopularity of the war. He’s not unaware of the dangers supporting this war poses to the Republican Party, but he thinks they can be overcome.

He even sees a possibility of the GOP retaking Congress even as a Democrat wins the presidency. For those of us who think divided government is the least harmful option – it worked out fairly well during the 1990s – that might be a satisfactory least-worst outcome. But I can’t see Republicans winning back Congress without more thoroughly repudiating the war. And I don’t know if I want to be proven wrong or not.

So why does the kind of visible opposition on display last Saturday seem to have so little effect on inside-the-Beltway politics? I suspect it has something to do with the fact that as impressive as this demonstration was, it would require much larger numbers to start to impact the media beyond the local papers. We’re nowhere near the massive numbers willing to demonstrate during the Vietnam war.

Part of the reason, of course, is that there is no military draft. The intensity of opposition to the Vietnam war, at least insofar as it translated into large-scale demonstrations and other kinds of action, declined after the draft was ended. Let’s face, it, a college student facing the possibility of being drafted is more likely to go out and demonstrate than one who can choose to sit out personal involvement.

While there were quite a few people who looked to be student-age in Saturday’s demonstration, my impression – these observations are decidedly impressionistic; I haven’t had the opportunity since then to do a more systematic evaluation – is that the crowd trended considerably older. There were parents of soldiers and others currently serving in the war, but I suspect a lot of people were reliving a piece of their youth by showing up and marching. Whatever the motivation – and I have no reason to believe opposition to the war itself was anything but sincere and heartfelt – there were a lot of gray hairs on Pennsylvania Avenue Saturday.

The mood, insofar as I could tell, was more celebratory than angry. "How do you like the way democracy looks in action?" one obviously pleased middle-aged lady asked me when she saw me taking notes. After I had to leave to return to my weekend obligations (which were pleasant, though I might have liked to stay longer), there were some arrests, but the reports I had suggested that they were somewhat pro-forma, almost Kabuki-like. The police had set up a barrier to mark the outer limits of permissible demonstration area (or "designated free-speech zone?") and some demonstrators jumped them on purpose and were duly arrested. They were all released by the next day.

At about 10th Street the forward progress of the march slowed to a crawl for various reasons, so I headed for the mall, which would give me a more direct route to the Capitol. I passed through a sculpture garden where a jazz quartet was playing, part of a weeklong celebration of Duke Ellington. The crowd there was there for the jazz and seemed blissfully unaware of the antiwar march taking place a few blocks away. And the crowd on the Mall, where all the museums are lined up, was happily trooping from one museum to another, as if the political goings-on on Pennsylvania Avenue weren’t happening at all.

It struck me that the tourists on the mall didn’t look all that different from the marchers. Some had kids in tow and some had dogs. There were young couples holding hands and people who were obviously viewing the monuments and museums for the first time.

Perhaps antiwar demonstrations will not begin to have much of an impact on the political process until they are viewed with something other than indifference by people visiting Washington for the more traditional reasons of tourism and trying to make some connections with this country’s history and heritage.

I passed the museum where a few years ago I saw an impressive exhibition of artworks and artifacts from the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled over almost the entire Middle East at the time of great and growing Muslim power and influence, the early 1500s. That exhibition reminded me what a rich and variegated civilization had once held forth in that part of the world, preserving the wisdom and literature of Greece and Rome until people in Europe were ready to turn to it again – and how in the centuries since the world has seemed to pass the region by. It all made the theory that some in the Arab world resent what they see as their decline and blame it on others, as most of us are wont to do when we contemplate the disappointments and shortcomings of our lives.

Those who pushed the United States into invading Iraq seem to have had little or no appreciation of the complex history or even the present sympathies and divisions there. I don’t know what it will take to get more of the tourists on the mall to view the war as a significant enough outrage to at least write letters to elected officials, if not demonstrate or hold a sign at a busy intersection. There may be a behind-the-scenes plan to reduce the military in Iraq to token numbers. If there is, more demonstrations and other forms of activism could support those efforts. But I’m more a commentator than a strategist, so please do your own thinking and analyzing.

Author: Alan Bock

Get Alan Bock's Waiting to Inhale: The Politics of Medical Marijuana (Seven Locks Press, 2000). Alan Bock is senior essayist at the Orange County Register. He is the author of Ambush at Ruby Ridge (Putnam-Berkley, 1995).