A great deal of antiwar activism has erupted lately, characterized most typically by street demonstrations in Western Europe and the United States. In response to this activism, a good deal of print and radio commentary has already entered the public realm, some in support of these marches and rallies and some critical of them. This discussion, let’s call it, now joins the larger political gambit of the Iraq issue and may have autonomous political effects— say in harming Tony Blair, helping French Gaullists, or in influencing early maneuvering for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination.
The antiwar discussion might be thought to constitute a sort of meta-discussion of Iraq since it supposedly subsumes all the arguments, pro and con, about a prospective war. Mostly, however, it constitutes a sub-species of political sociology only glancingly related to the actual strategic and political issues being debated over the Iraq question. I will spell out what I mean by this below, but first some distinctions.
Above all, antiwar street activism needs to be distinguished from antiwar sentiment, or from what I call ambiguwar sentiment. By ambiguwar sentiment I refer to those with ambiguous feelings about a prospective war, people who would support war with little hesitation if they were confident that plans for a post-Ba’athi Iraq and other important matters had been well thought through and sensibly decided— but who, lacking that confidence, find themselves unable to make a reasoned judgment. Those with ambiguwar sentiments, however, do not spend time making placards, joining street demonstrations, and shouting slogans so ridiculous that they would embarrass a sentient 9-year old.
Antiwar and ambiguwar sentiment is widespread in the United States and abroad, and not all the reasons for it are easily dismissed. Unless one’s day job concerns Middle East studies, international politics and foreign policy, history and strategy, or some aspects of the these disciplines, it is hard to see clearly what is really at stake in the Iraq problem, or what remedies for it may or may not be at hand. (And even then, some very experienced and respectable voices in the United States, whose day jobs do encompass the aforementioned specialties, also oppose war — at least within the next few months.) It is unreasonable to expect a typical, otherwise intelligent and morally balanced person to have followed modern Iraqi history, to know about diplomatic tactics, to understand the nature of weapons of mass destruction production processes and the ways of modern warfare. And Iraq is one of those “close” cases where, absent such esoteric knowledge, the natural tendency of mass, materialist democracies to lean toward passivity, procrastination and variants of wishful thinking will take pride of place. This was true when de Tocqueville first drew attention to it, and it remains true today— particularly so when the leaders of a democratic country do a poor job of explaining the problem to the people.
Besides, all else equal, there is nothing wrong with disliking, fearing, and wishing to avoid war. You don’t have to be a professional historian to know that war invariably trips off unintended consequences, harms innocents, and inclines to escape all attempts at fine control. And you don’t have to be a military expert to know that even a relatively weak enemy can find ways to retaliate if he is shrewd and determined enough. The President is well aware of all this, which is why he says that he would prefer to solve the problem short of war. The nub of the matter, however, is that all else is never equal. Sometimes war is a prudent lesser evil, and this too the President understands. The real question, then, is would a war now (and its planned aftermath) fall into the category of a lesser evil, or not? As I have already said, it’s a“close” thing, about which it is prudent to speak humbly.
The vast majority of people out in the street protesting, however, do not see the Iraq question as a“near” thing, and they are not humble. They are stridently certain not only that going to war is unwise, but that it is also morally wrong and even criminal. They have not done the careful analytical thinking that has led people like Brent Scowcroft, Morton Halperin and Gary Hart to disagree with the present policy— people who clearly cannot be accused of rank ignorance about the issues or of a lack of patriotism and courage. They have rather chosen categorical and judgmental moralist language peppered with apocalyptic accusations and apocryphal predictions.
To understand these typical characteristics of the messages being emitted from street demonstrations, again certain distinctions must be made. For present purposes, two are critical.
First, distinguish between organizers and followers. In all recent major demonstrations, the organizing elements, both in the United States and in Europe, have been of the radical leftist. They are made up of unreconstructed Stalinists and Trotskyites with sprinklings of radical pacifists. They have added to their ranks issue-specific radicals of environmental, anti-Zionist and anti-Semitic, feminist and anti-globalization persuasions. These organizers usually reach out to less radical groups, hoping that they will swallow their distaste for the organizers’ views in order to show solidarity (and give financial support) for the specific cause. (Such joiners used to be called, in Lenin’s phrase,“useful idiots.”) The association of less radical groups dilutes the radical image of the activity, leading many unsuspecting others to join the march.
Second, distinguish between what goes on in the United States and what goes on in Europe. The motives of American marchers run the gamut. Some are knee-jerk adversary culture types who oppose all U.S. foreign policies on principle. It is not necessary for them to know much (or anything) about the issue at hand; if the government (defined as inherently racist or militarist or capitalist or whatever) is for it, they’re against it.
