The Most Pre-Protested Would-Be War in History?

In Longreads

The Golden Gate Bridge has forts on each end. One, the Presidio, is a Civil War–era Army base. The other is Fort Cronkhite, a Cold War rocket launcher. Both forts are decommissioned but remain standing. They are not visible in photos of the Golden Gate Bridge. The rest of the Pentagon influence in the region goes unnoticed similarly—though the physical evidence hides in plain sight. Treasure Island sits right in the center of the bay. It’s a perfect square. The Works Progress Administration built the island in the thirties, but the U.S. Navy took it in the Forties and held it for the rest of the century. Alameda Island is the same; viewed from the parking lot at the Lawrence Hall of Science, high in the hills beside the Lawrence labs, the island comes to a ridiculous, perfect right angle where it meets the water. It’s a synthetic landscape, planned to suit the needs of runways with a protractor, so fighter-bombers could operate. Nearby, an entire city, Richmond, exists because of the Richmond Shipyards. It built navy vessels in World War II. A statue of Rosie the Riveter decorates the sailboat marina there. Twenty miles down the shore from Richmond is the Concord Weapons Station. Concord shipped many of the bombs used in Vietnam; nearby is the spit in the bay where the town of Port Chicago used to exist. Port Chicago, also a weapons depot, disappeared in an explosion in 1944. The explosion vaporized an entire ship and shattered a second, leveled the town, and killed 320 people, of whom two-thirds were black stevedores. The Navy, embarrassed, sentenced fifty of the stevedores, who had urged caution while loading bombs on the ships, to fifteen years hard labor. They received probation in 1946, but not clemency. It took fifty years to clear the name of the last sailor, Freddie Meeks, which President Clinton did by executive pardon in 1999, ending one of the more disastrous and shameful incidents in local military history.

Across the bay is old Hamilton Air Base, which received a large number of the American casualties during the Vietnam war. A bleak joke from the period refers to dead soldiers heading “home through Hamilton.” Further up the road is Travis Air Force base, which receives casualties today. Another ten miles east is a ghost fleet of battleships and destroyers anchored in the delta of the San Joaquin river, twenty or so stacked in rows, waiting to be gassed up and armed if needed. Further south is Moffet Field. It’s another mothballed airbase. There are National Guard buildings in Oakland between an Ikea and the east span of the Bay Bridge. Soldiers are mustering there right now for deployment overseas. The Coast Guard is in the Oakland Estuary. A cutter weighed anchor two weeks ago and steamed for the Persian Gulf. Its job will be to patrol the Navy’s fleet and protect the larger ships from attacks like that on the USS Cole.

Though the landscape reflects a long history of fighting wars, the militarization of the San Francisco Bay Area is not part of its mythology. The dominant local mythology here remains “the counter-culture”—though even the phrase sounds moldy now. Everything prior to 1968 or so—the reshaping of the land, the toxins we’re still cleaning from the bases, Rosie, Port Chicago, even the nuclear weapons laboratories administered from Berkeley—exists in a kind of fog created by the late Sixties. Janis Joplin is a central figure here still, not Rosie the Riveter. Edward Teller is of less consequence than Carlos Santana. The resonant tragedies in local history, excepting perhaps the 1906 earthquake, are undoubtedly either the murder of Mayor Moscone and Supervisor Harvey Milk, or Jonestown, or the Hell’s Angels blowing it at Altamont, or perhaps the Sex Pistols playing their last show: There is little memory here of people leaving on ships for the South Pacific or on buses for Manzanar. We’re vaguely aware it happened, but it feels like an anomaly. Cognitive dissonance is still the rule here. Most people would not describe the Bay Area as a region built on wars, dock strikes and farming. Even Steinbeck couldn’t convince anyone; nor could Dorothea Lange.

So when we stage a protest, it’s often a cultural event, rather than political. It’s a celebration of the area’s liberal tradition. This is not a new observation, of course. How many times did we hear “San Francisco liberal” when Nancy Pelosi, the city’s representative in Congress, won the election as a Democratic leader? Though Seattle has thrown in its bid as capitol of the modern left—“since Seattle” is sometimes shorthand for “since the beginning of anti-globalism protests”—it’s still a common enough belief that when liberal America speaks, San Francisco is where its lips move. This past January, when anti-war protests began in earnest, there was no question of holding them in Los Angeles or Seattle or Portland. It was going to have the varied coalitions and cultural markings of the Sixties counter-culture, which is synonymous with San Francisco. A Sixties model of American dissent drove the protests, and in the West, San Francisco would be the playing field.

 

January 18th’s anti-war protest in San Francisco occurred in two parts. The first was a march through the city’s main downtown artery, Market Street, to a plaza at City Hall. There, more than forty different people representing various concerned citizen’s organizations, musicians, two members of Congress, and some Hollywood celebrities would give speeches. The event quickly broke down into “the march” and “the speakers.” The speakers were familiar. Many were redolent of the protests in prior decades. Joan Baez appeared and sang dirges. Wavy Gravy, dressed as a clown, as is his habit, milled backstage. Martin Sheen used his actor’s delivery to mouth predictable slogans: If the people led, he said, the leaders would follow.

