Ritter Gets It Wrong

It’s odd that just as the tide turns irrevocably against the U.S. occupation of Iraq – both here and there – the otherwise steady Scott Ritter panics. He recently posted a harsh critique of the contemporary U.S. antiwar movement on his blog. In it, Ritter makes three main claims:

(1) There is a “growing despondency” among antiwar activists because they see that “the cause of the antiwar movement … is in fact a losing cause as currently executed.” Even worse, the movement is “on the verge of complete collapse.”

(2) The movement lacks “any notion of strategic thinking, operational planning, or sense of sound tactics.” This is made worse by a “failure to have planned effective follow-up efforts, failure to have implemented any supporting operations, an inability to recognize opportunities as they emerge, and a lack of resources to exploit such opportunities if in fact they were recognized to begin with.” The movement lacks organization, central leadership, and “a mechanism to effectively muster and control resources.”

(3) The movement needs a centralized intelligence operation/think tank to generate antiwar ideas and policies, and a “laser-like focus” to replace the panoply of left-wing issues and causes that confuse and divert from the antiwar message. We’re unable to produce facts during debates, and/or our “facts” are inaccurate and incomplete. The mass media “treats the antiwar movement as a joke because many times that is exactly what the antiwar movement, through its lack of preparation and grasp of the facts, allows itself to become.”

We address each of these claims below.

No doubt social movements of all sorts – including the antiwar movement – might always be bigger, more organized, and more effective than they actually are. This has been the lament of every thoughtful activist from time immemorial. To paraphrase Donald Rumsfeld – not something we often do – you resist war with the antiwar movement you have, not the one you wish you had. For some indicators of the health of the peace movement, let’s take a look at just the last half-year or so. The AFL-CIO called for the “rapid return” of troops in Iraq in July 2005. Dozens of local, state, and national labor organizations passed similar, often stronger resolutions. Some one hundred or more municipalities across the country – including Baltimore, Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco – passed resolutions to bring the troops home. Public opinion turned strongly against the war – and the war president – as shown by a torrent of polls. The opinions of the troops in Iraq were polled recently: 72 percent were for complete withdrawal by the end of 2006. Faith communities weighed in. The Union of Reform Judaism – the spiritual home of a million and a half American Jews – resolved last November to bring the troops home. The United Methodist Church – whose members include George Bush and Dick Cheney – called not only for troop withdrawal in October 2005, but for accountability for those “responsible for leading us into this disastrous war.” Thousands of former military personnel (including Gen. Newbold most recently), diplomats, and intelligence professionals denounced the war and actively oppose it.

Several new antiwar veterans’ organizations – led by those who served and bled in Iraq – have formed. Coordinated citizen lobbying efforts have changed and emboldened members of Congress leading to a growing menu of antiwar bills. “Full disclosure” military recruitment campaigns continue to bedevil Army recruiters, who are finding it harder to sign up enough youth to keep the war going. Thousands of antiwar events took place across the country on the war’s third anniversary. The agitation for a Department of Peace gathers steam in the midst of Bush’s failed preemptive war. Increasingly coordinated and focused political efforts challenge congressional incumbents whose cowardice and failure in the face of the will to war permits the debacle to proceed. We’re currently gearing up for the season’s big antiwar demonstration in New York City on April 29. This does not sound to us like a “losing cause” or a movement on the “verge of complete collapse.”

What Ritter reads as “despondency” is instead profound sorrow for the loss of lives, treasure, opportunities, and moral standing over the past few years. At the same time, however, this sadness deepens the desire of activists to work harder, commit more fully, and search more effectively for the means to bring about enduring systemic change. Shared grief and rage also compel activists to reach out for one another. Rather than the tottering Tower of Babel of the disparate and the dispirited that Ritter sees, we discern a dendrite-like emergence of new alliances furthered by a wired world. Stopping this and the next war (against Iran) is our top priority, but it’s not our only one. More and more of us see that the state’s power to make war is the same power that enables and reinforces other crimes and injustices, and we’re vocal about this recognition.

Again, any and every social movement – like public or private entities of every description – could think, plan, and act better. But the antiwar movement is not the unified empirical entity assumed by Ritter. It cannot be ordered this way or that as he prefers. There’s no horse to bring to water, let alone force to drink. Social movements are not corporations or military units. They generally have no CEOs or commanding generals. Movements are made up of coalitions (e.g., United for Peace and Justice), which are made up of tendencies or spectrums (e.g., Christian), which are made up of organizations at global, national, state, and local levels (e.g., Pax Christi), which are made up of individuals (e.g., peace-loving Catholics). Try pinning – to mix equine metaphors – a centralized tail on that donkey.

