The Antiwar Movement Disappeared Under Obama - Let's Make It Great Again

War has always been ugly and arguably it's always been a racket. Two-time Medal of Honor recipient General Smedley Butler said as much as he toured the United States in the early 1930's. Butler had participated in the U.S. takeover of the nation of Haiti in 1915 that led to a 19 year occupation and the installing of a dictatorship led by numerous U.S.-backed strongmen. The original reason behind American involvement was to prevent a leader from coming into power who might have hurt U.S. business interests on the island.

Opposition to the Vietnam War

Martin Luther King leads a massive anti-war peace rally in New York City in 1967

Martin Luther King leads a massive anti-war peace rally in New York City in 1967

Much like then, things are very much the same now. However there has always been a connection between leftist politics (whether progressive, social democratic, socialist or Marxist) and antiwar sentiments that have often culminated in various antiwar movements. Liberal pacifists and socialists vocalized their opposition to war in both World Wars 1 and 2. However most either remember or have learned about the massive anti-war movement against the Vietnam War in the 1960's and early 70's that took place at the same time (but mostly not together) as the Civil Rights movement. Before Martin Luther King was assassinated, he was turning his direction towards the Vietnam War and was taking a much more anti-war stance.

On April 4, 1967, an exact year before he was assassinated on April 4, 1968, Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his 'Beyond Vietnam' speech. It's one of those MLK speeches that you never hear and a lot of his supporters (white and black) at the time didn't like that he gave it. They thought it was a little "too radical." Mere days earlier on March 25, 1967, King had led a 5,000 person march against the Vietnam War in Chicago. In the speech, among other things, King stated...

Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy. They move sadly and apathetically as we herd them off the land of their fathers into concentration camps where minimal social needs are rarely met. They know they must move on or be destroyed by our bombs.

So they go, primarily women and children and the aged. They watch as we poison their water, as we kill a million acres of their crops. They must weep as the bulldozers roar through their areas preparing to destroy the precious trees. They wander into the hospitals with at least twenty casualties from American firepower for one Vietcong-inflicted injury. So far we may have killed a million of them, mostly children. They wander into the towns and see thousands of the children, homeless, without clothes, running in packs on the streets like animals. They see the children degraded by our soldiers as they beg for food. They see the children selling their sisters to our soldiers, soliciting for their mothers.

What do the peasants think as we ally ourselves with the landlords and as we refuse to put any action into our many words concerning land reform? What do they think as we test out our latest weapons on them, just as the Germans tested out new medicine and new tortures in the concentration camps of Europe? Where are the roots of the independent Vietnam we claim to be building? Is it among these voiceless ones?

We have destroyed their two most cherished institutions: the family and the village. We have destroyed their land and their crops. We have cooperated in the crushing of the nation’s only noncommunist revolutionary political force, the unified Buddhist Church. We have supported the enemies of the peasants of Saigon. We have corrupted their women and children and killed their men.
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If we continue, there will be no doubt in my mind and in the mind of the world that we have no honorable intentions in Vietnam. If we do not stop our war against the people of Vietnam immediately, the world will be left with no other alternative than to see this as some horrible, clumsy, and deadly game we have decided to play. The world now demands a maturity of America that we may not be able to achieve. It demands that we admit we have been wrong from the beginning of our adventure in Vietnam, that we have been detrimental to the life of the Vietnamese people. The situation is one in which we must be ready to turn sharply from our present ways. In order to atone for our sins and errors in Vietnam, we should take the initiative in bringing a halt to this tragic war.

I would like to suggest five concrete things that our government should do to begin the long and difficult process of extricating ourselves from this nightmarish conflict:

Number one: End all bombing in North and South Vietnam.

Number two: Declare a unilateral cease-fire in the hope that such action will create the atmosphere for negotiation.

Three: Take immediate steps to prevent other battlegrounds in Southeast Asia by curtailing our military buildup in Thailand and our interference in Laos.

Four: Realistically accept the fact that the National Liberation Front has substantial support in South Vietnam and must thereby play a role in any meaningful negotiations and any future Vietnam government.

Five: Set a date that we will remove all foreign troops from Vietnam in accordance with the 1954 Geneva Agreement. [sustained applause]
— Martin Luther King, 'Beyond Vietnam' - 1967

Many people believe that King's focus on the war is what may have led to his assassination, and as you can see...his statements about the war were harsh and unapologetic. Many today wouldn't say about the War on Terror what King said about Vietnam and we are doing far worse now than we were back then! Martin Luther King was on the road to becoming a lion in the antiwar movement...then a year later he was assassinated. Coincidence? I doubt very much so.