This being San Francisco, there was also plenty of attention paid to pronunciation. Accents were stressed. “Iraq” was self-consciously “eeer-ahk,” with the “r” rolled. It felt like an echo of the 1980s, when many leftists, including those with no actual knowledge of Spanish, took to pronouncing “Nicaragua” with exaggerated Spanish accents. This happened enough at the time for it to eventually earn ridicule on a famous Saturday Night Live parody. Less common, but overheard a few times, was a stridently rabbinical “Iz-Rye-El.”

Terminology received similar attention from the stage. One marched as a “progressive” (not a citizen, nor a liberal, nor a Democrat), expressing “solidarity” (not agreement) to “lend a voice” (not political clout) to “the voiceless victims of aggression” (in Iraq, though not so much Bali). Bill Hackwell, the West Coast director of International Act Now to Stop War and End Racism—International ANSWER—which organized the demonstration, said the speakers hit these notes by design. They were representative of broad coalitions; they encouraged individualism, and stood for a carefully assembled diversity of voices: Among them were farm labor organizer Dolores Huerta, a number of civil rights attorneys, Rep. Barbara Lee (D-Oakland), and Rep. Lynn Woolsey (D-Petaluma), musician Bonnie Raitt, and Cecil Williams, pastor of Glide Memorial Church in San Francisco. The more recognizable names marched in Washington, closer to the media hubs. Jesse Jackson was out there. So was Jessica Lange, the actress. The list went for pages. Groups interested in politics in Mexico, Cuba and Nicaragua, the fate of various prisoners unrelated to the terror war—Mumia Abu-Jamal is the most predictable one—and several trade unions all helped organize the protests in both San Francisco and D.C.

Those were “the speakers.” “The march” was not so easily characterized. Most of the protesters, as has been widely reported, came from varied walks of life, and had similarly varied responses to the war. They were not “professional protesters.” Some were interventionists.

“I would propose legally extraditing him [Saddam Hussein] and putting him on trial in the Hague,” said one marcher, Raisa Burns. Burns was a young woman dressed as if for a casual Friday; she works for a San Francisco textbook publisher. She had come to a prior march in October, was there again in January, and had her own suggestion for avoiding war.

“The Milosevic model,” she said. The U.N. should have Saddam Hussein arrested and take him by force if necessary, but not attack the country wholesale. This might require soldiers, but fewer than a war, and would be more like a police raid on a fugitive than a broad assault on a country. “Then a reconciliation commission should go in and find out what has been happening on the ground.”

The protests seemed to be gelling, though Burns said she still wasn’t sure who was in charge. Because the organizers had not dictated a specific message, it didn’t matter. The strength of a march without a specific agenda was its greater inclusiveness: The only common ground was an opposition to bombing Iraq.

“Are you speaking about the ANSWER Coalition in particular?” she said. “It’s an amalgamation of, obviously, people with varying views and different agendas. I think that it’s been cohering over the last few months. The initial rallies felt a lot more diversified in representing different special interest groups. Now, people tend to be casting away their particular banner and coming together in a more unified anti-war movement.”

A dancer on the corner of Market and Fifth made Burns hard to hear. She had set up a stereo and two large speakers on a trailer, dragged the trailer into place with a mountain bike, and after dismounting began dancing alone to the Ohio Player’s “Fopp.” It was fun, but loud. Burns and I watched a moment.

For the most part Burns was more typical of the marchers than was the dancer. Another group, the smallest, was the spectators. Between Fifth Street and about Ninth, Market Street is mostly adult theaters and grey-market retail. It’s identical to market places in areas like Caracas and Kuala Lumpur. Thin storefronts below firetrap hotels sell cheap luggage and electronics. Commercial rents are cheap. So people tend to loiter, and some businesses ran as usual. Next to the Warfield, a famous theater, and the Crazy Horse, a strip joint, are two Afghan import shops. I wandered into one. Protesters popped in from time to time to buy incense, pinch the detail on a rug or say something ham-fisted to the shops’ proprietors. The owner, a young man named Hamid—“like the President,” he said helpfully, meaning Afghan President Hamid Karzai—welcomed the visits.

“You have a wonderful store,” said a white rasta in pyjamas who ducked in fast, after me. He literally ducked in—he came in a stoop, though the door was a standard size, shook Hamid’s hand and stooped back into the crowd. It was strictly a goodwill visit, apparently. Hamid gave an amused smile and a little nod goodbye. He said the protesters were pleasant people but not buying much.

Born in Kabul, Hamid left as a boy in 1980, with the Russian invasion. He has never been back. He planned a trip two years ago but the war cancelled his plans. He moves mostly in Afghan circles still, however, he said. Behind the cash register is a portrait of Ahmad Shah Masood, the anti-Taliban fighter assassinated the day before 9/11.

I asked Hamid about Masood. Didn’t his army, the Northern Alliance, finally succeed because of American assistance? Hamid said yes, and he was glad the Taliban are gone, but was opposed to attacking Iraq.

“It’s different.” he said. He didn’t say how—it’s just a different matter, he said. He’s not Iraqi; he can’t say. “And even in Afghanistan, soon you should go home.” The war was over, and Americans should leave Afghanistan quickly, he said.

