The first Washington snow of the season kept falling as Daniel Ellsberg, of the Pentagon papers fame, stepped to the microphone. “We are the Winter soldiers,” intoned Ellsberg to the cheering crowd of several hundred who came to Lafayette Square on the chilly 16th of December, morning to deliver to President Obama a simple message, STOP THESE WARS. The Winter-Soldiers-versus-Sunshine-Patriots theme was as dear to the crowd now as it was to George Washington in 1776 when Thomas Paine exhorted him to rely on Winter soldiers in the fight for independence.
Veterans for Peace Insist on Nonviolence
The rally was organized by Veterans for Peace (VFP), which since its inception in 1985 has struggled to steer the U.S. toward peaceful resolution of international conflicts. The organizers had planned a silent vigil march to the White House, to be followed by nonviolent civil resistance. “We are dedicated to exposing the true costs of war and militarism,” said VFP President Mike Ferner. He reminded U.S. citizens, “We’ve killed well over a million people. We’ve orphaned and displaced five times that number at least. And here in our own country, we’ve managed to throw millions of people out of work and out of their homes.”
The Memory of Yester Years
As the snow fell, I remembered other times.
My first job was as editor of Moscow Radio’s foreign language broadcasts. My colleagues and I occasionally got time off to “go and demonstrate solidarity” with foreign dignitaries visiting Moscow in support of “peaceful coexistence.” Western media echoed this propaganda of “unanimity.” Between ourselves we whispered the latest of Radio Yerevan’s black humor: “Our listener asks: Will there be a war between the United States and the U.S.S.R.? Our political commentator replies: “No, there will be no war. But the struggle for peace will be such that no stone on earth shall remain in place.” I did not tell my colleagues that one of my former Moscow State University classmates was in prison, the other in an insane asylum. Peaceful coexistence of a sort.
University of Lund. I was a free man protected by political asylum in Sweden. Alas, the overwhelming opinion of students condemned U. S. “aggression” in South Vietnam. “U.S. imperialism is the main obstacle to peace,” they said. I packed to leave for the United States.
I was at the University of Chicago learning English by reading the student newspaper, The Maroon. The Trotskyites on campus agreed there is no freedom in the U.S.S.R. But when it came to the Vietnam War, they swallowed Soviet propaganda hook, line, and sinker. Like any Leftist organizers of “antiwar” movement, they were peaceNIKs.
I was in graduate school at the University of Washington in Seattle. Here and elsewhere I witnessed how the New left manipulated the peaceniks. The antiwar movement turned increasingly anti-American. As I advanced toward a Ph.D. degree, campus protests escalated on my campus and elsewhere. Television screens were filled with images of noisy student protests. Demonstrators taunted the “police pigs” to provoke violence. Campuses were bombed. “Burn, baby, burn!” was in the headlines. The antiwar movement merged with the struggle for civil rights. A popular book condoned rape as an act of insurrection. The stench of revolution was everywhere. One professor’s car was stoned; another professor’s office was vandalized. The latter taught a course on communist infiltration in the U.S. One colleague was denied tenure because he had served as a linguist in Saigon. The country was sliding to a point when “no stone shall be left in place,” not by enemy fire but in a civil war.
Fiasco and Hope 1975
I was an assistant professor of Russian Studies as well as teacher of Western civilization at the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas, when the news of the U.S. evacuation of Saigon arrived. I took the American defeat as a personal tragedy. The only hope for the West was rising in the East – the dissident and human rights movement in the U.S.S.R. My students learned to pronounce the names of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, awarded the1970 Nobel Prize for literature, and nuclear physicist Andrei Sakharov, awarded the 1975 Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nik Tail of It All
As a linguist, I find the Russian suffix “nik” attached to the English “peace” a cute verbal invention. But I never mixed up with the peaceniks.
Most were just silly kids who saw any crowd as an opportunity “to reach out and touch some one.” Yet the damage they did to the U.S. and to world peace was enormous. They damaged themselves, too, through drug addiction and counter-culture indulgences. They were manipulated by the members of the New Left, who were actually hard-core Marxist-Leninists. The misleading “New” was a trick to distance themselves from old-time American Stalinists because Stalin had been already discredited by Nikita Khrushchev.