Opposition to the Iraq War

In more recent times, the antiwar movement has mostly manifested against the Iraq War. The movement began in 2003 and continued throughout both Bush terms and into the Presidency of Barack Obama (but became noticeably weaker and inconsistent). One of the largest antiwar protests occurred during the 2004 Republican National Convention where between 500,000 - 800,000 antiwar and social justice activists protested throughout the day of the RNC convention. Another large antiwar protest occurred in 2005 in Washington D.C. where nearly 300,000 Americans participated. While yet another in 2007 , organized by United For Peace and Justice, attracted roughly 500,000 peace activists.

2007 was the last year really massive antiwar demonstrations were organized, that was a decade ago now. Barack Obama's lack of voting for the Iraq war played a role in his attractiveness to the American people. While most didn't see Obama as a pacifist, if you'd told me in 2008 that he'd attack 7 different countries and put the Bush/Cheney neocon agenda on steroids...I would've called you a crazy person.

That is the exact problem though. Since Barack Obama didn't start the Iraq or Afghanistan wars, far too many in the Democratic Party and on the Left in general gave him a pass. Many Americans ignored or were silent on his drone program and while he did receive a lot of flack online for what would become the massacre of Libya, most just didn't seem to care that much that he had attacked an independent nation unilaterally without Congressional approval. This may have set a terrible standard going forward now that Trump is in office and will surely conduct business the same way on the international stage - likely over-stepping legal boundaries even more than Obama.

A photoshopped picture of Barack Obama and MLK sitting together

A photoshopped picture of Barack Obama and MLK sitting together

I find it problematic putting the image of Barack Obama and Martin Luther King side-by-side. They are two very different men and I imagine would've disagreed on a great many things. King was an idealist and a socio-political revolutionary, Barack Obama is a politician. What would King think of Obama's drone program? What would King say about the close ties his administration had to Wall Street? Most importantly, what would King say about Obama's silence on state violence against Black and Brown men and women for so many years? Conflating the legacies of Martin Luther King and Barack Obama may be the ultimate form of historical revisionism and selective memory. As a Black man who voted for Barack Obama twice, I understand the joy many black Americans have for Obama's Presidency. I especially understand it when it comes to older Americans who came up in a different era. However we have to be realistic about how different the two men are.

Obama is a product of the integrationist America MLK was fighting for, but he's also a sign of its short-comings. Martin Luther King would never have done the bidding of the war machine and global capitalism and attacked an African country to prevent them from becoming economically-independent...which is the real reason Gaddafi was overthrown.

The Anti-War Movement in the Era of Trump

Make no mistake about it, the antiwar movement fell apart during the Obama years. That's unfortunate because now under Trump, if the movement picks back up, critics will call it opportunistic and we will continue hearing the chorus of "Obama did it too" which has become common in the early months of the Trump regime. That is why Obama's foreign policy is so troubling and disappointing. He gave his supporters nothing to work with, so the left should've kept up the pressure and continued the antiwar struggle with Obama in office. Instead the antiwar left was silenced and essentially disappeared for 8 years (outside of a handful of small, sporadic antiwar protests during Obama's Presidency).

Now I don't think Obama is a bad person, overall I think he was a pretty good President when compared to his predecessor and successor. However, Obama gave the green light to 563 drone strikes compared to George W. Bush's 57 - an increase of 888%! Up to 807 civilians are thought to have died as a result of Barack Obama's drone program. The internal numbers from the Obama administration are a lot lower in number as they claim up to only 116 civilians were killed during Obama's two terms by drones specifically in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia and Libya(only counting the civilians in countries we have no officially declared war on).

What the antiwar left is now dealing with are successive Presidents that are one-upping each other in the field of imperial militarism. Bush invaded 2 countries and displaced millions, Obama never launched a full-scale invasion like his predecessor, but committed acts of war against 7 different nations. Notoriously never seeking Congressional approval for the bombing campaign in Libya, but also Somalia and Yemen as well. Now we're dealing with a Trump administration that is already looking to exceed the excesses of Barack Obama. Mere months into his Presidency and the Trump administration has a civilian casualty rate that has exceeded Obama's entire drone program civilian casualty numbers!

