Where’s the Peace Movement: The Problem of Urgency, Exhibit B

Antiwar activists have had a hard time agreeing on goals and strategies and commanding public attention.  This is striking, particularly when President Obama has just engaged American military forces in action in Libya, while the wars continue in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Of course, the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are allegedly winding down, or at least American participation is supposed to be–even though tens of thousands of American troops figure to be deployed for years to come.  And the intervention in Libya is under the auspices of an international commitment to defend civilians against a truly horrible dictator, who has promised to fight down to the blood of the last Libyan.

President Obama’s expressed commitments to end the wars (even if belied by his actions) and to intervene only with international support have made it more difficult for peace activists to hang a target on him.

Consider the case of Bradley Manning, an enlisted intelligence analyst in the Army who apparently leaked more than 200,000

Bradley Manning

documents to Wikileaks.  Manning has been in prison for nearly a year under very harsh conditions.

On Sunday, an estimated 400 people demonstrated outside the Marine base at Quantico, Virginia, where Manning is being held.  More than thirty people were arrested for staging an impromptu sit-in in the middle of the road after the demonstration was supposed to end.  They were frustrated that police were preventing them from placing flowers on an Iwo Jima memorial in honor of Manning.  The arrested included Daniel Ellsberg, who four decades earlier, leaked the Pentagon Papers.  (There was a sympathy demonstration outside the US embassy in London.)

Ellsberg has compared Manning to himself, a young and confused man who leaked documents to expose malevolent and anti-democratic policies, and compared the government’s treatment of Manning to the harassment he faced.  These are disputable points; see the commentary by first amendment lawyer, Floyd Abrams, who represented the New York Times in the Pentagon Papers case.

For the moment, the striking thing is that the pro-Manning demonstrations got limited support from some of the largest anti-war groups.  Code Pink and International Answer supported the demonstrators–and Manning’s cause, but it’s been a lower priority for other groups.

The peace movement in the United States has always included people who opposed war in general and/or America’s role in the world, and others who questioned the morality and wisdom of particular wars.  Manning is a problematic poster child for a movement that wants to reach that latter group, and to put its focus on the wars.

But the antiwar movements have had a difficult time finding any other focus that commands large scale public attention and activism.

About David S. Meyer

Author and professor of Sociology and Political Science at the University of California, Irvine
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