It was a slow day in the shop. We spent some time talking. I described a photo I had seen in the press. It was of an American soldier, shirtless, with bloody hands. He was holding a rifle, catching his breath after a shootout—a failed attempt on President Karzai’s life—two months ago. The American soldier was apparently one of Karzai’s bodyguards. Is Afghanistan stable enough for American soldiers to leave?

“Yes. Well, soon at least.”

Outside, two blocks away, a Yemeni man with a cane stood watching the march from beneath Golden Gate Theater’s marquee. He agreed I could stand with him for a moment. His voice was heavily accented; he said his name was Salaman. He said his father had left the family in Yemen and come to the U.S. in the 1930s. The father fought in the Second World War against the Nazis, not yet a citizen but close enough for enlistment. After the war, he called for his family. Salaman ended up in San Francisco, and said he has lived in the Tenderloin ever since. He leaned on his cane. The marches are good, he said. He waited a moment, then looked at me. But God decides if there is a war or not, he said. Though the idea of a religious conflict hangs over some aspects of the war debate—talk of a “clash of civilizations,” “Jihad,” “Islamic radicals”—this was one of the few references to religion I heard all day. The closest issue at the protest was race. This was a “racist war” on the Muslim world; accordingly, it seemed all right to use the words “Muslim” and “Arab” interchangeably in the linguistics of the pacifist cause.

It was not an overly theatrical crowd. What theater there was seemed unintrusive and avoided overkill; one could take or leave it. Near city hall, the march’s terminus, a young man in a banker’s suit had stuffed his shirt full of Monopoly money until the bills flew from between the buttons of his white oxford. A woman dressed as Lady Liberty stood beside him bound with six feet of heavy–gauge chain. The chain looked uncomfortable and the costumes fragile, and rather than walk, the couple stood at the edge of a plaza above the march waving like grand marshals. Nearby a figure on stilts tottered around. (There’s always a guy on stilts.) The figure’s head was an immense yellow happy face made from cardboard. The smile was broad enough to be creepy, in the way that dolls can be creepy. This seemed to be the desired effect: to represent the government—the overseer with a smile that hardens into a leer—towering, but easily toppled.

Among the more sobering efforts at grabbing attention was that of a theater student named Kim Buchanan. She had access to quality make-up at school, and seemed to be dressed as a war victim. She looked like she’d been in a car wreck. There was a piece of glass coming out of her face. When she smiled it looked fun, like a Halloween costume, but when she frowned it certainly made one think about bombs. She was standing a block off the main parade route in the Tenderloin. She was from Santa Cruz.

When I asked Buchanan about her costume, she said she had dressed like herself. It was a “fear” costume. She was eighteen and just out of high school; her hair had streaks of continental blue. She leaned on a pole waiting for her ride home.

“I think he’ll attack us if we attack him. That just makes sense. And then I’ll look like this.” She drew a hand across a laceration on her forehead. “If there’s a war, then they shoot back, right?”

 

Though it’s hard to recall now, protests have not always followed the model of the Vietnam era. Whether those famous Sixties and Seventies demonstrations succeeded is also a matter of some debate. “There’s actually a fairly strong argument among some historians that the anti-war movement actually prolonged the war,” noted Philip Zelikow, a University of Virginia historian, and former staff member of the first President Bush’s National Security Council. Zelikow appeared on PBS’ NewsHour the Monday after the January protest. The quote is from a transcript of the program. “…It polarized American opinion, helped elect Richard Nixon, and gave Nixon additional backing, because of the backlash against the way the protesters were conducting themselves. But the cultural momentum from that era of protests was huge.”

Part of marching in a San Francisco protest is accepting that momentum. There’s a tacit association between current demonstrations and previous eras. That onus can be oppressive. “They got very, very interested in this notion of being as inclusive as possible,” said Lucy Barber, author of a book called Marching on Washington, which is a history of political demonstrations in the United States. “As demonstrations got more and more focused on numbers, you have to have a coalition. And then you have to let everyone talk. Eventually, you reach a point in 1971, at one of the rallies, you had something like 45 speakers, and everyone speaks for, like, three minutes, and they all go on too long, and all of whom had completely conflicting political views. Most of the effect of this is people don’t listen.”

The history of protest in America of course doesn’t begin in San Francisco. Nevertheless, the inclusive style of politics associated with San Francisco and Berkeley in the Vietnam era defined the January marches, Barber said. She had appeared with Zelikow on PBS after the march, and her book was timely. She suddenly found herself fielding requests from national television shows and radio hosts.

She’s an employee of California’s state archive. When I called her cubicle at the archives (she had to keep chasing her interns away while we spoke), Barber was able to suggest some ways of protesting. The 1963 civil rights march on Washington, D.C., for example, is arguably the most famous demonstration in American history. It had what she called clear results. The march likely helped provide political cover for Southern Democrats to vote in favor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, and to accept racial equality in jobs as an issue of real concern. “The big sticking point for that march was jobs. What is a good job? The other was: Are the Democrats our friend?” In 1963, of course, Trent Lott could have been a Democrat. After the march and the civil rights victories, the partisan lines as they pertained to race became clearer.

