These were the biggest transnational antiwar demonstrations in history – an incredible success for an emerging global antiwar movement, or so it seemed at the time.
Then, after the invasion of Iraq, the momentum of the antiwar movement stalled, particularly in North America. Most people went home to watch the battles of the global war unfold on their television or computer screens.
Only a few dedicated activists remained to organize occasional sparsely attended demonstrations and teach-ins.
By 2004, when American, Canadian, and French Special Operations Forces invaded Haiti to kidnap the immensely popular democratically-elected President Jean-Bertrand Aristide, mobilizing massive antiwar protests no longer seemed possible.
When NATO forces recently attacked Libya with force far exceeding a flawed UN mandate, only a dedicated core of antiwar activists could be rallied to protest.
This decline of the antiwar movement is opposite the growth of the antiwar movement during the Vietnam War era. Then small groups of dedicated antiwar activists gradually organized until, seemingly overnight, the movement exploded with massive demonstrations that eventually forced the US government to acquiesce to popular demands to end the war. No doubt the draft was a significant factor motivating self-interested Americans to resist the Vietnam War, but the draft alone does not explain the differences. Nor does it explain why today European antiwar activists are marginally more successful in constraining the bellicose tendencies of their political leaders.
So what happened to the Canadian antiwar movement?
There is the propaganda problem for one thing. Some of the antiwar protestors who never reappeared after the massive protests opposing the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq may have been persuaded but more likely simply confused by propaganda supporting the Global War on Terror.
To be effective propaganda does not necessarily need to be convincing; propaganda needs merely to obfuscate issues enough to confuse people. When people are confused and uncertain they are unlikely to act.
So we need to analyze why the propaganda supporting the Global War on Terror – a global war the US and its closest allies continue to perpetuate under various aliases – continues to confuse so many people.
There is also the protest problem. Some of the antiwar protestors may have expected to halt the illegal invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq by merely marching in the streets for a few hours on a Saturday afternoon. When that action failed, and seeing no further means of resistance that might effectively stop the war, they gave up.
Failing to have prevented the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq were hardly failures. The massive protests were great accomplishments. The only failure is not to have seized the moment to further build the movement throughout the past decade of escalating warfare.
The propaganda problem
The post 9/11 American and Canadian government propaganda campaigns very effectively obfuscated the issues.
George Bush was clear that retaliation for the 9/11 attacks was a primary reason for invading Afghanistan. For good measure he added an abundance of other reasons for the invasion: to liberate Afghan women; to give Afghans democracy; because civilization as we know it is threatened; and a host of other rationalizations. In Canada, the Chrétien government added that we needed to support the US in order to maintain a good trade relationship. Janice Stein and Eugene Lang claim Canada invaded Afghanistan because NATO made us do it.
The propagandists invented enough rationalizations for the invasion to appeal to just about anyone of any political stripe.
True to the fine art of propaganda, the pro-war propagandists composed their rationalizations using enough grains of truth and half-truths to be almost plausible. These bits of fact were mixed with intense emotions. In some cases the propaganda appealed to greed, xenophobic fear, or the bloodlust for revenge, but at least as often it appealed to a genuine heartfelt desire for human solidarity.
Manipulating the desire among so many people to help Afghan women was probably the most powerful propaganda tool the propagandists could have invented. After all how could anyone oppose the Global War on Terror if this also meant opposing the liberation of Afghan women from patriarchy or misogyny?
The American missionary zeal to promote democracy is almost as powerful. How could anyone oppose invading Afghanistan or Iraq if this also meant opposing the liberation of oppressed people from tyranny?
A potential problem for the propagandists was hidden behind all these rationalizations, however. None of these reasons for the war satisfied the legal criteria for the legitimate use of force under international law. The invasion of Afghanistan and the Global War on Terror is an act of aggression under international law – it is a war crime.
The successive Chrétien, Martin, and Harper governments made every effort to hide the illegality of the invasion and obfuscate the role of the Canadian Forces in the broader global war, since this is a significant wedge issue internationally and domestically.
The issue divides the UN – it is why the US-led Operation Enduring Freedom invasion of Afghanistan was not sanctioned by the UN.
It creates fractures between NATO members – it is why only the ground forces of the Anglo-American Quintet of the US, the UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand invaded Afghanistan. Concern about committing war crimes continues to constrain many of the European NATO members to the eternal frustration of the NATO hawks from the US, Canada, and Britain.
The debate around the illegality of the war even creates fractures within various agencies of the Canadian government and the Canadian Forces. There are far more Richard Colvins out there, but they recognize it is suicidal to speak out. Better to retire as soon as possible and remain silent.
The illegality of the war is primary among the many wedge issues that might have been more effectively exploited by Canadian antiwar activists to widen these fractures.
From a pacifist perspective that no war is legitimate, international law is considered illegitimate, because the law does legitimate the use of force in some limited circumstances. For this reason some antiwar activists ignored the issue of the illegality of the war.
