American Disengagement

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As I was heading out into a dark, drippingly wet, appropriately dispiriting New York City day, on my way to the “Fall Out Against the War” march – one of 11 regional antiwar demonstrations held this Saturday – I was thinking: then and now, Vietnam and Iraq. Since the Bush administration had Vietnam on the brain while planning to take down Saddam Hussein’s regime for the home team, it’s hardly surprising that, from the moment its invasion was launched in March 2003, the Vietnam analogy has been on the American brain – and, even domestically, there’s something to be said for it.

As John Mueller, an expert on public opinion and American wars, pointed out back in November 2005, Americans turned against the Iraq War in a pattern recognizable from the Vietnam era (as well as the Korean one) – initial, broad post-invasion support that eroded irreversibly as American casualties rose. “The only thing remarkable about the current war in Iraq,” Mueller wrote, “is how precipitously American public support has dropped off. Casualty for casualty, support has declined far more quickly than it did during either the Korean War or the Vietnam War.” He added, quite correctly, as it turned out: “And if history is any indication, there is little the Bush administration can do to reverse this decline.”

Where the Vietnam analogy distinctly breaks down, however, is in the streets. In the Vietnam era, the demonstrations started small and built slowly over the years toward the massive – in Washington, in cities around the country, and then on campuses nationwide. In those years, as anger, anxiety, and outrage mounted, militancy rose, and yet the range of antiwar demonstrators grew to include groups as diverse as “businessmen against the war” and large numbers of ever more vociferous Vietnam vets, often just back from the war itself. Almost exactly the opposite pattern – the vets aside – has occurred with Iraq. The prewar demonstrations were monstrous, instantaneously gigantic, at home and abroad. Millions of people grasped just where we were going in late 2002 and early 2003, and grasped as well that the Bush dream of an American-occupied Iraq would lead to disaster and death galore. The New York Times, usually notoriously unimpressed with demonstrations, referred to the massed demonstrators then as the second “superpower” on a previously one superpower planet. And it did look, as the Times headline went, as if there were “a new power in the streets.”

But here was the strange thing, as the “lone superpower” faltered, as the Bush administration and the Pentagon came to look ever less super, ever less victorious, ever less powerful, so did that other superpower. Discouragement of a special sort seemed to set in – initially perhaps that the invasion had not been stopped and that, in Washington, no one in a tone-deaf administration even seemed to be listening. Still, through the first years of the war, on occasion, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators could be gathered in one spot to march massively, even cheerfully; these were crowds filled with “first timers” (who were proud to tell you so); and, increasingly, with the families of soldiers stationed in Iraq (or Afghanistan), or of soldiers who had died there, and even, sometimes, with some of the soldiers themselves, as well as contingents of vets from the Vietnam era, now older, grayer, but still vociferously antiwar.

However, over the years, unlike in the Vietnam era, the demonstrations shrank, and somehow the anxiety, the anger – though it remained suspended somewhere in the American ether – stopped manifesting itself so publicly, even as the war went on and on. Or put another way, perhaps the anger went deeper and turned inward, like a scouring agent. Perhaps it went all the way into what was left of an American belief system, into despair about the unresponsiveness of the government – with paralyzing effect. As another potentially more disastrous war with Iran edges into sight, the response has been limited largely to what might be called the professional demonstrators. The surge of hope, of visual creativity, of spontaneous interaction, of the urge to turn out, that arose in those prewar demonstrations now seemed so long gone, replaced by a far more powerful sense that nothing anyone could do mattered in the least.

When it comes to the Vietnam analogy domestically, the question that still hangs in the air is whether, as in the latter years of the Vietnam era, the soldiers, in Iraq (and Afghanistan) as well as here at home, will take matters into their own hands; whether, as with Vietnam, in the end Iraq (and Iran) will be left to the vets of this war and their families and friends – or to no one at all.