The 1963 march was one of the last before the counterculture redefined the act. King and his organizers practiced virtually the opposite of what today’s organizers do. The civil rights march was collective in manner and discouraged individual expression, Barber said. Logistically, it was tightly controlled. It was not open to anyone; marchers did not just show up. Attire was presentable: suits, ties, button-down shirts. The Southern church and civil rights groups planning the event told their people where to go, how to look and what to say.

“They weren’t allowed to make their own signs. If you look at pictures of the march every sign is the same. The slogans were pre-approved.” The march had two distinct messages, Barber said. She was clearly excited by her topic and spoke quickly. The goals for 1963 had been pared down through difficult negotiations amid a broad coalition: better jobs for African Americans, and the formalization of civil rights protections.

The imagery of that march was also carefully planned. It showed demonstrators how to use the press. It’s mostly forgotten, Barber says, that Martin Luther King delivered his famous speech on a weekday. Pointedly, a work day. Though the speech had the tone of a sermon, specifically of Moses, it did not come on a Sunday. It interrupted business. Prior protests had often been parades, with spectators. But in the face of the march, government employees were sent home. The resulting symbolism everyone now knows from high school textbooks. It surpasses what even the wiliest Carvilles and Roves might conjure today: a Southern Baptist preacher giving a sermon to a crowd in a white marble city, with Abraham Lincoln behind him and the capitol in front of him.With the benefit of hindsight, when we look at King’s famous speech, we know that he would soon begin organizing opposition to the Vietnam War before his death, and that the Vietnam memorial is now located where marchers stood.

Earlier demonstrations were yet more controlled. When World War I veterans marched on Washington demanding payment of their war bonuses—only to be famously attacked and dispersed by troops led by Douglas MacArthur—they marched in ranks. This was in 1933. Left-wing pundits of the day criticized the protesters not for their understandable demands, but “for looking like Nazis,” Barber found. (The Nazis were still some years from prominence; Barber was using the term generically.) The suffragettes seemed to have been good at staying “on message” as well, as were many labor organizations.

The anti-war movement of the Sixties abandoned this structure for the freewheeling approach.

“There are good reasons you’d do that,” Barber said. “You’re coming out of a period where, if anyone says anything critical, you call them a Communist or something. So they went for this ‘We’re going to include everybody.’” But from there the need for large spaces intruded—King’s crowd is estimated to have been 150 thousand, likely smaller than January’s march in San Francisco. The bigger the crowd, the more crowd control matters. If it gets big enough, logistics matters much more than politics or symbolism. “When King is in front of Lincoln, that means something. When the [Vietnam] anti-war movement went there, well, they really should have gone to the Pentagon.” In January the Washington, D.C., march did that. Protesters marched on the War College in the capitol’s southwest district.

In San Francisco the march went to a building with no control over war. The physical details had more to do with crowd control than anything. Bill Hackwell, the ANSWER organizer, said they marched on city hall that day—it was closed for the weekend—because you could get there in a straight line from the start at the base of Market Street. Otherwise the crowd gets scattered and looks smaller. “It’s like turning this gigantic beast,” he said. He slalomed his hands in front of his chest in a serpentine curve.This was a few days after the march, in ANSWER’s San Francisco office. The other advantage was the plaza’s width, he said. ANSWER anticipated disagreement about the size of the crowd, and Market Street offered a clear shot for aerial photography. Later they could show the pictures, to counter claims of a small march. This proved wise. The San Francisco Police Department’s initial estimates of 50,000 marchers did not hold up to scrutiny of helicopter imagery. Based on the photos, the estimate rose past 100,000 within a day.

About aerial photography, Hackwell speaks with expertise. In 1968, at nineteen, he enlisted in the military because he thought it would help him avoid being sent to Vietnam. Also, all his brothers had signed up. It was “the thing you do.” The plan didn’t work. He says he spent 1968 and 1969 in Vietnam as an aerial photographer. His job was to ride in a helicopter or small plane low over the enemy lines, shooting pictures for aerial mapping. He says the photos became maps used to plan American bomb attacks. The photography took him low enough for the North Vietnamese soldiers to fire at his aircraft while he shot back with only a camera. He does not describe his war experience in much detail, but obviously the job was terrifying.

It left Hackwell very much a radical. His views—and those of ANSWER, for which, he said, he spoke—are the furthest left of the current anti-war organizations. At its outset the “movement,” to use the familiar countercultural term, consisted of three large coalitions and innumerable smaller interests. The three coalitions still work together loosely but are distinguished by ideology. They are like constellations in the same galaxy. ANSWER was the best known one in January—the name on the biggest banners as the crowd set off from Market Street—because it was the first off the block in planning its demonstration, according to several activists with competing groups.

ANSWER is not itself an organization. It’s an umbrella name for a coalition led by an office called the International Action Center. IAC is widely credited with actually carrying the protests off successfully. It has experience in the field. International Action was active in opposing the 1991 Gulf War, and their politics were evident then. The group refused to condemn Iraq’s occupation of Kuwait, and refused to criticize the Iraqi government at all. More recently, Hackwell, speaking to the San Francisco Chronicle, refused to condemn the actions of a small group of figures in black hoods who broke windows and attacked offices of the Immigration and Naturalization Service during the otherwise peaceful 1/18 anti-war march. IAC has refused to state its position on United Nations teams inspecting Iraq for evidence of weapons of mass destruction. They have a deep unease about any foreign interference in Iraq at all, says Hackwell.