Others may have ignored the illegality of the war because to make the argument is to allege the leadership of the Canadian Government and the Canadian Forces committed war crimes.
The biggest problem, however, is that “the war is illegal” argument is complicated. The argument is impossible to convey in the occasional sound-bite antiwar activists are allowed in mainstream media. A number of legal scholars such as Michael Mandel and Helen Duffy convincingly make the argument, but they require lengthy books to do so.
Rather than build the argument one piece at a time to demonstrate the war is illegal, the antiwar movement generally ignored the issue.
The pro-war propagandists, on the other hand, very successfully framed international law as a historical anachronism of little relevance in the post 9/11 world. This framing appeals for very different reasons to a very wide political spectrum.
On the radical right, neoconservatives reject international law and the UN system, because they believe America and for Canadian neoconservatives North America should be free to use its power without constraints. Whitehouse insider Richard Clarke recalls the meeting with President Bush on the evening of September 11, 2001. According to Clarke, Donald Rumsfeld reminded the president of the constraints of international law. Bush responded: “I don’t care what the international lawyers say, we are going to kick some ass”. Bush proved true to his word.
On the radical left, anarchists generally believe the UN system and its laws are a relic of statist politics that should be rejected. Across the spectrum of diverse perspectives between these extremes, the propagandists frame the UN system as weak and ineffective.
The UN system and international law is a mess. The system tends to favour the powerful states that use it only when it suits their purposes. Anarchists correctly argue it is the illegitimate system of the oppressor just as pacifists correctly argue it legitimates war. Nevertheless, it is a system of constraints that sometimes mitigates the worst abuses of power. It is preferable to a system of unconstrained raw power that perpetuates global war.
To legitimize the Global War on Terror, propagandists frequently compare the 9/11 terrorist attacks to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. In that case, however, the Japanese declaration of war and the attack by its military forces legitimized the American response according to international law. That is if we discount the American imperial aggression in Japan, China, and the Pacific throughout the 19th and 20th century that led up to the Japanese attack.
A more accurate legal precedent is the “terrorist” attack that served as the pretense for Austria-Hungary to attack Serbia to trigger WWI. In that case, Austria-Hungary and its ally Germany were found guilty of aggression.
An act of terrorism, which was the precipitating cause of the current global war, like WWI, did not make war necessary in either case. In both cases the criminal act of terrorism could have been dealt with by legal actions to avoid war.
The 9/11 terrorist attacks provided a pretense to remove the recalcitrant Islamist Taliban regime from power in Afghanistan. The assassination of Franz Ferdinand provided a pretense to remove the recalcitrant Serbian nationalist regime in Serbia from power. In both cases, the precipitating cause of war was a criminal act perpetrated by a non-governmental organisation.
In both cases, the immediate cause of war was the desire of the invaders to change a recalcitrant regime that acted in ways unfavorable to the interests of the invaders.
In both cases, the deep cause of the war was a complex of factors stemming from the tensions between expanding empires as they maneuvered for geopolitical advantage. Parts 1 and 2 of this series analyze the historical deep causes prior to the 9/11 attacks and the Global War on Terror. The historical and contemporary quest of liberal empires is to expand liberal markets, gain unfettered access to resources and labour, secure the rights and property of investors, and ensure the empire’s geopolitical advantage.
Support the troops, don’t force them to commit war crimes
Antiwar activists focused their campaign around a slogan: “support the troops, bring them home”.
The logic of using this slogan in an escalating propaganda campaign was sound enough. If this had been the first of many messages sequenced to build a persuasive argument against the illegal Global War on Terror, it might have proven quite useful. However, focusing the entire campaign over a span of years on this one idea proved to be too limited.
The slogan cleverly subverted the pro-war propagandists’ own slogan: “support the troops” and appealed to a broad political middle ground.
The argument to support the troops by bringing them home was intended to respect Canadian Forces personnel. The experiences of antiwar activists and veterans during the Vietnam War era demonstrated the need for an approach that did not demonize military personnel and might garner support from veterans and active personnel.
However the campaign backfired. Canadian Forces personnel perceived the demand to withdraw the troops quite differently than antiwar activists intended. Military personnel pride themselves on their courage to accept the inherent risks of their profession. Provided the cause of the state is perceived to be legal, they are prepared to accept personal risk to defend the state.
Where the “support the troops, bring them home” campaign fell short was its failure to carry this message further to explain why the government should bring the troops home. The antiwar movement needs to explain the troops should be brought home so they are not forced by their government to fight an illegal war or forced to use illegal means in warfare.
The ultimate argument: Support the troops and bring them home because they should not be used as pawns in the quest for corporate profits and the geopolitical advantage of an Empire of Capital.