The Consensus Gap

Here’s the strange thing: As we all know, the Washington Consensus – Democrats as well as Republicans, in Congress as in the Oval Office – has been settling ever deeper into the Iraqi imperial project. As a town, official Washington, it seems, has come to terms with a post-surge occupation strategy that will give new meaning to what, in the days after the 2003 invasion, quickly came to be known as the Q-word (for the Vietnam-era “quagmire”). The president has made it all too clear that he will fight his war in Iraq to the last second of his administration – and, if he has anything to say about it (as indeed he might), well beyond. In their “classified campaign strategy for the country,” our ambassador in Baghdad, Ryan Crocker, and the president’s surge commander, Gen. David Petraeus, are reportedly already planning their war-fighting and occupation policy through the summer of 2009, and so into the next presidency. The three leading Democratic candidates for president, Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, and John Edwards, have refused to guarantee that American troops will even be totally out of Iraq by 2013, the end of a first term in office – as essentially has every Republican candidate except Ron Paul, the libertarian congressman from Texas. In fact, in Washington, the ongoing war is now such a given that it’s hardly being discussed at the moment (as the one in Afghanistan has never been). The focus has instead shifted to the next possible administration monstrosity – a possible air assault on Iran that would essentially guarantee a global recession or depression.

Meanwhile, the American people – having formed their own Iraq Study Group as early as 2005 – have moved in another direction entirely. On this, the opinion polls have been, and remain (as Mueller suggested they would), unanimous. When Americans are asked how the president is handling the war in Iraq, disapproval figures run 67 percent to 26 percent in the most recent CBS News poll; 68 percent to 30 percent in the ABC News/Washington Post poll; and, according to CNN’s pollsters, opposition to the war itself runs at a 65 percent to 34 percent clip. As for “staying” some course in Iraq to 2013 or beyond, that CBS News poll, typically, has 45 percent of Americans wanting all troops out in “less than a year” and 72 percent in “one to two years” – in other words, not by the end of, but the beginning of, the next presidential term in office. (The ABC News/Washington Post poll indicates, among other things, that, by 55 percent to 40 percent, Americans feel the Democrats in Congress have not gone “far enough in opposing the war in Iraq”; and that they want Congress to rein in the administration’s soaring, off-the-books war financing requests.)

In other words, the Washington elite are settling ever deeper, ever less responsively, into the Big Muddy, while the American Consensus has come down quite decisively elsewhere. For all intents and purposes, it seems that most Americans are acting as if some policy page had already been turned, as if Iraq was so been there, done that. Perhaps many are also assuming that the present administration is beyond unreachable and that any successor will be certain to fix the problem; or, alternately, that nothing the public can do in relation to the Washington Consensus, including voting, matters one whit; or some helpless, hopeless combination of the two and who knows what else.

As I sat in that rumbling subway car on my way to the march in lower Manhattan, I kept wondering who, between the Iraq-forever-and-a-day crowd and the been-there-done-that folks might think it worth the bother to turn out at an antiwar rally on such a lousy day. And it was then that a brief encounter from the summer came to mind.

I’m now 63 years old and increasingly feel as if my 1950s childhood came out of another universe. Sometime in August, I ran into a “kid” – maybe in his early thirties – employed by a consulting firm to do what once would have been the work of a federal government employee. He gamely tried to explain the sinews of his privatized world to me. As he spoke, I began to wonder whether he was interested in working in the federal government, not just as a consultant to it. To ask the question, I began explaining how I had grown up dreaming about being part of the government – the State Department, actually. It seemed to me then like an honorable, if not downright glorious, destiny to represent your country to others. It was a feeling that left me deep into the 1960s when I had, in fact, already been accepted into the United States Information Agency (from which I would have, a good deal less gloriously, propagandized for my country). It was only then that anger over the Vietnam War swept me elsewhere.

I told the young consultant that, when young, I had dreamed of doing my “civic duty” and his eyes promptly widened in visible disbelief. He rolled that phrase around for a moment, then said (all dialogue recreated from my faulty memory): “Civic duty? No one in my world thinks about it that way any more.” He paused and added, hesitantly, “But I might actually like to be in the bureaucracy for a while.”