“Our position is the United States should get out of the Middle East,” he said. We were sitting in a multi-purpose room full of office supplies. Two volunteers moved to and from the room performing clerical duties as we talked. They were a woman and man, each in their late fifties. The suite was a two-room arrangement in the back of a low office building. Most of the other tenants were doctors. It was located in San Francisco’s Mission District, which is a largely Latino neighborhood. Flags outside the building’s entrance, over a lovely brick facade with an archway, claimed the corner as the neighborhood’s hub: “la corazon del Mission.

Hackwell is a slender man with greying hair and a laid-back manner. He was busy the day we spoke. He was speaking for ANSWER after the protest, and interest was high. “We had [news] cameras lined up in the hallway,” he said. ANSWER was the highest-profile anti-war organization at the time, despite being the most controversial group. The march had gotten a lot of attention in the press. Hackwell noted the New York Times had praised the marches on its editorial page.

The marches would lead to more marches, he said. And what do the marches lead to? “A groundswell,” he said. Hackwell and ANSWER are, to their credit, unabashed about their radicalism. He didn’t see the marches as a means to any specific act in Washington, the UN, or Baghdad. He shifted in his orange chair and leaned toward me. “First of all, we think Congress has completely sorta capitulated to the Bush Administration. I mean, they’re the ones that are supposed to declare war. And they just capitulated, turned it over and gave him a complete blank check to declare war…so we don’t have much faith. …We don’t think that as a body that they are going to effect change. We think mass movements are going to effect change.”

So, no influencing Congress. Or the media.

“We don’t have much faith in the media, because the main thing is most of them are corporate controlled, and they have a vested interest in a war.”

“How is it that when you turn the TV on, the same news is on at the same time, the same stories are showing up at the same moment?” he said.

Pack reporting, profit motive and laziness?

No, Hackwell said. It’s a war drum, provided by the government and beaten by the media.

“They’re unified in the fact that they’re all for the same end. And the end in this case is the domination and control of Iraq.”

(A few days after speaking with Hackwell, I wrote to some daily reporters for their opinion. One had covered the anti-war movement for an influential newswire. The reporter has asked not to be identified.

Basically, I don’t think they’re good at getting their message out. The press conferences they have to attend have several speakers (a big mistake). They should keep it to one or two—or three if very short—and a lot of them come across as whiny. The other problem is a lack of unified voice, because a lot of times the protesters are attempting to weave a lot of different ideas under one umbrella. That waters down the message. I think it’s unfortunate, because I think if the right person, or group, took the helm, the anti-war message could really take off.… So I think this particular movement isn’t a marginal movement. It’s just that a person who comes across as credible and—not angry—hasn’t really emerged.… My point is maybe the lack of air time has more to do with the approach of those seeking it than any sort of media conspiracy.

 Hackwell and I spent just shy of two hours together. Most of the conversation was about the seats of political power. Hackwell seemed—a bit strangely—to insist that he had no political power, and little hope of acquiring any. The media censors him, the Congress ignores him in favor of “the rich and the powerful” and the White House is actively hostile toward him. Even gingerly, one has to wonder out loud how he possibly hopes to accomplish anything against such perceived obstacles. While the tape wound down, I grasped for some straws. Some in the Pentagon could be, conceivably, skeptical of the Bush war plans. Was there a Daniel Ellsberg out there?

“We wouldn’t put our emphasis on something like that. Our emphasis is on bringing more and more and more people into this movement.”

What about Senator Kerry, of Massachussetts? It wasn’t just a name out of a hat. He was running for President, was a decorated Vietnam veteran, rich as all get-out, had started an anti-war organization himself in the 1970s, and was increasingly vocal against the Bush administration. A powerful ally?

Hackwell curled his nose.

“We are not supporters of Kerry. We just think if anyone, when they start getting up that high, even though they may be progressive on certain points, that they’re in the system. We don’t look at Kerry as being the example. We don’t think that he’s going to make a difference. He has his own agenda.” Worse, Hackwell said, Kerry might be just using the movement for his own political gain. “He may see this as a good time. He may be feeling the wind out there from the movement.”

The hardest questions went unanswered. What was the progressive response to the fall of the Taliban? How did he square opposition to the war with the end of a barbarous regime no one can defend?

“I’m not so sure about that,” Hackwell said. Someone could defend the Taliban, besides other religious extremists? The U.S. created the Afghan theocrats, he said, and that hypocrisy was the greater sin. “Let’s face it. We don’t have any permanent allies, we just have permanent interests, the U.S… when the U.S. says we’re going in to save the people, it makes us shudder.”

ANSWER does not answer most questions about terrorism. When pressed, Hackwell talked about history instead of policy. His critique of past American horrors is practiced, angry and fair. The examples are familiar and deplorable, and tend to involve Henry Kissinger: the coup in Chile, selling weapons to Iraq, helping establish the Taliban. First Allende, then Noriega, now Hussein.

