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Mall Rats

Broad antiwar brushstrokes.

Were Norman Mailer to pen a sequel to The Armies of the Night, his chronicle of a 1967 antiwar march on the Pentagon, his notes might read something like this: Good news and bad news to report from this weekend’s protest in Washington against the Iraq war—good news because over 100,000 demonstrators turned out to voice their opposition to war, racism, and inequality; bad news because the loudest voices belonged to pre-adolescents. Yes, as I traverse the Mall on Saturday, I cannot escape 13- and 14-year-old girls with peace signs (and the occasional Mercedes logo) painted on their cheeks. This odd demographic probably has something to do with the overrepresentation of a second group: demonstrators in their forties, too young to have protested the war in Vietnam but too old to be wearing their children’s face paint, which many of them do anyway. But there are also veterans of the Vietnam-era protest movement here, legions of whom turn out to hold banners aloft and to listen to Joan Baez warble, “Where have all the flowers gone?” In fact, the only group visibly underrepresented at the march seems to be the very group that once upon a time dominated such events: college-age demonstrators.

The absence of what has traditionally been the vanguard of U.S. protest politics—by my rough count, only one in a dozen demonstrators appears to fit the bill—points to a hollowness at the core of the antiwar movement. In an op-ed praising the demonstration for its “vintage feeling,” Washington Post columnist Eugene Robinson asked, “[H]aven’t we heard this song before? You know: ‘There’s something happening here, what it is ain’t exactly clear’?” Apart from that “vintage feeling,” however, there was nothing happening here. Part thirty-fifth college reunion and part flea market for the disaffected, where the sheer number of grievances on offer overwhelmed the only one that counted, what Washington endured this weekend wasn’t exactly an antiwar march. It was anti-everything: Israel, the U.S. military, capitalism, colonialism, Wal- Mart. If anything, the march created the impression of a country so far removed from the war in Iraq that even the antiwar movement can’t be bothered to demonstrate against it.

IF YOU REALLY want to end the Iraq war, a march sponsored by International answer (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism), with its catalogue of fringe causes and well-advertised sympathy for dictatorships, may not be the most persuasive vehicle. At the pre-march rally, one speaker drones on about Israeli “apartheid”; another, angry about something in the Philippines, shrieks in Tagalog. FUCK BUSH; AMERICA: FIGHTING TERRORISM SINCE 1492—the crude placards and t-shirts tend to be the norm rather than the exception. Even some of the protesters recoil. As we sit on a bench watching teenagers prepare to carry a row of coffins draped with American flags—one is dropped, clumsily and obscenely, on its side—Nancy McMichael, a Washington, D.C., resident who protested the war in Vietnam, shows me that she has torn the event’s official label in half. Her sticker, part of which formerly read, END COLONIAL OCCUPATION: IRAQ, PALESTINE, HAITI..., has been customized, leaving only the half that says, stop the war.

Fringe issues, however, dominate the day. Where the Vietnam antiwar movement focused directly on the war, with parts of it evolving over time into a broader indictment of “the system,” today’s march walks backward, addressing a litany of pet causes before it even gets to Iraq. The list of indictments—which can be sampled at the Palestine tent, the Counter-Military Recruitment tent (motto: “An Army of None”), and the Committee in Solidarity with the People of El Salvador booth (CISPES is still at it!)—dilute the message, creating the feel of a comic-book convention rather than a popular movement. Roger Yates, a demonstrator from Martinsburg, West Virginia, becomes so frustrated with the protest’s incoherence that he grabs a bullhorn, jumps on a newspaper vending machine, and beseeches the marchers to remember why they came in the first place. “One thousand different causes won’t hurt Bush,” he yells. “If we don’t focus on Iraq, it’ll be like we were never here!”

In fact, it might be worse than that. Antiwar movements boast a long history of undercutting their own aims. Public opinion polls from the Vietnam era, such as a December 1969 Gallup survey that found 77 percent of respondents disapproved of antiwar demonstrations, underscore movement leader Todd Gitlin’s recollection that, “As unpopular as the war had become, the antiwar movement was detested still more—the most hated political group in America.” After antiwar mother Cindy Sheehan staged her protest at President Bush’s ranch in August, a Washington Post poll found, unsurprisingly, that she made 9 percent of respondents more likely to oppose the war. But it also found that she made 10 percent more likely to support the war. That effect can only be magnified by the circus of protesters far less telegenic than Sheehan, who showed up this weekend in Washington. On the day of the march, one need only cross the street, where a line of ashen-faced tourists awaits their chance to escape into the National Museum of American History, to understand how the dynamic works. One of them, Mary Coberly of Idaho, clearly has had enough. “I disagree with every one of them,” she says, as the chorus of whistles and bongos across Fourteenth Street grows louder. “I love my country.” Watching the likes of disgraced British politician and Saddam Hussein defender George Galloway denounce U.S. crimes, it’s not hard to see how she might come by the impression that the protestors do not.

