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Peace Casualties 

A dispute over dwindling numbers at peace marches

Thursday, Apr 3 2003
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Anti-war protesters assembled last Sunday in the heart of downtown L.A. at Pershing Square, the park consecrated to one of America’s first true imperial procurators, John J. Pershing, the military commander who helped suppress the Philippine insurrection at the beginning of the last century. Pershing’s president, William McKinley, said of his war, which turned the former Spanish colony into a U.S. outpost and inaugurated the American Empire, that “There are those who say we should not have taken the Philippine Islands without the consent of the people there. Did we need their consent to perform a great act of humanity? We were obeying a higher moral obligation, and did not require anybody’s consent.”

It was not entirely clear that the demonstrators, gathered under a sweltering, premature summer sky, were onto the eerily familiar rhetoric echoing from that long-ago war (most were seeking the sheltering shade of the coral and pepper and sycamore trees), although one member of the Spartacist League, speaking over a megaphone, did exhort the sun-weary crowd to “take a side against U.S. imperialism: Defend Iraq.” Not much of a slogan when put side by side with the denunciations uttered by the first American anti-imperialists, among them Henry Adams, Mark Twain, William James, Jane Addams and Thorstein Veblen, who managed to make “imperialism” the major issue of the 1900 election. James declared that the country had “thrown away its ancient principles” and had “joined the pack of common wolves.”

Whether today’s anti-war movement can transform itself into a potent political force arrayed in favor of America’s “ancient principles” of human freedom and democracy remains, as that project has always been, a decidedly open question. There is little doubt that the 3,000 or so, mostly young demonstrators penned into Pershing Square, waiting for the parade to begin, were aligned to that broad agenda. Their opposition to the war in Iraq, from the hand-lettered posters on display (“Compassionate Conservative/ Shock & Awe”) to the Kabuki-like Butoh dance theater (ghostly white figures writhing and coated in the fallout from a MOAB explosion, originating from a Halliburton suitcase) to the old-fashioned, rabble-rousing speech by Assemblywoman Jackie Goldberg (“Up in the Legislature, we are being told there is no money. But obviously, there is money: money to rebuild Iraq . . . not our schools”) is sincerely and rightly and vocally concerned with the costs of war.

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But the numbers are small. This might seem, in itself, a picayune matter. Who cares if anti-war demonstrations are large or small? A matter of conscience — and war certainly is one — should never be decided by the number of followers it attracts, or doesn’t attract. To the organizers of Sunday’s rally, however, numbers are very important. At Pershing Square, Paul Ahuja, the MC for International ANSWER, which sponsored the rally, announced that “tens of thousands” were pouring into the square. (The Weekly’s report that last week’s demonstration in Hollywood was 3,500 strong, Ahuja told his audience, was “a lie.”) Later, at the rally that concluded the march, which had gone up Broadway, through downtown, amid indifferent immigrant bystanders, another MC announced, on a Woodstock-decibel sound system that could be heard at least three city blocks away — well beyond the margins of the crowd — that today’s turnout was 100,000.

This obsession with overstating the numbers is revealing. Fearful that they’re losing ground, and that the successive, weekly demonstrations have become something of a sporting event — as much for pleasure as for political statement — the organizers of Sunday’s rally want to insist on big, and even bigger, turnouts. Numbers, they believe, constitute moral authority. The more demonstrators answering “What Do We Want?” with “Peace!” and “When Do We Want It?” with “Now!” the more righteous their position. Insisting on these inflated tallies, the ANSWER coalition is trading on its weakness, and not on its strength. Its strength is the earnest belief among the vast majority of demonstrators not just in L.A., but across the country, that the war in Iraq is destined to destroy not only many lives overseas, American and Iraqi, but jeopardize as well our domestic tranquillity, and sacrifice our democracy. They universally, and correctly, reject the administration dogma that the United States is fighting a war of liberation in Iraq. In the Bush doctrine of pre-emptive and preventive war, many Americans see a future of perpetual militarism, and a steady decline into penury, to boot. All of this may be true, but it does not confront the reality of this war: Eventually Saddam Hussein will be toppled, a barbaric dictatorship beheaded, and a peace movement that expended its energy calling for the impeachment of President Bush will be buried under the rubble of a tyrannical regime.

It may be possible, as Tom Hayden, in an optimistic mood these days, said while marching out of Pershing Square, that Bush and Rumsfeld are “headed for a hollow military victory. Military victory doesn’t give you political supremacy, and it is difficult to salvage political victory from battlefield victory.” The leaders of this Sunday’s demonstration might pause to think that the same might apply to them, and quit counting heads and start using them.

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