Reflections Ten Years Later

By William A. Gamson

It would be an exaggeration to claim that there has been a significant and visible mobilization against the war in Iraq for the past several years.  The misinformation used to justify the war and the failure of any workable formula for the governance of Iraq after the removal of Saddam Hussein rather quickly caused a broad segment of the public to adopt a quagmire frame.  With the election of a President who was critical of the war and who promised to end it in an orderly fashion, the opportunity to mobilize any significant constituency to take collective action to end this war was essentially closed.

Nevertheless, there are some lessons to be drawn from this experience.

The Role of Veterans

Compared to the system of opportunities and constraints faced by the Vietnam anti-war movement, the Iraq anti-war movement faced a much more difficult task.  In the absence of a draft and with those facing active combat drawn from social locations with fewer opportunities in civilian life, a relatively small proportion of the population was directly affected by the war.  To mobilize those who are not directly affected, it is necessary to put a face on those people bearing the direct costs – both those who directly experienced the traumas of this war and their immediate families who shared the consequences.

Even in the case of the Vietnam anti-war movement, the role of veterans was an important turning point in the ultimate success of the movement.  When the young war hero, John Kerry, testified in Congress against the war, he lent enormous credibility to a movement whose participants, for the most part, had used educational deferments and other means to avoid the draft – or, being women, were not subject to conscription.

The norms of mainstream U.S. journalists involve a distinction between advocates for a cause and “real people.”  The latter term refers to those who have directly experienced the grievous conditions that they are protesting.  Ryan et al (2005) develop the strategic implications of this insight for media strategy as reflected in the practices of the Rhode Island Coalition Against Domestic Violence (RICADV).  They describe how the group trained and used as media spokespersons supporters who had directly experienced abuse.  They are able to demonstrate the success of this strategy in changing media coverage of domestic violence.[i]

Veterans are “real people.”  In the case of the Iraq anti-war movement, Iraq Veterans Against the War (IVAW) provided crucial leadership and helped to concretize the human costs of the war and much of this effort has spilled over into the Afghanistan anti-war movement as well.  Films documenting this experience were one important mechanism for “putting a face” on the problem.  These efforts have helped to put the story of the high suicide rate of veterans and other aspects of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on the agenda of the mainstream media.

Nevertheless, to mobilize such sentiments for collective actions against the wars depends on empathy for those affected. It is not likely to get channeled into righteous indignation in the presence of an administration whose rhetoric is about winding down any continuing involvement.  It seems to me that the task of the U.S. anti-war movement at present, including Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in a crucial role, is the prevention of U.S. intervention in future wars, especially in Iran, and even more important: challenging the scary expansion of the National Security State.

The Rise of the National Security State

The Obama Administration has defused the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, helping to demobilize the anti-war movement, but it has continued and accelerated the expansion of the national security state begun by the Bush Administration after 9/11.  The ability to detain and hold citizens without charges, to surveil and invade the privacy of citizens engaging in legitimate protest activity, and to violate other long protected civil liberties has gone to new extremes.

Perhaps the most compelling example of this expansion is in the role of the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) in its coordinated effort to advise and supply police departments in cities and smaller towns around the country.  We still know only a small fraction of what is going on and few details about the role of different actors in the process.

We do know that during the height of the #Occupy movement in the fall of 2011, the DHS participated in a phone call with the police chiefs of perhaps as many as 30 cities with occupy encampments to discuss the policing of these protest demonstrations and how to go about removing the encampments.  We do not know who initiated this conference call or the precise content – only that it occurred.  We do not know the extent to which in this conversation or elsewhere, the DHS discussed the provision of various non-lethal crowd control weapons such as Tasers, Pepper Spray, and the like.

There is considerable evidence that the DHS has, in fact, armed many police departments with weapons for intimidating and causing severe discomfort to non-violent protesters.  The misuse of such weapons has led to a number of social control errors which helped to mobilize supporters of the #Occupy movement for further action.  In particular, the Oakland police launched a missile that fractured the skull of an Iraq war veteran who was participating in the Occupy Oakland demonstration and police in New York and elsewhere were photographed spraying non-violent protesters and, in some cases, journalists who were covering the protests.

The threat to civil liberties embodied in this expansion of the National Security State into local protest policing is a strong threat to any future anti-war protests.  If it is used to attack non-violent protesters against social and economic injustice in the United States, it will surely be used on protesters to prevent or to end U.S. intervention in a war in Iran.  It is short sighted for an anti-war movement to ignore this future threat which may well prevent the success of a movement when it is most needed.


[i] See Charlotte Ryan, Michael Anastario, and Karen Jeffries (2005). “Start Small, Build Big: Negotiating Opportunities in Media Markets,” Mobilization, Vol. 10, pp. 111-128.

1 Comment

Filed under Essay Dialogues, The Iraq War Protests: 10 Years Later

One response to “Reflections Ten Years Later

  1. Pingback: analyzing the anti-iraq war movement 10 years later « orgtheory.net

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