That was my moment to widen my eyes. What I once thought of as “the government” had, in the space of mere decades, become “the bureaucracy,” even to someone who would consider joining it – and, the worst of it was, I knew he was right. This was one genuine accomplishment of a quarter-century-plus of the Republican “revolution” (and the Clinton interregnum). All those presidential candidates, running as small-government outsiders ready to bring Washington big spenders to heel, had, on coming to power, only fed that government mercilessly, throwing untold numbers of tax dollars at the Pentagon and the military-industrial complex, ensuring that they would become ever more bloated, powerful, and labyrinthine, ever more focused on their own well-being, and ever less civic; ensuring that the government as a whole would be ever more “bureaucratic,” ever less “ept,” and – always – ever more oppressive, with ever more police-state-like powers.

All that had been strangled in the process – made smaller, if you will – was the federal government’s ability to deliver actual services to the population that paid for it. All that was made smaller in the world beyond Washington was whatever residual faith existed that this was “your” government, that it actually represented you in any way. As the state’s bureaucratic, military, and policing powers bloated, so, too, did the electoral process – and lost as well was the belief that your vote could determine anything much at all.

Looking back, this was, in a sense, what 9/11 really meant in America. The one thing that a government, which had long reinforced its own powers, should have been able to deliver was intelligence and protection. So it wasn’t, I suspect, just those towers that crumbled on that day. What also crumbled was a residual faith in “we, the people.” This was actually what the Bush administration played on when it urged Americans not to mobilize for its Global War on Terror, but simply to go about their business, to – as the president famously put it 16 days after 9/11 – “get down to Disney World in Florida. Take your families and enjoy life, the way we want it to be enjoyed.” In a sense, Bush and his top officials were just doing what came naturally – further sidelining the American people so they could fight their private wars in peace (so to speak).

The “bureaucracy” had strangled the very idea of the “civic.” Who would even think about entering such a world today as a “civic duty,” rather than as a career move; or imagine Washington as “our” government; or that anyone inside the famed Beltway, or near the K-Street hive of lobbyists, or in Congress or the Oval Office would give a damn about you? This is why, at a deeper level, the Washington Consensus today has next to nothing to do with the American one.

American Disengagement

When people look back on the Vietnam era, few comment on how connected the size and vigor of demonstrations were to a conception of government in Washington as responsible to the American people. Even the youthful radicals of the time, in their outrage, still generally believed that Washington was not living up to some ideal they had absorbed in their younger years. Whatever they were denouncing, the founders of Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) in their Port Huron Statement, for instance, spoke without irony or discomfort of “[f]reedom and equality for each individual, government of, by, and for the people – these American values we found good, principles by which we could live as men.”

Though they may not have known it, they were still believers, after a fashion. By and large, the demonstrators of that moment not only believed that Washington should listen, but when, for instance, they chanted angrily, “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” that President Lyndon Baines Johnson would be listening. (And, in fact, he was. He called it “that horrible song.”) Which young people today would believe that in their gut? Who would believe such a thing of “the bureaucracy”?

Don’t forget, demonstrating is another kind of civic duty – but perhaps a waning one. I was struck this weekend that, even among people I know, many of whom had demonstrated in the Vietnam era and had turned out again in the early years of this war, next to none were on the streets this Saturday. Most were simply going about their business with other, better things to do.

The fact is: Attending a march like Saturday’s is still, for me, something like an ingrained civic habit, like… gulp… voting, which I can’t imagine not doing – even when it has little meaning to me – or keeping informed by reading a newspaper daily in print (something that, it seems, just about no one under 25 does anymore). These are the habits of a lifetime, and they don’t disappear quickly. But when they’re gone, or if they don’t make it to the next generation intact, it’s hard, if not impossible, to get them back.