Trump notoriously stated on the campaign trail that we have to "go after their families." It appears he's following through with that and one must ask, when will the insanity end? How much blood needs to be spilled before some level of sanity returns to American foreign policy? So much death and destruction has been dished out that there really is no easy solution...no simple answer.

What is clear is that the antiwar movement needs a return from the grave and this time it has to be unapologetic about its agenda. The movement became a little political during the Obama years as many sat by and said nothing because it was a Democratic President pushing the neocon agenda and not a Republican. We can no longer play political games like that. This is a policy of endless war and the War on Terror will go the way of the War on Drugs. A system that is simply put on autopilot where administration after administration follows the same gameplan for no real rhyme or reason other than the fact that it has become a terrible new norm.

The United States is so knee deep in the drug war now that despite the fact that it is a total failure on all counts, no one in Washington is really calling for its end. The drug war has been so heavily monetized now that everyone from police departments to the prison complex, all the way up to the Department of Justice, is in on the action. Profiteering off of the pain and suffering of average Americans (mostly Black and Brown). The War on Terror is the same, but on steroids.

A Return of the Black Radical Antiwar Tradition

As shown above, there is a well-documented history within the Black radical tradition to fight against U.S. imperialism at home and abroad. Let us not forget that W.E.B. Du Bois was highly critical of the United States when writing for The Crisis when he called out the barbarism of lynching when referring to black soldiers returning from World War 1.

But today we return! We return from the slavery of uniform which the world’s madness demanded us to don to the freedom of civil garb. We stand again to look America in the face and call a spade a spade. We sing: This country of ours, despite all its better souls have done and dreamed, is yet a shameful land.
It lynches.
And lynching is barbarism of a degree of contemptible nastiness unparalleled in human history. Yet for fifty years we have lynched two Negroes a week, and we have kept this up right through the war.
It disenfranchises its own citizens.
Disenfranchisement is the deliberate theft and robbery of the only protection of the poor against rich and black against white. The land that disenfranchises its citizens and calls itself a democracy lies and knows it lies.
It encourages ignorance.
— W.E.B. Du Bois, 'Returning Soldiers,' The Crisis magazine: May 1919

In the era of Trump, we also can't forget the words of Malcolm X who encouraged American progressives to protest if America sent soldiers to Vietnam and said that the struggle in Vietnam is the struggle of the entire "third world" and is a struggle against colonialism, neo-colonialism and imperialism.

Many black intellectuals throughout the ages have seen the interlocking relationships between war, imperialism and the black struggle against domestic systematic oppression. I see this blog entry as hopefully helping to reignite that rhetoric. 

In the era of Trump, let's make the antiwar movement great again! It's been 10 long years since the liberals and progressives, socialists, democratic socialists and those fighting for social justice have taken a stand against the U.S. imperial war machine. It is long overdue and our cause has never been more just.  

Donald Trump wants to increase U.S. military spending by $54 billion! This can only be done by cutting domestic programs that people need and have relied on...and for what!?! It's not as if America's military budget isn't already extremely bloated! Has America been attacked again a la 9/11? No. The reasoning behind America's delirious and blood-thirsty warmongering have become more and more vague. The justifications exceedingly terrible, if not outright misleading. That many within the Democratic Party have been silent on Trump's foreign policy excesses shows how corrupted the Democrats have become on this issue as well. There are a scant few within Congress that have ever stood up to the military-industrial complex.

Members of Congress like Barbara Lee of California are a dime a dozen. She was the lone member of Congress who voted against the War on Terror - a vote that was brave, smart and 100% correct. She called it vague and a road to endless war back then and 16 years later...she has been proven to be right. Even Bernie Sanders voted for the War on Terror (though he didn't vote for the Iraq War resolution in 2002). The War on Terror has done nothing more than create more terrorists while terrorizing countless millions in predominantly Muslim countries.

While the Obama administration dropped the usage of the term 'war on terror,' they did not stop waging it. As stated above, Obama expanded the war on terror and essentially had a neocon foreign policy if we're being honest with ourselves.

The antiwar movement and American progressives, black and white, must make it clear that continuing this policy will no longer be accepted. If we accept the MSM-fueled indoctrination of war, fed to them by the military-industrial complex...then we are partly responsible for the fallout. We can only claim ignorance but so many times before we're nothing but complicit sheep. Sheep being herded to the polling station by proverbial gunpoint to vote for wars that kill mostly innocents and destroy our freedoms and liberties at home. 

The time for the antiwar movement to return is now!