Tramp, Tramp, Tramp, the Boys (and Girls) Are Marching…

So over the weekend I got talked into attending the big rally in downtown DC against war in Iraq. It was certainly a huge enough event; the organizers estimated 200,000 attendees, which I think is a little optimistic, but even so the sheer scale of the thing was impressive.

I’ve written in this space before about my opposition to a war with Iraq. So why was it that, standing in the midst of a sea of people who all agreed with me, the strongest feeling I had was that I didn’t belong there?

It was a strong, strong feeling. As I listened to the speakers speak and watched the marchers march, I just couldn’t shake the feeling that just because I disagreed with Bush and Co. about war didn’t mean I agreed with the marchers either.

President Bush has been very successful so far in polarizing the debate. His people pose the question as a binary one: either you support fighting terrorism by striking Iraq, or you support the status quo. This event was really the first organized attempt to put forward a response to that message.

And that response, in my opinion, fell right into the trap Bush & Co. have laid: it accepted the proposition that the question was simple and binary. It enthusiastically endorsed the status quo.

Now, it’s hard to lay the blame for this at the feet of the organizers: if you’re going to get 200,000 together, it’s damn hard to get them to agree on anything, much less get them to concur on a long list of points. The only plausible course for such an event is to boil the issues down to the broadest possible message, something that everyone there can agree on, rather than try to articulate a more detailed message. In this case, the simple message was “No War in Iraq.” Which was something that everyone there could agree on. But ask them why there shouldn’t be a war in Iraq, and you’d get answers that covered pretty much the full spectrum of opinion:

  • All war is bad;
  • Iraq hasn’t done anything to provoke us;
  • Big Oil is pushing Bush to open up Iraqi oil fields;
  • The people of Iraq have suffered enough under sanctions already, to no effect;
  • America is just exercising its imperialist tendencies;

… and so on, and so forth. In short, ask the big question — why — and you’d turn a simple message (“No war”) into a tower of Babel.

But here’s the thing — I don’t buy Bush’s proposition that this is an either/or question. I see alternatives. For example, Bush says that we need to invade Iraq to fight terrorism. Funny, when he was arguing for an attack on Iraq back during the campaign, he never mentioned terrorism; and he’s yet to put forward any convincing evidence that Iraq is related in any way to al Qaeda or the Sep. 11 conspirators. There is much more evidence, for example, linking Saudi Arabia to Sep. 11 than there is linking Iraq (at least, evidence in the public domain), and yet we have yet to articulate how the Bush Doctrine (if you harbor terrorists, we’re coming for ya) applies to the Saudis. Ditto for Egypt, and Pakistan, and North Korea, and all the other countries who have left smoking guns lying around over the last year.

So that’s the first thing — Bush’s proposed action (invade Iraq) does not necessarily follow from his intent (fight terrorism). In fact, given limited resources, you could argue that it detracts from that intent by diverting money and manpower from theaters where they could be more profitably employed. Without further evidence, it just looks like we’ve targeted Iraq not because we want to fight terrorism, but because it looks like an easy target — we know we can take them without major consequences, something we can’t say about, for example, North Korea.

That’s my biggest objection to the war — I just don’t think it’s going to do what Bush says it will. I don’t think it’s going to impact the terrorist threat substantively. But at Saturday’s rally, you’d have been hard pressed to find anyone articulating anything like that point of view. Instead, the speakers almost universally bought Bush’s false proposition hook, line, and sinker — they were simply against all war, especially wars launched by the United States. Some tried to stir dormant memories of Vietnam; others flatly argued that any American action equalled unjustified aggression. But the dominant sense seemed to be that war, any war, was simply a waste of effort.

Don’t believe me? Check out the “war referendum” that’s being sponsored by the organizers of the rally, International ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism). They circulated copies of this through the crowd, and are asking people to vote for or against it either at one of their rallies or through their Web site. (Of course, since these are the only polling venues, this thing is gonna come out more tilted than an Iraqi election. But I digress.) Here’s some language from that referendum that I think captures the sense of the crowd pretty well:

We believe that it is unconscionable to send young people in the U.S. armed forces into combat in an illegal war that serves only the interests of Big Oil.

Instead of spending $200 billion of taxpayers’ money on another war in the Middle East, the funds should be used to create jobs and finance education, housing, heathcare and other vital human needs.

So, in other words, war will take money away from social programs at home, so we shouldn’t do it.

Um, no! That’s where I step aside. We need a strategy to destroy al Qaeda, or else it will continue to slaughter innocent people as it has in New York, Washington, Bali, and elsewhere. I’ve been saying that since they bombed our embassies in East Africa back in the late ’90s. Will Bush’s proposed war stop al Qaeda? Nobody seems able to articulate how it could. But could I see a war being justified if a state was proven to be harboring al Qaeda operatives, and was giving them aid and shelter? Yes, I could.

In other words: I say no to this war, but not to all war.

And that’s where I felt pretty alone at the rally: there just weren’t a lot of people willing to allow that some wars could be just. One speaker did, however, to his credit: the Rev. Jesse Jackson spoke forcefully and eloquently of the need to keep our eye on the ball. He even drew the only boos of the day when he argued that the first Gulf War was justified, since it was a clear response to international aggression. You wouldn’t think that would be a controversial position, but as I said, he got some boos (though he plowed straight through them without blinking — that man is a truly amazing public speaker)!

Most other speakers didn’t bother to make the distinctions that Rev. Jackson did. One (who was presented as a leader in the “Korean-American antiwar community”) even argued that he felt kinship with the people of Iraq, since his country had suffered a war of American aggression 50 years ago. I suppose he was speaking of the Korean War, which (a) was launched by North Korea, and (b) was propped up for years by the intervention of the Chinese. America defended South Korea in line with its treaty requirements — how does that constitute “American aggression”?

So I went, and I marched, but I felt hollow inside as I did it. I don’t want us to retreat back into isolationism. I don’t want us to shrink from the challenge Osama bin Laden has thrown at us. I want us to stand up, but stand up for the values that make America great: freedom, self-determination, democracy, and internationalism. Bush has yet to make the case that his war aims encompass any of those; but I was hard pressed to find a strategy from anyone at the rally that did, either. Surely someone out there is thinking about these things? Surely someone is sketching out a way to draw the poison out of the Middle East?

Well, if so, where are they? And what’s their plan? I would really, really love to hear it. I think a lot of people would.