The best testimony about the manipulative doings of the New Left came from David Horowitz and Peter Collier, two former editors of Ramparts magazine. In their 1989 book, Destructive Generation: Second Thoughts About the ’60s, the two admitted their philosophy then was “we murdered to create.” Alas, Horowitz later became a right-winger, racist, and pro-war Zionist. In 2004, he published the Anti-Chomsky Reader. Horowitz’s life curve was typical of many American Jews who switched from the anti-war radicalism of the 1960s to pro-war Zionist propaganda of today.
There are important differences between the Vietnam War and current wars that the U.S. wages. Throughout the post-World War II period, it was not the U.S. but the U.S.S.R. that was constantly on a prowl for ideological, political, and military expansion. The Vietnam War was a response, inept though it may have been, to a worldwide Soviet expansion augmented by that of Communist China. Even though the two giants did not always agree, they outbid each other in arming North Vietnam, encouraging its push to the South.
After the end of the Cold War, the U.S. judged it expedient to replace the U.S.S.R. as an empire. This new empire loves “asymmetrical wars” because the enemy consists of rag-tag peasant “terrorists.” Unlike the communists in South Vietnam, they are not backed by any major power, armed with little more than the Kalashnikovs and the Stingers that the U.S. supplied to fight Soviet aggression in Afghanistan.
As the snow kept falling in December 2010, speaker after speaker denounced the current U.S. foreign policy as expansionist, militarist, and jingoist. The speakers included Brian Becker of the ANSWER coalition (Act Now to Stop Wars and End Racism); Peace Mom Cindy Sheehan; Ray McGovern, retired CIA officer and former U.S. Army Intelligence officer; Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Chris Hedges; Mike Prysner, Iraq vet, cofounder of March Forward!; and CodePink Women for Peace cofounder Medea Benjamin, who called on Obama to wage peace, not war. All were eloquent, passionate, and persuasive.
Then taps were played, and all the uniformed officers and many civilians stood at attention. We moved in a single file toward the White House. There were no shouts – just a solemn military beat as if to honor of the thousands of American soldiers who have given their lives in the meaningless “war on terror.” The procession was colorful with the signs scorning the “Obaminable” wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the threats against Iran. Other signs demanded the government pay attention to domestic needs. “Hands off Wikileaks.” “Afghanistan is the Place where Empires Go to Die.” “Peace on Earth?” said one sign with an ironic question: Would the only superpower give to the world a gift of peace on Christmas holidays? We reached the front of the White House. Our leaders stepped to the fence, ready to be arrested.
Chanting and Singing
The chanting started: “Stop these wars – Stop these wars – Stop these wars.” We sang the familiar: “Truth shall set us free I do believe.. we shall overcome someday.” I heard a steady beat of Buddhist drums. The drummers wanted to free Barack Obama from the evil spell of war, to open his heart to the ways of peace. Then a simple, triple pronged chant arose, “Peace – Shalom – Salam.” It sought to remind the President of the promise he made in his Cairo speech to be forceful and fair in his efforts to broker a peace between Israel and Palestine, an especially urgent matter because unabated hostilities have inflamed passions throughout the Middle East and antagonized the Muslim world against the U.S.
Planetarians of the World Unite!
People asked each other to hold their signs for a while. Others peddled leaflets and buttons. I said “no” to one polite young woman peddling a leaflet with the Red Star and the word “REVOLUTION.” I got the newspaper Workers World instead. I know that the workers need a break in this country, in Russia, and elsewhere. But the paper’s ideology is worn out – Marxist and revolutionary. It headlines the need to protect the North Korean communist regime. But there is nothing about Iraq or Afghanistan. Nothing about U.S. threats against Iran. The paper’s masthead harks back to Karl Marx’s “Proletarians of the world unite!” Now, when the survival of the planet is at stake, I prefer to hear “Planetarians of the world unite!” We need a unity without the distinction of class, race, religion, or nationality.
Ron Paul’s “Revolution”
I ran into supporters of Ron Paul, U.S. Congressman from Texas and one-time presidential candidate. I had met him and liked him. He is a conservative Republican, but, unlike George Bush, he “has stood resolute against our government interference overseas.” So says the leaflet handed to me by one of his supporters. The leaflet proclaims what we had been chanting, “Bring the troops home now.” The Congressman is a revolutionary in a more familiar sense: he is for “a second American revolution to restore our liberty and the Constitution.” Amen.