However true, ANSWER’s position remains vague on what to do about a person making a bomb in a back room, or planning to drive a plane into a building. Hackwell was evasive. He leaned back in his chair.

“You’re dealing in hypotheticals,” he said.

A plane crashing into a building isn’t hypothetical, obviously. It was a strange moment. I changed the example: Bali. If the U.S. had detected clear evidence of a terrorist threat and no one was stopping it locally, should we, or Australia, have sent the Marines, or not?

He didn’t answer. He said his “focus is Washington. We believe the largest supporter of terrorism in the world is the United States.” The interview ended soon after.

 

ANSWER’s complement in the anti-war movement is a group called United for Peace (UFP). There are certainly many more. A third major coalition has been Win Without War. It’s Hollywood’s anti-war lobby, and it’s the most centrist. The Sierra Club lends its name to Win Without War. Matt Damon and Meryl Streep are members. It did not do much of the organizing of the marches. It and a group called MoveOn.org are responsible for most of the well-publicized anti-war television ads that appeared earlier in the year. The relationships and interrelationships are far more byzantine than one can possibly map. But it’s fair to say ANSWER was responsible for the early marches, and UFP for several smaller actions.

Where the International Action Center and ANSWER are associated with the 1991 Gulf War, UFP is affiliated with the anti-globalization protests of the late 1990s. And they are similarly structured, as the International Action Center forms the anchor to ANSWER’s coalition of smaller groups, UFP’s center spoke is an organization called Global Exchange.

Before the anti-war movement began, Global Exchange was primarily an advocate of trade reform between the first and third worlds, and a critic of international agencies like the World Bank. Those programs continue. A program calling for greater equity in the global coffee trade is Global Exchange’s work, for example. They also dabble in tourism. Global Exchange runs what it calls “reality tours” to places like Chiapas, Mexico, in which vacationers from developed countries visit poor and politically unstable regions, to learn about life there. (The group recently announced its first domestic reality tour. It will be to Oakland, California.) Now much of Global Exchanges effort goes to its role in the United for Peace anti-war coalition.

UFP and ANSWER are not so much rivals as parallel actors. But the ideological rift between the coalitions is real. UFP exists, said several activists with both camps, because of a political split that formed early in the anti-war movement. Many groups interested in opposing the war were reluctant to throw in with ANSWER’s hard liners. Global Exchange was among the best known and wealthiest of the dissenting interests. What resulted was a new coalition of the unwilling, led by Global Exchange. It initially existed online.

UFP “basically came out of the September 11 anniversary,” said spokesman, Jason Mark. Mark is twenty-eight and has been with Global Exchange for a few years. The idea behind the coalition was not only to provide a moderate alternative to ANSWER, but to articulate a response to terrorism that avoided military means. The group’s first activities keyed on 2002’s one-year anniversary of the destruction of the twin towers, the attack on the Pentagon and the loss of Flight 93 in Pennsylvania. “So on September 11 we organized 200 events around the country. It was really just a website where people could post their events, and see there they were not alone.” Where ANSWER organizes massive demonstrations, UFP prefers small events, often outside major cities.

UFP and ANSWER agree that the Vietnam protest model will help them stop the war. “There is a real range of counter culturalism that runs through the progressive left. That’s just the way it is. The idea of unity in diversity. That’s just part of the landscape today,” Mark said. It’s hard to argue; if the Sixties echoes were off-putting, the January crowd might have been smaller. On the other hand, could it have been larger? Mark says their turnout is mostly a matter of organization, not ideology. “There’s a lot of talk about how the right, or the Republicans, are more disciplined. It’s probably true.”

A few weeks later, there was a protest planned in front of the White House. A small group of middle-aged women would hand out flowers. They would all be wearing pink and were asking supporters to wear pink. That was something. But they did not seek to become much more directive than that. “You lose that diversity.… The fact that this is a coalition is a strength. It gives people a way for people to plug in at a level they feel is comfortable.”

Diversity could suffer from everyone wearing the same color shirt?

Mark thought about it.

“It’s hard to coordinate in a mass of people.”

Football stadiums do it all the time.

“Well,” he said. “Yes. That’s true, that’s true.” But this wasn’t a football game really, he joked.

 

Is this a war for oil? The evidence was circumstantial at the January march, and though the circumstantial evidence was numerous, it was still circumstantial. Early in the march, a representative of a group called Project Underground spoke to this. I missed the speech and called him later.

Gopal Dayaneni heads something called the Oil Campaign for the group, which is headquartered across the bay, in Berkeley. I knew the organization. They are halfway between a think tank and an activist group—they lead protests, but they also publish detailed reports about the politics of heavy industry. Project Underground’s staff is typically well-informed. Their anger infects their rhetoric to such an extent that it’s sometimes hard to trust them. It’s a little like arguing with an umpire. I about half trust them, insofar as my personal opinion matters. But every time I called the various march organizers asking for someone to prove the oil case, Dayaneni’s name came up. The group does have a reputation for knowing its facts.

