Gulf War Protesters Aren't The Same Old `Peaceniks'

The peace movement in America is mainstream - not anti-American or anti-military, but looking for constructive change.

ANOTHER war, another peace movement. But the opposition triggered by the Persian Gulf will likely differ in important ways from the trauma that seized this country during the Vietnam war a generation ago. The protests of that era began with a small, embattled minority of white, middle-class ``peacenik'' intellectuals and grew only gradually over a decade of struggle. By contrast, the current movement, born even before the war began, already spans a broad cross-section of Americans of every race, class, age, region and political persuasion. In a society riven with schisms, this war is forging one of the most authentically multicultural movements in American history. But unlike the self-lacerating rage of the Vietnam era, the protests this time will for the most part not be anti-American. Over the past two decades, many veterans of that earlier trauma have worked through their shame and anger and have come to feel an abiding affection for their country. Theirs is an inclusive love that acknowledges this nation's many failings and reserves the right to criticize its mistakes but still cherishes its exceptional freedoms and possibilities. ``My country, sometimes right, sometimes wrong,'' they seem to be saying, ``but still, in all, my country.''

In addition to these veterans of former war protests, many more ``average'' Americans count themselves among the ranks of the new movement. Mainstream churchgoers, blue-collar workers and others, many of whom were never moved to protest past wars, these are people deeply rooted in their communities, who have never felt alienated from their country. But they find themselves in profound disagreement with this administration's decision to go to war at this time, in this place, and for these ends.

These people bear an unshakeable commitment to their communities and country - greater, indeed, than many who loudly claim the mantle of patriot. So it is all the more painful for them to do what they feel they must in order to defend it - to resist the policies of a leadership whose actions they believe are systematically destroying it.

Nor will this be an anti-military movement. Many of those who feel most wronged by this war are families of soldiers in ``Saudi,'' torn from their homes to kill and perchance be killed for no justifiable cause. Disproportionately low-income men and women of color, many of these recruits were driven by desperation to enlist. Finding no work, they were simply seeking a way out of their dead-end ghettos. Many now wonder just what they are fighting for when the country they serve has treated them with such consistent and callous disregard.

The new antiwar movement is also far less ideological than the Vietnamese protests. Any remaining romantic illusions about the triumph of a Marxist revolution expired with the final unmasking of the bankruptcy of communism. Few delude themselves that Saddam Hussein is a liberating hero. All realize that he is a brutal thug who must be stopped. But not, they insist, by an all-consuming war that slaughters only the innocent and leaves the guilty martyrized or unscathed.

Perhaps most importantly, the movement spawned by this war will likely be more affirmative than the antiwar protests of the '60s. This is so in no small part because many veterans of that earlier trauma have done their homework in the two decades since, devising practical alternatives to the policies they oppose. For many of them, President Bush's assertion that he is fighting to defend a way of life is dismayingly true, for in their view that way of life, basing itself on the unbridled exploitation of man and nature, is unsustainable and unjust, destructive of all they hold most dear.

Rather than ``just saying no'' to this particular war, many in this fledgling movement will be saying yes to a very different way of life, based not on violence and counterviolence but on nonviolent sanctions, international peacekeeping forces, the techniques of negotiation and conflict resolution; not on the heedless exploitation of oil and other environmentally damaging energy sources but on conservation and the development of renewables like solar, wind, hydrogen and biomass. The agenda now emerging from this movement is not a mere set of poster slogans but the outline for an entire alternative political program.

Wars reshape cultures, sundering old identities, forging new and often more encompassing ones. For all its murderous destructiveness, this war may yet persuade us of the urgent need to relinquish a way of life that is literally killing us and the equally urgent imperative to embrace a very different way of life that offers far greater long-term security. From this harshly negative lesson may emerge a more positive agenda for healing the many wounds we have inflicted on ourselves, each other, and the earth. It is a dear price to pay for peace, but we may well have no choice in the matter.

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