The clock moved past noon, but the snow kept falling. The temperature fell below freezing. The police, both mounted and on foot, were about to cordon off those ready to be arrested. I came here with a friend and former student who works for the government. He cannot risk being arrested. We prepare to leave. Among the “chained” I see the chiseled face of Jim whom I befriended in December 1998 when President Clinton started bombing Iraq. The suspicion was that Clinton needed the bombing to divert attention from the Monika Lewinsky scandal. It was Jim who got me onboard with VFP. We went together to several rallies against the “humanitarian bombing” of Yugoslavia. Later, Jim and I took part in hauling a memorial rock to the civilian casualties of war. The memorial was cut in Boston, Massachusetts. Our intention was to have it installed at the Arlington National Cemetery. In modern warfare, we reasoned, the number of innocent civilians losing lives as collateral damage has been growing dramatically. Alas, the cemetery officials refused to accept the memorial.
Letter to President Obama
Before we leave, we witness one more daring act of the Winter siege of the White House. Several “soldiers” threw small leaflets OVER the fence and down on the lawn of the White House. “A letter to Obama,” they shouted. It was also a provocation for arrest, for it is illegal to litter anywhere, least of all on the premises of the White House. I asked Jim for a copy.
Dear President Obama, The “war on terror,” which has continued and expanded during your presidency, and your continued support of the Israeli military occupation of Palestine has [sic]wrought untold suffering and misery upon millions of people, as well as putting America’s hard-earned wealth into the pockets of multinational corporations.
You have betrayed the hope that many Americans placed in you.. [as you]continued the Bush policy of war, torture, suspension of habeas corpus, state secrets, and every other evil initiated by the former regime.
The letter reminded Obama that he had promised to reverse Bush’s policy of trampling on the civil rights of prisoners and combatants.
These wars of aggression, the continued occupation of Iraq, support of the Israeli military machine, and the bailout of Wall Street have done nothing to make America safer, prosperous, or whole.
President Obama, you talk a good game, Now we, the people, demand you walk the walk. End these wars!” [Produced by stopthesewars.org]
Fall on your Knees
President Obama, pick up that leaflet. Fall on your knees before the people who elected you on the promise of peace, civility, and fairness. Don’t wait for your advisers. Look in the mirror. Don’t let Sunshine patriots run your show. Let God be your only counsel. Think about your mixed racial, ethnic, and religious background. Billions of people around the world, especially in third-world countries, look up to your leadership as a peacemaker. In a letter to my Russia & America Goodwill Association, I wrote that you deserved the Nobel Peace Prize on the strength of your reset-with-Russia initiatives. You deserved it for the good intentions you articulated in the Cairo speech.
Make good on your promises. Join the ranks of Winter soldiers. Lead them to the land of peace, prosperity, and justice. Remember that Winter soldiers are true American patriots who are good for all seasons, unlike “the sunshine patriot [who] will, in a crisis, shrink from the service of their country.”
A Silent Majority Now and Then
One of the great differences between the antiwar movements now and then is the media coverage. Vietnam War protesters got all the coverage they wanted. I wondered why. I was told that “in democratic society, free press had to play an adversarial role lest the government becomes too strong.” Since the end of the Cold War, such a democratic approach is not in evidence. The mainstream media seem to be in cahoots with the government. Even when thousands marched against the bombing of Yugoslavia, The Washington Post failed to notice them.
The Washington Post largely ignored our peace rally, too. However, The Huffington Post quoted Ellsberg on those who walk in his footsteps – Brady Manning and Julian Assange. “I think they provided a very valuable service,” Ellsberg said, “To call them terrorists is not only mistaken; it’s absurd and slanderous.”
The Huffington Post found it newsworthy that “131 antiwar protesters got themselves arrested” in one of the larger acts of civil disobedience in front of the White House in some time .” This was done “to spark the country’s silent majority into action,” stressed the reporter Amanda Terkel. She was right. A new poll was just published that indicates “a record 60 percent of Americans now say the war in Afghanistan is not worth fighting.”
Today’s SILENT MAJORITY is antiwar and routinely ignored by the media. The media’s treatment of a silent majority in either case does not bode well for democracy.
P. S. Washington, D.C. – January 4, 2011: Antiwar military veterans and other activists celebrated a breakthrough victory today in D.C. Superior Court, when charges against the 131 December protesters who had been arrested were dropped. “This is clearly a victory for opposition to undeclared wars which are illegal under international law, have led to the destruction of societies in Iraq and Afghanistan, bled the U.S. Treasury in a time of recession, and caused human rights violations against civilians and combatants ,” declared the victorious Winter Soldiers.