Category: War Culture
Published: Wednesday, 04 February 2015
Posted by Tom Engelhardt
February 3, 2015
Why There Is No Massive Antiwar Movement in America
Well, it’s one, two, three, look at that amputee, At least it’s below the knee, Could have been worse, you see. Well, it’s true your kids look at you differently, But you came in an ambulance instead of a hearse, That’s the phrase of the trade, It could have been worse.
-- First verse of a Vietnam-era song written by U.S. Air Force medic Bob Boardman off Country Joe McDonald’s "I-Feel-Like-I'm-Fixin'-to-Die Rag"
There was the old American lefty paper, the Guardian, and the Village Voice, which beat the Sixties into the world, and its later imitators like the Boston Phoenix. There was Liberation News Service, the Rat in New York, the Great Speckled Bird in Atlanta, the Old Mole in Boston, the distinctly psychedelic Chicago Seed, Leviathan, Viet-Report, and the L.A. Free Press, as well as that Texas paper whose name I long ago forgot that was partial to armadillo cartoons. And they existed, in the 1960s and early 1970s, amid a jostling crowd of hundreds of “underground” newspapers -- all quite aboveground but the word sounded so romantic in that political moment. There were G.I. antiwar papers by the score and high school rags by the hundreds in an “alternate” universe of opposition that somehow made the rounds by mail or got passed on hand-to-hand in a now almost unimaginable world of interpersonal social networking that preceded the Internet by decades. And then, of course, there was I.F. Stone’s Weekly (1953-1971): one dedicated journalist, 19 years, every word his own (except, of course, for the endless foolishness he mined from the reams of official documentation produced in Washington, Vietnam, and elsewhere).
I can remember the arrival of that newsletter, though I no longer know whether I subscribed myself or simply shared someone else’s copy. In a time when being young was supposed to be glorious, Stone was old -- my parents’ age -- but still we waited on his words. It helped to have someone from a previous generation confirm in nuts and bolts ways that the issue that swept so many of us away, the Vietnam War, was indeed an American atrocity.
The Call to Service
They say you can’t go home again, but recently, almost 44 years after I saw my last issue of theWeekly -- Stone was 64 when he closed up shop; I was 27 -- I found the full archive of them, all 19 years, online, and began reading him all over again. It brought back a dizzying time in which we felt “liberated” from so much that we had been brought up to believe and -- though we wouldn’t have understood it that way then -- angered and forlorn by the loss as well. That included the John Wayne version of America in which, at the end of any war film, as the Marine Corps Hymn welled up, American troops advanced to a justified victory that would make the world a better place. It also included a far kinder-hearted but allied vision of a country, a government, that was truly ours, and to which we owed -- and one dreamed of offering -- some form of service. That was deeply engrained in us, which was why when, in his inaugural address, President John F. Kennedy so famously called on us to serve, the response was so powerful. (“And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.”) Soon after, my future wife went into the Peace Corps like tens of thousands of other young Americans, while I dreamed, as I had from childhood, of becoming a diplomat in order to represent our country abroad.
And that sense of service to country ran so deep that when the first oppositional movements of the era arose, particularly the Civil Rights Movement, the impulse to serve was essential to them, as it clearly was to I.F. Stone. The discovery that under your country’s shining veneer lay a series of nightmares might have changed how that sense of obligation was applied, but it didn’t change the impulse. Not at all.
In his writing, Stone was calm, civil, thoughtful, fact-based, and still presented an American world that looked shockingly unlike the one you could read about in what wasn’t yet called “the mainstream media” or could see on the nightly network news. (Your TV still had only 13 channels, without a zapper in sight.) A researcher par excellence, Stone, like the rest of us, lacked the ability to see into the future, which meant that some of his fears (“World War III”) as well as his dreams never came true. But on the American present of that time, he was remarkably on target. Rereading some of his work so many decades later set me thinking about the similarities and differences between that moment of eternal war in Indochina and the present endless war on terror.
Among the eeriest things about reading Stone’s Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia coverage, 14 years into the next century, is how resonantly familiar so much of what he wrote still seems, how twenty-first-century it all is. It turns out that the national security state hasn’t just been repeating things they’ve done unsuccessfully for the last 13 years, but for the last 60. Let me offer just a few examples from his newsletter. I think you’ll get the idea.
* With last June’s collapse of the American-trained and -armed Iraqi army and recent revelations about its 50,000 “ghost soldiers” in mind, here’s Stone on the Laotian army in January 1961: “It is the highest paid army in Asia and variously estimated (the canny Laotians have never let us know the exact numbers, perhaps lest we check on how much the military payroll is diverted into the pockets of a few leaders) at from 23,000 to 30,000. Yet it has never been able to stand up against handfuls of guerrillas and even a few determined battalions like those mustered by Captain Kong Le.”
* On ISIS’s offensive in Iraq last year, or the 9/11 attacks, or just about any other development you want to mention in our wars since then, our gargantuan bureaucracy of 17 expanding intelligence outfits has repeatedly been caught short, so consider Stone’s comments on the Tet Offensive of February 1968. At a time when America’s top commander in Vietnam had repeatedly assured Americans that the Vietnamese enemy was losing, the North Vietnamese and the National Liberation Front (the “Vietcong”) launched attacks on just about every major town and city in South Vietnam, including the U.S. Embassy in Saigon: “We still don’t know what hit us. The debris is not all in Saigon and Hue. The world’s biggest intelligence apparatus was caught by surprise.”
* On our drone assassination and other air campaigns as a global war not on, but for -- i.e., to recruit -- terrorists, including our present bombing campaigns in Iraq and Syria, here’s Stone in February 1968: “When the bodies are really counted, it will be seen that one of the major casualties was our delusion about victory by air power: all that boom-boom did not keep the enemy from showing up at Langvei with tanks... The whole country is slowly being burnt down to ‘save it.’ To apply scorched-earth tactics to one’s own country is heroic; to apply it to a country one claims to be saving is brutal and cowardly... It is we who rally the people to the other side.” And here he is again in May 1970: “Nowhere has air power, however overwhelming and unchallenged, been able to win a war.”
And so it goes reading Stone today. But if much in the American way of war remains dismally familiar some five decades later, one thing of major significance has changed, something you can see regularly in I.F. Stone’s Weekly but not in our present world. Thirteen years after our set of disastrous wars started, where is the massive antiwar movement, including an army in near revolt and a Congress with significant critics in significant positions?