Indeed, many of the protestors, caught up as they are in the spirit of “direct action,” reserve their harshest vituperation for the very audience most inclined to give them a hearing. Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action, one of the few legislatively oriented associations at the march, says, “The level of self-loathing we’re dealing with among Democrats is ridiculous. They can’t get over this weak-on-defense crap.” Perhaps that’s why, even with the liberal rank and file overwhelmingly opposed to the war, the only congressional Democrats who turn up at the rally are Maxine Waters, Cynthia McKinney, and a few other members of the Out of Iraq caucus. As for the party’s most prominent leaders—Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid and likely 2008 presidential candidates Joseph Biden, John Kerry, Evan Bayh, and Hillary Clinton—they oppose even setting a date for withdrawal from Iraq, presumably out of fear of conjuring the very specter of Vietnam that the movement invokes at every turn.

IF THE ANTIWAR movement means to be taken seriously, if it aspires to be what Sheehan calls a “people’s movement,” it really ought to look more like one. But its prospects don’t seem promising. Here we are, after all, 31 months into an unpopular war, and this weekend’s march counts as the first demonstration of its size since the conflict began. In contrast, by February 1968, when 31 months had passed since the initial dispatch of an Iraq-sized ground force to Vietnam, the United States had already witnessed huge demonstrations in New York, San Francisco, Oakland, Washington, and other cities. This, moreover, at a time when the Vietnam protestors were out of sync with most Americans—a majority of whom didn’t support withdrawal until 1969-1970. Today, if anything, the demonstrators trail public opinion, which the latest polls show mostly favors withdrawal from Iraq, having concluded as long as a year ago that the war was a mistake.

So why hasn’t the broad-based opposition to the war been matched by an equally broad-based antiwar movement? “The only thing that would really wake people up,” says Linda Waste of Military Families Speak Out, “is if we had a draft.” It may seem obvious, but conscription, more than anything else, fueled opposition to the war in Vietnam. Consequently, when President Nixon established a lottery system and then finally abolished the draft altogether, “It was as if someone had flicked a light switch,” as columnist Mike Royko wrote. “Presto, the throbbing social conscience that had spread across America went limp.” Or, as movement leader Doug Dowd, who had been “hoping like hell that the draft would continue,” put it to Tom Wells, author of The War Within: America’s Battle Over Vietnam, “Shit, we’re lost now.” And they were. With self- interest taken out of the mix, the era of mass protests came to a halt—a fact that, even in a sea of 100,000 marchers, this weekend’s organizers still rue. “It’s very difficult to keep even the most ardent antiwar activist at a fever pitch,” Peace Action’s Martin says, “unless people feel they’re personally affected by the war, which they don’t.”

Beyond the draft, not only is there no adversary culture today; there’s no common culture. The ‘60s were the heyday of civic engagement across the political spectrum, the peak of an era when unprecedented numbers of Americans participated in public meetings, served in civic organizations, and attended political rallies—all measures that declined by a third to a half over the past three decades, according to the Roper Social and Political Trends survey. In this, at least, members of the Knights of Columbus and members of Up Against the Wall, Motherfuckers (an offshoot of Students for a Democratic Society known for its advocacy of “armed love”) had something in common. Indeed, the essential architecture of what was later to become the antiwar movement was in place well before the war escalated, its leaders versed in organizing from years in the civil rights movement, the Free Speech Movement, SDS, and other New Left boot camps.

Today, those groups have been supplanted either by motley coalitions of the sort that staged this weekend’s rally or by Washington-based associations in which membership means writing a check. “The era of flannel-shirted ‘Flower Power’ anti-establishmentarianism has virtually vanished,” writes Dartmouth political scientist Ronald Shaiko, replaced by professional organizations staffed with “management consultants, direct mail specialists, and communications directors.” As for the impact of all this, why bother demonstrating when you can give your favorite activist group a credit card number? This is even truer in the Internet age, when you can sign up online for a free trial with a leftist group. As Harvard civics expert Tom Sander puts it, “ had made it easy to press a button and give people a sense of political participation.” But it is only that: a sense. The Internet may make it easier to raise money and chat with like-minded people, but it also channels those voices to a place where most Americans aren’t listening. As a result of all this, says Adam Garfinkle, author of Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement and himself a veteran of the protest movement, “the antiwar movement today can’t organize itself out of a 7-11.”

And yet, if only for a weekend, it did—sort of. Never mind that it spent the entire time talking to itself: They were their own intended audience. “The aim really is to connect with one another,” says William Dobbs of United for Peace and Justice, a co-sponsor of the march. “It energizes us.” The festive atmosphere, the sense of purpose and community, the rock concert that followed the march, the papier-mache puppets—for the demonstrators, it must be energizing indeed. And, if that energy occasionally translates into solipsism, well, what’s wrong with comforting the sensibilities of a happy crowd? As speaker after speaker reminds the audience, we have the power. “We will be the checks and balances on this out-of-control, criminal government,” Cindy Sheehan assures the cheering marchers. If, by we, she meant her fellow demonstrators, they won’t.

This article originally ran in the October 10, 2005 issue of the magazine.