Ritter’s critique of the movement’s “leftism” is ironic in light of his recommendation that it operate along Leninist lines. He would run it from a centralized headquarters, out of which universal directives issue forth to the masses. He would test the loyalty and ideology of members, “fellow travelers,” and converts. Imagine not welcoming John Murtha into the movement (whether he wants in or not)! Strategy would apparently be the preserve of some politburo, but it’s hard to know: we just get criticized for our lack of “strategic thinking.” Has Ritter not encountered the fresh ideas coming out of European peace research institutes, or the Friends Committee on National Legislation, or the Institute for Policy Studies? Even our dynamic action repertoire – ranging from silent weekly vigils to raucous direct actions – does not include “sound tactics.” We’re clueless about opportunities (Abu Ghraib anyone?) and about how to marshal and deploy the resources necessary to exploit them. If only we immersed ourselves in the correct theory (“from Caesar to Napoleon, from Clausewitz to Sun Tzu”) guided by a right-thinking vanguardist (Ritter himself)! Forget “we must be the change we wish to see in the world,” or “there’s no way to peace, peace is the way.” Reminds us of the Bolshevik critique of the Mensheviks.

Ritter must realize that stopping and preventing wars is what President Bush might call “hard work.” Just as it took decades to build and refine the contemporary U.S. warfare state, it will take decades to dismantle and replace. It’s not the “American people [that] seem to be addicted to war and violence,” it’s their leaders, and a militaristic culture from which escape is very difficult. For example, we must replace the omnipresence of military recruiters in our high schools by full-time peace and conflict-resolution educators. Becoming a peace activist is for many ordinary Americans the equivalent of a religious conversion. We’ve been so mistrained, miseducated, lied to, and disciplined that as Ritter knows – himself a recent convert to the antiwar cause – making the shift is often wrenching and painful. We need sympathy, support, and solidarity, not vague and sweeping criticism.

Ritter apparently hangs out with different antiwar activists than we do. We marvel at the ever growing knowledge, wisdom, and strategic insight of peace activists from all walks of life. We know at least a hundred local activists here in our corner of upstate New York who could go toe-to-toe with Condoleezza Rice or Donald Rumsfeld, Ann Coulter or Bill O’Reilly. Indeed, we’ve yet to witness a well-read, articulate opponent of the war bested in an exchange with a war supporter. How could they be? All the facts are on our side.

And what to make of Ritter’s claim about mainstream media-movement relations!? Talk about blaming the victim. The MSM doesn’t ignore us because we can’t hold up our end of the debate; the MSM ignores us because it’s generally part of the same pro-war corporate-government system that prevents genuine debate. How difficult was it to show the immorality or illegality of the war beforehand, and how hard is it to counter “staying the course” now? We remind Ritter of the Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) study of network news coverage the week before and after Colin Powell’s February 2003 United Nations presentation. Of all 393 on-camera sources on PBS, NBC, ABC, and CBS evening newscasts, only three (less than 1 percent) were identified with organized protests or antiwar groups. We remind Ritter of the reporting of independent journalists such as Amy Goodman who have relentlessly pounded away at the stenographic quality of MSM coverage since the run-up to the war.

But the movement also makes the corporate media a “front” in its struggle against the war. Here in the capital region of New York, activists consistently call the local corporate media on its poor, unfair, or absent coverage of the war and the movement against it. Local movement activists regularly pass regional editors articles addressing the underlying causes of dissent. Movement spokespeople are always available to the local media for interviews and perspective sharing. As a consequence, the coverage has improved, and the community of dissent broadens. No, media coverage is nowhere near what we’d like to see, but it’s better than it was. Just several weeks ago, during the coordinated actions commemorating the third anniversary of the war, events kicked off with a “National Day of Local Media Protest.” Activists here rented a billboard for our message – “Support the Troops, Bring Them Home Now!” – and held a press conference beneath it. Movement intellectuals and media critics have produced more books, reports, videos, and columns criticizing the corporate media’s enabling of the war in the first place, and skewering its myriad failures since, than during any previous war. In short, this is one of the – if not the – most media-savvy antiwar movements in American history.

We’re in it for the long haul. Red-baiting, warrantless domestic spying, and the PATRIOT Act will not deter us. Neither will we mindlessly ape past actions or approaches that appear to no longer work to bring war to an end. We aim to convince as many of our fellow citizens as possible to join us. We intend to ramp up the pressure on the war-makers. We hope Scott Ritter will join us.