If you need another point of comparison, consider TV comic Stephen Colbert’s joke (or is it?) race for the presidency in his home state of South Carolina (or the fact that, in a Rasmussen Report telephone poll, he garnered 13-percent support in the Republican field just days after announcing his run). Again, I’m old enough to remember the last time something like this happened. Sometime in the late 1950s – the details escape me – a few fans of the cartoon strip Pogo decided to launch a “Pogo for President” campaign in election season. (Mind you, that strip, about a talking opossum and his pals in Okefenokee Swamp, was a classic with a critical, political edge. Who could forget the moment when Howland Owl and the turtle, Churchy LaFemme, decided to enter the nuclear age by creating uranium from a combination of a Yew tree and a geranium?) In the strip, Pogo did indeed run for president, and its creator, Walt Kelly, used that hook to promote perfectly real voter-registration campaigns. But – as I remember it – he was horrified by the real-life campaign for his character and insisted that it be stopped. You didn’t, after all, make a mockery of American democracy that way. It just wasn’t funny.

No longer. Now, the “character” is launched onto the field of electoral play by the creator himself, who also happens to be promoting a book in need of publicity; and Colbert’s ploy is hailed as a kind of transcendent reality, not simply a mockery of it, even on that most mainstream of Sunday yak shows, Tim Russert’s Meet the Press. Of course, the joke – and it’s a grim one indeed – is on what’s left of American democracy, which, as Colbert obviously means to prove, is the real mockery of our moment.

Perhaps we all have to hope that, when he’s done with the election, he’ll turn his attention to demonstrations in a world increasingly uncongenial to “civic duty” of any sort. It seems that we’ve entered a time in which even demonstrating can be outsourced, privatized, left to the pros, or simply dismissed (like so much else) as hopeless, a waste of time. So I was heading toward this demonstration, wondering not why more people weren’t there, but why anyone would be.

Penned in on the Streets

And here’s how it felt:

“From the moment I looked across the aisle in the subway and saw the woman with the upside-down, hand-painted sign – an anguished face, blood, and ‘no war’ on it – and she noted my sign, also resting against my knees but modestly turned away from view, and gave me the thumbs up sign, I knew things would be okay. As my wife, a friend, and I exited the subway at the 50th Street station on the west side of New York, I noted three college-age women bent over a subway bench magic-marking in messages on their blank sign boards, a signal that we were heading for some special do-it-yourself event.”

Oops! Sorry, that was my description of the first moments of a massive antiwar march – half a million or more people took part – in New York City on Feb. 15, 2003, just over a month before the invasion of Iraq was launched.

On my subway car Saturday, there were no obvious demonstrators carrying signs; no eager faces or hands ready to give a thumbs-up sign; no one who even looked like he or she was heading for a demonstration. (Of course, I had no handmade sign and didn’t look that way either.)

A signature aspect of this era’s antiwar demonstrations, from the first prewar giants on, has been the spontaneous, personal signage, often a literal sea of waving individual expressions of indignation, sardonic humor, hope, despair, absurdity, you name it.

On Saturday, most of the signs were printed and clearly organizationally inspired; not all, however, as the shots by Tam Turse, the young photojournalist who accompanied me, eloquently indicate.

As for the police, well, here’s how it felt with them:

“They still had us more or less confined to the sidewalk and a bit of the street on one side of the avenue, and cars were still crawling by. But already demonstrators were moving the orange police cones quickly set up for this unexpected crowd on an unexpectedly occupied avenue ever farther out into the traffic. Soon, to relieve pressure, the police opened a side street and with a great cheer our section of the rolling non-march burst through up to Second [Avenue] where we found ourselves in an even greater mass of humanity, heading north on our own avenue without a single car, truck, or bus.”

Uh-oh, my mistake again! That, too, was the Feb. 15, 2003 demo. This time, I came out of the subway at 23rd Street and was promptly accosted by a confused young German woman, postcards clutched in one hand. She pointed at two blue mailboxes on the corner and asked, in charmingly accented English, how you put the cards in. “Oh,” I said, “let me show you.” And I promptly pulled on each mailbox handle, only to find them locked. The police had undoubtedly done this as an anti-terror measure. The woman was relieved, she told me, that she wasn’t “mad.” No, I assured her, it was the world that was mad, not her.