The basic idea behind the oil argument is not ownership of the oil, he said. It isn’t about Exxon/Mobil grabbing barrels. The criticism has more to do with “oil services,” and with OPEC. As Dayaneni represented it to me, the protester’s theory goes like this.

Oil services is an enormous business. It encompasses things like drilling oil wells, shipping oil, exploring for oil and pumping oil. It creates far greater profit margins than actually selling oil can. So ownership of Iraqi oil is really about ownership of drilling contracts, road building and other high-dollar support services. Creating a market for a broad range of services the oil industry provides would be the point of eliminating Hussein, who is hostile to American business. Dayaneni’s proof of the dynamic is the vice president.

Dayaneni claimed the Halliburton oil services company, particularly, was profiting from Iraqi oil contracts, and had been since the late 90s. Vice President Cheney was Halliburton’s C.E.O. at the time. A similar argument involved the Carlysle Group, an investment company with George Bush Sr. and James Baker among its board members. Dayaneni suggested that the wide-ranging investment outfit stood to profit from a war because of its defense and oil investments, including investments in Saudi Arabia.

Still, the case is circumstantial. There’s no evidence Halliburton has any contact with the vice president now, and the anti-war movement hasn’t produced any. That’s not to say the case can’t be made. But noting that the president was once an oil man and most of his friends were too, was as far as Dayaneni got. The anti-war movement’s stance on the oil connection is that the connections looks like a duck and quacks. But the leap from there to proving that the profits of war were the impetus for the plan to attack Iraq is not clearly proven. Weeks later, when debate raged over whether Secretary of State Colin Powell had made a good case for the presence of banned weapons in Iraq, it seemed that a similarly detailed case for the oil link—that Powell was wrong, and the war was primarily about profit, not disarmament—would have been a useful rebuttal. None existed.

The OPEC part of the argument requires less trust but more associative leaps. “It’s about regulating the economy of oil,” Dayaneni said. “It’s as much about breaking the back of OPEC as it is about drilling and selling Iraqi oil.” As this argument goes, if Saudi Arabia were to become hostile to the U.S., then the U.S. economy would be in jeopardy. Iraq represents a potential counterweight to that threat. “Why is a war in Iraq inevitable in the first place? Because leadership in Saudi Arabia is not sustainable over the long term.”

Other critics suggest that the war includes oil but is not about it. After talking to Dayaneni I called Washington to try to make more sense of the question. Oil had been a common focus of speeches and placards in January. A defense think tank in D.C., the Center for Defense Information, was also a critic of the war. But they avoided the oil link entirely. The group’s vice president, Theresa Hitchens, agreed to speak with me.

“They feel they’re going to war eventually,” she said, meaning the White House. “And this is their best opportunity to do it and win easily.” Hussein was diplomatically cornered and Bush was politically solid, she said. So if the administration thought a conflict with the dictator was inevitable, they would get him because they could.

She also argued emotion. “I also think that there is a desire to prove American might after 9/11 and Afghanistan.” Hitchens had worked as a reporter covering the defense industry and NATO for two decades before joining CDI. She was skeptical of the oil case. “People talk about a military-industrial complex. There is such a thing. But it is neither as closely knit nor as closely tied as people think.” Oil companies and defense contractors were far too busy maneuvering among themselves to have successfully ordered up a war. “They’re cutthroat with each other.”

The oil industry itself has commented scantly on the charges of inappropriate involvement in foreign policy. A spokesman for the American Petroleum Institute, Phil Hickman, said he didn’t “know what the oil industry thinks” and hung up on me. The American Petroleum Institute is the oil industry lobby in Washington, D.C.; Hickman’s job is to explain what the oil industry thinks. On a later call, Hickman refused a second chance to refute the protester’s allegations, and would only say the question “pissed [him] off.”

Still, the oil industry’s reluctance to discuss its intentions toward Iraq—and hostility to those who ask—doesn’t prove the case. Following the money, though an understandable impulse, doesn’t seem to lead to Iraq.

“The play for the oil market such as it is, for the next twenty years, is Russia.” Greg Valliere is chief strategist of the Washington Strategy Group of Charles Schwab, the San Francisco investment company. We spoke by phone. “Iraq is hardly the dominant player in the oil market. Russia will be the swing producer here.”

Based in Washington, Valliere analyzes politics for institutional investors—multi-billion-dollar pension funds and so forth—and said he had seen little evidence of those forces moving to profit from Iraqi oil or a war. “As an old late-Sixties protester … to say it’s about access to oil, boy, I can turn it around and say the French companies have the interest.” French and Russian oil companies, whose governments oppose a war, would be competing for access to the Iraqi oil after a war, with American and other firms. But even in those cases, Valliere says he has yet to see significant response in the value of oil-services stocks or interest from venture capitalists to postwar oil prospects. The crisis in Venezuela is having more of an impact on oil stocks and profits than Iraq’s crisis, he said.

He was convinced the protests were having more of an impact in Iowa than on Wall Street. “You’ve got to look at the Democrats. The Democrats have to appeal to the protesters.” The early signs in the presidential field for the Democrats were showing more evidence of the protester’s presence than the oil industry did. Democratic hawks—Joe Lieberman, primarily—and doves like Kerry and Howard Dean were emerging. That was the real oil industry issue, Valliere theorized, because most of these men would make an issue of the White House’s circumstantial oil connections. And then the case need not be made solidly. “This is not a repeat of the Sixties with McGovern and Eugene McCarthy.”

