The War Comes Home (2/98)

Plans to bomb Iraq may be on hold — for awhile. But the anti-war activists who took over Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s office on Monday Feb. 23 don’t trust the government any more than Bill Clinton trusts Saddam Hussein. Thus, even after learning that UN chief Kofi Annan’s eleventh hour agreement had been cautiously accepted, 18 people refused to leave until the governor endorsed their peace program. Even if Dean hadn’t been in Washington, DC, with other state leaders, however, that wasn’t in the cards. Fortunately, both the protesters and the cops opted for nonviolence, and no one got hurt.

This was a very different "direct action" than the one which culminated in a showdown on College Street in Burlington just a week earlier. For one thing, there was a clear objective: to secure Dean’s support for a resolution in the Vermont House of Representatives opposing war with Iraq, along with a statement condemning continued sanctions and backing UN peacekeeping. It was also a lot more disciplined, escalating in stages from a mild-mannered rally to a full-fledged sit-in.

Once a small delegation had presented the group’s demands to Dean’s counsel, Janet Ancel, others gradually joined them in the waiting room. By 2 p.m., as 70 people camped out, they were already thinking about what to do next. A hand-written statement expressing their disappointment with Dean’s failure to take a stand was drafted. Later, affinity groups discussed how to handle any attempt to remove them. When State Troopers finally stepped in at 4:30, everyone knew what to do. In contrast with the chaos of the previous week, activists demonstrated both their commitment and their unity. Some sang "Solidarity Forever" as they stepped aside, while those risking arrest joined arms in a circle.

Although it didn’t turn out as they’d hoped, the group did leave with an offer from Dean to meet with a few representatives on Wednesday Feb. 25, plus the feeling that they’d been part of an effective nationwide mobilization against the war. Once outside, there was some initial disappointment that no one was arrested. But this passed quickly. All in all, peace prevailed.

A Movement Divided

By now, anyone who’s been paying attention knows that showering Iraq with bombs wouldn’t reduce the threat of chemical warfare, liberate the Iraqi people, or promote the implementation of UN resolutions, What it would spark, however, is the most militant anti- government reaction this country has seen in almost 30 years.
As events in Burlington last week demonstrated, a new generation of activists has seized the leadership of what used to be called the peace movement. No longer willing to be limited by long-standing definitions of "appropriate" nonviolent behavior, they see themselves in a righteous confrontation with a lawless superpower. As a result, they feel justified in opposing government violence and policies such as sending plutonium into space "by any means necessary."

That message came through loud and clear at a planning session held last Saturday at the Peace and Justice Center in Burlington. Over 70 people squeezed into the Center’s resource room to evaluate the near- riot outside the doors of the Burlington Free Press and unify the local anti-war movement for its next moves. But calls to respect diverse strategies gave way to tense exchanges about tactics that revealed significant divisions. Older activists, many of them past leaders of Vermont’s peace movement, found their commitment to pacifism and concept of nonviolence challenged by a new wave who argued that the only way to stop a war is to bring it back home.

The division was encapsulated in comments by Hank Lambert and Martin Wiley, representing the two generations and viewpoints. Lambert talked about Gandhi, doing no harm to others, and accepting the consequences of breaking laws. "I understand the anger about the machinery of war," he said, "but I urge us to express it respectfully and take on the suffering if we have to."

"We’re already at war," replied Wiley, who was charged with impeding a police officer after last week’s events, "and the only way to stop it is to scare the government. The issue is power. If you don’t have it, nothing you can do is violent."

As extreme as that sounds, it’s not without precedent. In his book on the Weather Underground, The Way the Wind Blew, local author Ron Jacobs describes how opposition to US aggression in Vietnam led to a similar conclusion in the late 1960s. The turning point, he explained, came just 30 years ago, after a San Francisco protest turned into a police assault. Afterward, many activists concluded that "the only effective protest was one not permitted by those in power." As philosopher Herbert Marcuse defined it, demonstrations permitted by the authorities were actually a form of "repressive tolerance," allowing the state to pursue brutal goals while providing a "safety valve" for dissenters. "This safety valve," wrote Jacobs, who was on hand at the Burlington protest, "placated the opposition without challenging the power of the state."

This thinking was clearly a factor for some of those who blocked traffic and police cars last week. Their object, reaffirmed over the weekend, was to "stop business as usual." Thus, there was talk about closing down Church Street and the local arms plant, General Dynamics. But others expressed reservations. Despite their equally strong opposition to war, this mainly older group warned that they couldn’t participate in actions pitting them against local businesses or even the police.

According to Native Forest Network organizer Ann Peterman, who also faces criminal charges stemming from the Free Press protest, it was the police who lost control. "They made mistakes," she explained, "and the media twisted things around." Certainly, the use of pepper spray on protester Steve Christianson went over the line. Though not a "weapon of mass destruction," it’s been implicated in the deaths of at least 25 people in California. In New Jersey, the brother of a man who died after being excessively sprayed is currently suing three police officers and the manufacturer, Mace Securities International, based in Bennington.
However, the argument made by Native Forest’s Orin Langelle that recent arrests are part of a larger police plot to "intimidate the movement by going after perceived leaders" stretches credulity. The last thing Police Chief (and potential mayoral candidate) Kevin Scully wants is the charge that he’s targeting activists. During the Burlington protest, police kept their distance for over a hour, even though dozens of people were blocking streets. The confrontation escalated only when the cops were surrounded by people aggressively attempting to prevent the removal of those who’d been arrested. While a few officers might have used more restraint, the same could be said about some protesters.