This is as relevant today during the battle for regime change in Libya that has far exceeded its flawed UN mandate as it was when Canadian Forces invaded Afghanistan without any UN mandate as part of Operation Enduring Freedom on 7 October 2001.
The Protest problem
A lawful protest merely symbolizes the potential costs to the target of the protest if that person or organisation fails to enact the action demanded by the protestors. For a government in a liberal democracy, the primary cost symbolized by each protestor are votes that might be lost in the next election. Using the antiquated Canadian electoral system, however, a government can hold onto power even when a large majority opposes it.
Obviously in Canada, even a large number of street protestors, which might symbolize a majority of people vowing not to re-elect a government, does not often pose an overwhelmingly powerful threat.
It is evident antiwar activists must consider how to escalate action when it is clear massive street protests are insufficient to reverse a government’s pro-war policies.
In Canada, as in other liberal democracies, government leaders and the elites they tended to represent historically feared protests, because a protest symbolized more than merely a potential electoral loss. Protests symbolized the possibility of real costs to business if the protestors decided to shut down production and a real cost to rulers if protestors decided to be either ungovernable or ultimately revolt.
These powers of extra-parliamentary politics are significantly constrained by law. Nonetheless, during the Vietnam War era, large numbers of antiwar activists used various methods of civil disobedience to protest the war to impose real costs on the government and those supporting it.
Since the Global War on Terror began there have been relatively few acts of civil disobedience. Mayday 2008, when Canadian and American dockworkers shutdown the west coast ports of North America is a notable exception.
The costs borne by activists engaged in even lawful protest is rising as we saw when more than 1100 people were arbitrarily arrested and thrown in jail during the G20 protests. Police savagely beat many people and civil liberties were suspended throughout large parts of the city in response to legal protests.
The costs can be even higher for activists performing acts of civil disobedience. The dockworkers who “illegally” wildcatted in 2008 to protest the war face increased surveillance. Union officials have had to waste precious time and resources to counter ridiculous allegations terrorists and criminals infiltrated the ranks of the dockworkers.
So the struggle for the antiwar movement is as much a struggle against the increasingly militarized and security police state at home as it is against aggression overseas.
The success or failure of the antiwar movement should not be measured by the turnout at street protests alone. Certainly, over the course of the past decade, antiwar activists in Canada and Quebec successfully rallied the support of the labour movement.
Polls indicate the number of people opposed to Canada’s role in the Global War on Terror has also gradually increased throughout the decade to become a sizable majority.
But it is unclear how much of the growth in popular opinion opposing Canada’s role on the battlefront in Afghanistan is due simply to impatience and concerns about what the war costs Canadians in soldier’s lives and tax dollars. The human costs suffered by soldiers and their families, and especially the costs suffered by Afghans, Pakistanis, and others caught in the crossfire of the global war rarely enter “polite” discussion.
Stephen Harper’s Conservatives were able to significantly increase their power during the last election by, among other issues, upholding their promise to withdraw combat forces from Afghanistan. The Conservatives successfully distanced themselves from the Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff’s appeals to extend the Canadian combat mission in Afghanistan.
Yet, the Harper government only weeks before the election committed Canadian Forces to yet another battlefront in Libya without opposition in Parliament and with little discussion during the election campaign.
The Harper government has also committed the Canadian Forces to train their own Afghan replacements to ensure the security of the Empire of Capital’s bridgehead in Afghanistan.
We have no idea where in the world Canada’s recently supersized covert Special Operations Forces might be fighting. The Harper government added the Canadian Special Operations Regiment (CSOR) to supplement the original JTF2. The Special Operations Aviation Squadron (SOAS) is a new covert Canadian air force that supports the JTF2 and CSOR operations. No civilian below the Prime Minister or the Minister of Defence is authorized to know what these Special Operations Forces are doing.
It is clear Canadian antiwar activists need to develop a more sophisticated counter-propaganda program that intertwines arguments against war with arguments against imperialism. As parts 1 and 2 argue, liberal imperialism is still the deep cause of today’s warfare just as it was the cause of British and American wars for the past four centuries. Soldiers are prepared to fight and die for Queen and country or to liberate women and promote democracy. Soldiers are unlikely to be as eager to sacrifice their lives to increase investor’s profits, secure access to cheap overseas resources and labour, and expand the power of an Empire of Capital.
It is also clear Canadian antiwar activists need to develop a range of civil disobedience tactics that go beyond mere symbolic protest to impose real costs on the government and the war profiteers.
Michael Skinner is a researcher, human rights activist, musician and composer. For a decade he was a National Education Facilitator for the Canadian Union of Postal Workers. Since 2006, he has been a Researcher at the York Centre for International and Security Studies at York University. Skinner is currently writing his Ph.D. dissertation titled, Peacebuilding, State-building, & Empire-building: The emerging Empire of Capital and its interventions from Central America to Central Asia. Michael Skinner recently returned from his second research trip to Afghanistan