'The People,' Missing in Action in America's Wars

Cross-posted with TomDispatch.com

On February 15, 2003, an almost unimaginable 13-plus years ago, I took part in a court-banned antiwar march in New York City. The police, it turned out, couldn't stop us (though they could, in various ways, pen us in). Depending on whether you believed the police or the demonstration's organizers, I was one of either 100,000 or 400,000 people who clogged the streets of the Big Apple that day, one of literally millions of protesters (no one knows just how many) who turned out across the planet in an unprecedented effort to stop George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and the rest of that crew from launching their deeply desired invasion of Iraq.

I wrote about the experience the next day and, looking back, it's clear that I was, in a sense, quite realistic about what the largest prewar demonstrations in history could (or couldn't) do to stop that invasion from happening. I was a good deal less realistic about what the future might hold (though I was in good company on that). Here's a little of what I wrote the next day:

"Excuse my enthusiasm -- but it must have felt similarly in Rome, London, Sydney, Berlin, Madrid, and on and on. As with our crowd, the largest I've ever experienced and I was at two marches on the Pentagon in the 1960s, every reporter or commentator I've read has noted the unexpected range of people by age, race, occupation, and political conviction who turned out globally.

"I'm not a total fool. I know -- as I've long been writing in these dispatches -- that this administration is hell-bent for a war. The build-up in the Gulf during these days of demonstrations has been unceasing. I still expect that war to come, and soon. Nonetheless, I find myself amazed by the variegated mass of humanity that turned out yesterday. It felt wonderful. A mass truly, but each part of it, each individually made sign and human gesture of it, spoke to its deeply spontaneous nature. That is the statement of the moment. The world has actually spoken and largely in words of its own. It has issued a warning to our leaders, which, given the history of 'the people' and the countless demonstrations of the people's many (sometimes frightening) powers from 1776 on, is to be ignored at the administration's peril."

Imagine, now, that you could transport yourself back 13-plus years and tell that Tom Engelhardt and the rest of the protesters in those vast global crowds not just that Iraq would be invaded, not just that it would be disastrously garrisoned and occupied for eight years by the U.S. military and the civilian authorities of the Bush administration, not just that out of the invasion and occupation would come the most brutal (and successful) jihadist group imaginable to date, and not just that the U.S. was, unbelievably enough, again in Iraq, fighting yet another war there, but that, all this time later, "the people" were nowhere to be found. They had, with rare exceptions, been MIA since not so long after that invasion in the spring of 2003.

"The world," it seems, instead of speaking truth to power again and again, packed up its signs and went home, while fruitless, destructive American wars rolled on and on. Peter Van Buren, who that long ago February was a diplomat at the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, generally cleaving to the State Department mantra of being policy neutral and opinion-free, would some six years later be sent to two forward operating bases in Iraq, and would prove one of those exceptions to the rule. He returned from his Iraqi experience and wrote a book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People, exposing the fraudulence of the State Department's war effort, and he's never stopped speaking up since. Today, in "Poof! It's Forgotten," he looks back on the strange repetitiveness of our never-ending Iraq wars in which the same "lessons" are always there to be absorbed, but no one in Washington ever seems to learn, while the people, who might have given their government a lesson its officials couldn't ignore, slumber on.