Alan Bock: Building A Peace Movement In Wartime

With the launching of cruise missiles and bombs the war is truly on. It would be prudent to take American leaders at their word that this is likely to be a protracted conflict – think Cold War rather than Gulf War – if only because war is the health of the state and a protracted war can serve as justification for accretions of state power.

There may be episodes of relative calm and respite from direct military conflict – times when, as President Bush would have it, the forces of freedom are enjoying invisible victories over the invisible enemy. But it is probably wise to expect something resembling a wartime footing for at least several years and possibly more.


One could argue that this is only a more active phase of a continuing conflict. Back in the 1980s sociologist Robert Nesbitt gave the Jefferson address for the Smithsonian Institution and noted that in his view what would surprise the founders the most about the United States was that it had been in a constant state of war for 70 years and counting. Most Americans thought active war would end or at least ratchet downward a bit with the demise of the Soviet Union and the end of communism as a worldwide threat.

Quibbles from neocons aside, however, the defense budget was not really reduced all that much and U.S. commitments were certainly not scaled back. The propensity to meddle in the troubled affairs of other countries never abated. The Clintonistas might have preferred symbolic skirmishes and bombing from 15,000 feet to the kind of hand-to-hand combat that some traditionalists believe is the defining characteristic of true manhood for other mothers’ sons. But they continued to intervene, and the regnant ideology – that bombs and military action are the most effective if not the only way to deal with nasty folk out there in the rest of the world – was reinforced rather than seriously challenged.

Nonetheless, the missiles and bombs of the last few days represent a serious ratcheting up of military hostilities. With military hostilities will come changes in domestic policies and repression, from the relatively gentle repression of self-censorship in the face of war enthusiasm to much less gentle forms.

So what are those who believe in peaceful policies and restraint in the rest of the world to do during these relatively active phases of hostility?


There’s an old saw to the effect that patriotism is the love of one’s own country, while nationalism is hostility toward some other country or countries. It’s a simplistic distinction that might not be entirely valid in every case. But it’s a useful distinction with a certain amount of analytical power.

If that is the distinction, I’m a patriot but not a nationalist. I would urge other antiwar activists and writers to think about adopting a similar stance if they can do so conscientiously.


There are people who genuinely believe America is a pox on the earth and the source of most of the globalist capitalist evil that threatens everything good, true and beautiful in the world. If that’s really their sincere belief, bless ’em. But I don’t think that viewpoint will sell very well in the American body politic.

I’m an enthusiastic capitalist – unfortunately a theorist rather than a practitioner, so I have trouble meeting my mortgage payment every month. I think that what mainly afflicts the troubled spots of the earth is a lack of capitalism – or of free markets, to refine the terms a little bit. What irks me most about US foreign policy is not that it spreads anything resembling capitalism – though it often enough does serve the interests of certain US mega-corporations – but that it subverts genuine free trade and free markets.

All that said, as the war on terrorism drags on – and I think our would-be masters intend to drag it on for as long as they can, using it to enhance state power at home and abroad – I’m more than happy to join hands and form coalitions with people who believe that the IMF is an instrument of global capitalism instead of global socialism, so long as they’re sincerely interested in slowing down the spread of global militarism.


But I, for one, will express myself in terms of American patriotism, of this country being true to its origins, ideals and better angels (and the real wishes of the majority of American citizens), rather than characterizing the United States as a demonic force in the world. I yield to few in my criticism of US foreign policy as fashioned by arrogant ignoramuses with educations so incomplete that they are barely aware of the vast stretches of their ignorance. But I think of America more as a blundering, essentially good-natured giant rather than a malignant force – though the results are often the same.

Insofar as people can do so and still be true to themselves, I would urge others to avoid characterizing America as evil.

One of the reasons the United States is ill-suited to the role of world policeman is that for various reasons of history, geography and culture, few Americans know very much or care to know very much about the rest of the world. (Unfortunately, too many of those with an interest are more interested in trying to run the world than in trying to understand it.) As a consequence, most Americans are baffled and then indignant when confronted with a litany of the sins of the CIA and American hegemonists and the implication that this country is a malignant sore on the world.

Most Americans know that they aren’t personally malignant, and in fact are generous and openhearted. They find it difficult to take in the idea that their country is malignant, and are more likely to reject the idea than think about it when confronted with a hostile presentation.

On the other hand, most Americans don’t have much confidence in politicians or the government, and might be open to the idea that they are making horrendous mistakes, either because they fail to understand the full implications of their actions or because institutional imperatives push them in the direction of unwise actions. So I advocate a patriotic tone – even a reminder that it is not only our birthright but to some extent our American duty to be willing to criticize the government and hold it in check – rather than a blame-America-first attitude.

KEEPING THE CRITICISM GOING Speaking of America First, I do think it is imperative not to follow in the footsteps of those early critics of American interventionism and war fever in at least one respect. Once Pearl Harbor was attacked and the United States declared war in 1941, almost all the members of the America First Committee were essentially silent in public for the duration of the war. Some became supporters of the war effort and others kept their criticism or misgivings to themselves, whether because of fear of offending the majority or essential patriotism.

One can make a case either way as to whether that was the wise course. In today’s circumstances, however, I believe it is essential that critics of the War Party maintain a steady drumbeat of criticism and sometimes opposition. For starters, Congress hasn’t declared war, despite all the metaphors and military action, so there’s no justification for wartime repression of speech and criticism. If we’re smart, it should be responsible criticism, delivered in measured tones and backed by solid research and a reasonable appreciation of the facts as we are able to determine them.

There may be circumstances in which it is more effective to criticize particular tactics or actions rather than getting to the root of what’s wrong with American foreign policy in every presentation. We should be prepared for the likelihood that we will sometimes get little attention and will sometimes be dismissed as cranks. But we should determine that we will not relent in our determination to change American foreign policy over time – which means we have to be willing to criticize it at almost every step.

I have no idea how dangerous this course might be for some. It is certainly likely that patriotism will morph into jingoism from time to time and critics will be threatened. It is possible that we will face official sanction, especially if Attorney General John Ashcroft gets the kind of repressive "anti-terrorist" legislation he craves. But I think the best defense is to establish a record at the outset of calm, reasoned, thoughtful, patriotically grounded criticism.


As the United States embarks on a campaign our leaders assure us is narrowly targeted on known terrorists and their supporters, a campaign to protect freedom and democracy, there are subtle dangers of which we should be aware. It is typical during time of war or military action for tolerance of differing opinions, of different cultures, even of innocent eccentricity to decline. This is likely to be especially true of a war initiated by an act of terrorism on American soil, when most authorities expect terrorists of some sort (perhaps not directly connected to those who carried out the first atrocities) to seek to retaliate with another act of dramatic destruction.

Already we have heard retired military people on television urging Americans to be ready to report suspicious activities to the FBI.

Heightened vigilance is to be expected and is important, given the circumstances. But we must be vigilant and persistent ourselves, reminding our fellow citizens that among the values assaulted by the terrorists are freedom of speech and the right to be odd, different or unusual and be left alone.

This freedom doesn’t, or shouldn’t, end during wartime; indeed, it is desirable in many ways that it be encouraged. Promoting unity and discouraging troubling questions are not only subversive of enduring American values, suppressing honest criticism can often lead to bad decisions.

In the weeks and months to come we and other Americans will question everything from the timing of certain attacks to the weapons used to ways to minimize casualties – all the way to the broader question of whether we should be in a war at all. This is healthy in a free country. A strong America can not only tolerate impertinent questions, it will become stronger as a result.

Alan Bock

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