The rest of the march was, in essence, a police event, the demonstrators penned in by moveable metal barricades, “guarded” often by more police personnel than onlookers. From the moment we began to march in the rain, the police presence was overwhelming, starting with a well-marked NYPD “Sky Watch” tower, a mobile tower that can be raised anywhere in which police observers can spy on you from behind a Darth Vader-style darkened window. In fact, we marchers were penned in by the police as we headed south for Foley Square, cut off, for instance, from the large cross street at 14th by a row of dismounted police using their motorcycles as a barricade. Police vehicles and police on foot moved slowly in front of the demonstration as well as behind it. Police even marched in the demonstration (though not as demonstrators). Essentially, it was, as all rallies and demonstrations now seem to be in our growing Homeland Security statelet, a police march.

Led by a sizable contingent of soldiers, vets, and military families, there were perhaps 10,000 marchers – a rare occasion when my own rough estimate fit the normal police undercount – on a dreary, rainy day, which is no small thing. Each of them left his or her life for a few hours to take a walk (or, in the case of one elderly lady, to be wheeled, encased in plastic, or for two “grannies for peace” to be peddled in a volunteer pedicab) in mild discomfort, to chant, to call out, even in a few creative cases, to display feelings on individual placards or constructions or in group tableaux. Each of them, for his or her own reason, was civic, even global. Add up all the people who did this in 11 cities nationwide, and the numbers aren’t unimpressive. But with unending war, as well as perpetual death and destruction on the Bush administration menu, with the horizon darkened by the possibility of a strike against Iran, and a population which has turned its back on most of the above, it was, nonetheless, clearly underwhelming.

Meanwhile, in Iraq on Saturday, according to news reports, it was just an ordinary day, the usual harvest of decomposing corpses, deadly roadside blasts, assassinations, kidnappings, U.S. raids, and, bizarrely, the breakfast poisoning of 100 Iraqi soldiers. One American death was announced on Saturday. We don’t yet know who the soldier was, only that he died “when he sustained small arms fire while conducting operations in Salah ad Din [Province].” He could, of course, have come from New York City, but the odds are that he came from a small town somewhere in the American hinterlands, from perhaps Latta, S.C., or Lone Pine, Calif.

He might, or might not, have ever visited Disney World. He might have joined the overstretched U.S. armed forces for the increasingly massive bonuses the military is now offering to bind the poor and futureless close in a war that has been rejected by the American people; or perhaps he simply signed on with some of that residual sense of civic duty that’s fast fleeing the land; or, possibly, both of the above. Perhaps, if he hadn’t died, he would, like 12 former captains who recently wrote “The Real Iraq We Knew” for the Washington Post op-ed page and called our “best option… to leave Iraq immediately,” have returned to speak out against the war. Who knows. Already, for 3,839 Americans in Iraq and 451 Americans in Afghanistan, we will never have a way of knowing.

Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute’s, is the co-founder of the American Empire Project. His book, The End of Victory Culture (University of Massachusetts Press), has just been thoroughly updated in a newly issued edition that deals with victory culture’s crash-and-burn sequel in Iraq.

Tam Turse is a photojournalist working in New York City. Her photos of the demonstration discussed in this piece can be viewed by clicking here.

Copyright 2007 Tom Engelhardt

Author: Tom Engelhardt

An editor in publishing for the last 25 years, Tom Engelhardt is the author of The End of Victory Culture, a history of American triumphalism in the Cold War era, now out in a revised edition with a new preface and afterword, and Mission Unaccomplished, TomDispatch Interviews With American Iconoclasts and Dissenters. He is at present consulting editor for Metropolitan Books, a fellow of the Nation Institute, and a teaching fellow at the journalism school of the University of California, Berkeley. Visit his Web site. This article originally appeared at To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from