Whether the “No Blood For Oil” theme is a help or a hindrance to anti-war efforts now is a difficult thing to measure. Dayaneni, perhaps predictably, said it is useful. “It’s about oil, and it isn’t about oil,” he said. “The crisis has come down to ‘Can there be oil without bloodshed?’”

No, there can’t, he said.

 

If a war can occur despite hundreds of thousands of mainstream Americans marching against it, as is alleged to have happened in January, then perhaps this is a statistical problem. How many will it take to catch President Bush’s eye? Is there a number that can?

“They may succeed despite themselves,” said Theresa Hitchens, the CDI vice president. “I think they can be useful because they can focus attention.” Hitchens believes members of Congress were increasingly critical of the president in the wake of the protests, and cited stronger statements from the Senate minority leader, Tom Daschle. She’s not opposed to the grassroots, it’s just not her ken. Still: “Think about how successful Greenpeace was.”

Anti-war activists say there is evidence that the protests give politicians cover. “I don’t know why this isn’t reported more often,” UFP’s Mark said. “Two-thirds of the House of Representatives, including two-thirds of the Democrats, voted against the war. Including the current minority leader. That’s because people were sending letters and flooding their offices with phone calls. If that wasn’t true, there’s no way that many would have voted like that.”

Mark allowed they lost anyway. He was not optimistic about his chances of changing the course of events.

“At this point, my guess is no, we can’t stop a war. I think it’s still important to be out there.”

A Congressional staffer familiar with internal discussions over the war claimed the protests were part of discussion in committee meetings. “I think they [the protesters] exercise real influence. That’s not to say members of Congress don’t look to their own constituencies, but also to their consciences and to many other considerations.” Public sentiment expressed in the demonstrations was at least one of those, though. “They’re taken very seriously,” he said. “That’s not to say they change minds.”

Global Exchange’s Jason Mark seemed displeased, but to have accepted, the inevitability of a war. “Vaclav Havel said you have to pretend to be a free person, even when you’re not.”

 

The U.S. force in the gulf at this writing numbers a touch over 100,000. The 101st airborne was just called up too, which is another 15,000. Estimates of likely Iraqi casualties, civilians and soldiers, in an American invasion reach into the hundreds of thousands. A BBC report, citing a leaked UN estimate, said as many as 500,000 Iraqis would be killed or injured in a war, and 10 million—just less than half the country’s population—could need immediate humanitarian assistance.

The harrowing possibilities led to more marches: Rome, London, Sydney, perhaps the largest coordinated worldwide protest in the history of the world. But the movement, by then, carried a palpable awareness of its own limits. It was more about voicing opposition for the record than actually affecting the chances of a war.

When does a demonstration fail and become a tantrum? The suffragettes hadn’t been allowed to vote, but won; the civil rights marchers were dispersed with firehoses, killed and dumped in rivers, then won; the labor unions had been hung as communists, and also won, once even in San Francisco. Nowhere in the histories of any of these moments did it seem like the obstacles were less than they are today. It was difficult to think of these successes, and look around the march, and not think San Francisco had an air of offended entitlement about it that Saturday. The organizers had their jobs because they had spoken first—they had been first to name the date. Just past the base of Market Street, the oil tankers bobbed, anchored at sea.

 

Late last year Saddam Hussein gave a widely reported speech. In it he reportedly referred to Americans as “new Mongols.” There is reason to take this as a historical reference. The Mongols sacked Baghdad in the mid-thirteenth century. It’s an obscure reference in the U.S., but less so in broader world history.

If Hussein’s comment was a reference to that ancient incident, it’s a strange one. The ruler of Baghdad, then called a Khalif, lost the battle and died. It’s hardly a triumphant moment. Marco Polo tells the story in his diaries:

The army of this Khalif was surrounded and broken, himself was made prisoner, and the city surrendered to the conquerer. Upon entering it, Ulau [the Mongol general] discovered to his great astonishment a tower filled with gold. He called the Khalif before him, and after reproaching him with his avarice, that prevented him from employing his treasures in the formation of an army for the defense of capitol against powerful invasion, with which it had long been threatened, gave orders for his being shut up in this same tower without sustenance; and there, in the midst of his wealth, he soon finished a miserable existence.

 An even bleaker version of the story exists. In that version, the invaders rolled the Khalif and his family up in rugs, lay them on the ground and trampled them to death with their horses. Few remember the Khalif today. Baghdad was later rebuilt.

First published in The Believer.

Comments

Marc Herman on sabtwitter
Marc Herman
Marc Herman is the author of Searching for El Dorado, an account of his travels with gold prospectors in the Amazon forest, and The Shores of Tripoli, a Kindle Single based on his reporting from the Libyan civil war. His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, Pacific Standard, Slate, Politico, Matter, the Believer, and GQ. A freelance reporter since 1993, he has lived in worked in Oakland, California, Georgetown, Guyana, Jakarta, Indonesia, and Barcelona, Spain, where he now lives with his family.