Beyond the Law

Oddly enough, some arguments made recently by militant activists and the US government are similar. For example, both claim that lawlessness justifies extreme, unilateral measures. Of course, the government would use overwhelming firepower likely to kill thousands of innocent people, while the most that protesters threaten at the moment is to close down some businesses and occupy government offices. Nevertheless, they do have something in common: neither side seems willing to work within existing laws.

The US claims that the goal of a unilateral attack would be to force Iraqi compliance with UN Resolution 687. But the resolution itself doesn’t permit the use of force. Only the Security Council can approve that, an unlikely development given the opposition of permanent members Russia, China, and France, and most others on the Council. Therefore, if the US eventually does attack without UN approval, it will be violating international law.
This is nothing new, of course. The US frequently disregards UN decisions, even those it endorses. Take the case of Indonesia, mentioned recently at a CNN "town meeting" that revealed skepticism about Gulf War II from both the Left and Right. In 1975, the Security Council unanimously ordered Indonesia to withdraw from East Timor, demanding respect for its territorial integrity and "the inalienable right of its people to self-determination." Instead, the US secretly increased arms shipments to the aggressors, ignored the resulting genocide, and participated in the robbery of East Timor’s oil. Its immoral complicity with Indonesian aggression has never been officially reconsidered.

Although the analogy to Iraq and Kuwait is strong, there’s a major difference: US-backed atrocities in East Timor are vastly greater than anything attributed to Saddam in Kuwait. In short, the US frequently favors the rule of force and ignores the rule of law. UN resolutions are respected only if they conform to US national or business interests.

What about the protesters? Although they claim to be "nonviolent," their new definition differs sharply with what many people would expect. As Joy Braunstein, who facilitated last weekend’s meeting, put it, "Nonviolence means not recognizing the power of the state." This takes the old "necessity defense," used frequently by those who commit civil disobedience, to a new level. The logic goes this way: since the government itself is illegitimate, actions far beyond existing law are justified. Thus, anyone arrested during a protest is actually a "political prisoner," and any representative of the state is an accomplice in the repression of a revolutionary movement in the making.

So, where does that leave us? A government prepared to violate the very laws it claims to be defending has helped give birth to an anti-war movement which apparently believes it’s justified in declaring a war of its own. Even with a pause in the US-Iraq confrontation, the signs aren’t that promising. If Dean declines to accept their demands or hold a public forum, for instance, the protesters waiting outside may not take no for an answer.

The Big Picture

Let’s not forget how we got here. Up to the day Iraq invaded Kuwait, the US considered Saddam an attractive partner. As Reagan’s National Security chief for the Middle East put it, "We knew he was an SOB, but he was our SOB." Thus, the US prevented UN action against Iraq’s war with Iran, supporting it for eight years. Reagan removed Iraq from the list of terror states, advancing export credits and increasing oil imports. In 1986, strains of anthrax and botulinum were shipped to the University of Baghdad with US Commerce Department approval.
Both Reagan and Bush also blocked congressional censure of Iraq’s human rights abuses, opposing anything that would interfere with business deals or its military buildup. Bush approved billions in loan guarantees, even though they were obviously being used on missile projects. US ballistic missile technology was secretly provided, along with export licenses for "dual-use items," raw materials for mustard gas, and chemicals needed for weapons. Computers were supplied for the Saad 16 research center, later bombed as a rocket and poison gas development site. The favors continued up to the day Bush declared Saddam our new Hitler.

So, the US and others not only supported Iraq but armed it, providing precisely the weapons now used as the justification for war. Even after Gulf War I, the US watched quietly as rebelling Kurds were slaughtered. The continued regime of a brutal dictator was apparently preferable to a popular revolution. After all, the region might be "destabilized" if the Kurds won their autonomy, inspiring Kurdish communities in Turkey and Syria.

Now, of course, the US is hot to inspect every nook and cranny of Iraq for signs of the weapons it helped create. Meanwhile, however, Congress considers legislation to prevent similar inspection of its own chemical weapons stockpiles. The idea is to let the president deny access to "sensitive" sites and inspectors from hostile countries. When the same argument was used by Baghdad, it was considered an outrage. Many US officials also consider the Chemical Weapons Treaty, which the US has yet to sign, an intrusion on national sovereignty.

After a war, however, inspection could be a moot point. Once stealth fighters, B-1 bombers, F-16s, and so on fired their "weapons of mass destruction" for several days, there’d be little left to inspect. Ironically, US officials now admit that the presidential palaces which Saddam once put off limits to inspectors probably don’t house any biological and chemical stocks after all. But they probably do contain records the UN can use to reconstruct the Iraqi weapons program. Bombing would eliminate that possibility. Also gone would be UN cameras in place at key locations throughout the country, making future monitoring more difficult.

One final point: Although much has been made of Iraq’s deadly potential, the US clearly holds the record for mass destruction. It began with the nuclear weapons used on Japan, and continued in 1991 with the first-time use of more than 300 tons of depleted uranium shells. In all, over 140,000 tons of explosives, the equivalent to seven nuclear bombs, were used to destroy Iraq’s environment and infrastructure. Since then, a suffocating blockade has claimed the lives of over a million civilians, including about 750,000 children. According to UN agencies, more than two million kids suffer from severe malnutrition. So, Saddam may be a dictator, but the US has done far more damage over the years.

To paraphrase old saying: those who live in glass houses shouldn’t start wars.

Greg Guma is the editor of Toward Freedom.
To contact him, send e-mail to