Others are trying to recapture what they mistakenly think of as their heroic youth during the Vietnam War era (no, they didn’t help shorten the war; to the contrary). Some are younger self-propelled rebels who can’t stand it that they were too young (or not born) to be heroes in the Sixties.
Still others just hate George Bush and Republicans, and some are Arabs or Muslims convinced that U.S. policies in the Middle East are imperialist and that they are its blameless victims. Some are anti-capitalist, anti-economic growth radical environmentalists who believe that the American materialist lifestyle has created a fossil fuel addiction that has led to horrible foreign policy consequences. Some are principled pacifists whose sentiments are based in explicit religious conviction. And, as always, some show up because, while they are clueless about what is being protested, they know where to look for free sex, drugs and loud if not very good rock and roll.
In Europe, all of these sentiments and motives are also found, along with two others. The first is a visceral and often irrational anti-Americanism that is growing in rough proportion to the increasing gap between U.S. power and that of the European Union countries. The second is a desire to expunge though street catharsis a deep sense of guilt over aEuropean colonial past now held responsible for the terrible problems of the Middle East and other“third world” areas. These two sentiments vary from country to country. In France, for example, there is a paucity of guilt, but a superabundance of anti-Americanism; in Britain it tends to be the other way ’round.
Pretexts and Causes
In short, while a prospective war in Iraq is the pretext for the demonstrations we have lately seen, it is rarely the cause. The causes lie at various social-psychological strata, the deepest and most important of which is the same today as it was during the era of Vietnam War-era protests. It’s about religion.
Many antiwar activists seem to need the belief in the equivalent of a moral apocalypse for reasons of personal commitment; the more portentous and dramatic the stake, the more praiseworthy one’s dedication becomes and the more unequivocal one’s commitment must be. Simple Manichean metaphors offering the clarity of moral certainty feed an internal escalation of commitment where uncertainties and ambiguities are assuaged by increased psychological investment. Many members of adversary culture groups — and those who choose to associate with them in heady times—are impelled to express moral sentiments together with others through politics. This amounts to a form of secular worship. Social bonds reinforce personal faith and commitment, and commitment in turn forges social bonds with new strength. This is a powerful magnet, as are other forms of communal worship.
This backdrop to antiwar activism helps explain why so many activists and marchers are oblivious to rational argument. It is not only that so many are ignorant of the subject, it is rather that knowledge is subordinated to feelings. When people have a strong need to believe something, mere facts are powerless to stop them. And since everyone except perhaps the dullest of dullards needs something beyond the self in which to believe, for those who do not discover it in traditional sources of spiritual wisdom, for all practical purposes anti-establishment activism itself becomes their religion.
A New Secular Religion?
The text of the last two paragraphs you just read is a nearly word-for-word quotation from a book I started drafting a decade ago. It was about the Vietnam War-era protests, but it applies no less to the protest marches of recent days. There has never been a human culture that did not have a religion, by which I mean a set of ideas to organize our questions and thoughts about existential matters to which empirical answers elude us — questions about consciousness, mortality, creation and moral logic. In societies like many in western Europe that have become overwhelmingly secular in character, there is a conceit that “secular” means, in effect, “no religion need apply.” We have been conditioned to think of secular and religious as opposites, when the term “secular” merely means a set of views in contradistinction to the explicitly religious views of traditional deistic belief systems. A society’s being “secular” does not obviate the social impulse toward or need for religion; that impulse merely migrates to other places, the most popular one of the twentieth century having been politics — which, as Digby Baltzell used to say, citing the secular religions of fascism and communism, hasn’t done much good for either politics or religion.
Particularly in post-Christian Europe in the Internet Age, the infusion of religious energies into politics — even, in some cases, the subsumption of political energies by an unrecognized and still unnamed“secular” religion—goes hand in hand with the building of a new polity: a federated European Union. The popular, folk religion of that new political civilization was manifest on the streets of major European cities this month, complete with elements of spectacle and ritual common to all religions. The protestors were, in essence, praying for peace in the idiom of the new faith, which is normatively multiculturalist, anti-nationalist, anti-globalizationist, anti-Zionist and sometimes anti-Semitic, and, above all, anti-American. Almost entirely unattached to traditional faith, moreover, it is an amalgam of emotion and new superstition with eerie overtones. As G.K. Chesterton said, “When a man stops believing in God, he doesn’t believe in nothing; he’ll believe in anything.”
West European political elites are not most of them religious men. If they oppose war, it is mainly for reasons akin to those of General Scowcroft. But they must take care not to attack the new priesthood and their minions, and they are sometimes tempted to use or ally with them. It is an old and still dangerous game. It is interesting to observe. It has, however, precious little to do with Iraq.
 Obviously, there are differences as well. The Vietnam era protests only got going after there was already a war; in this case, there is no war to protest, only an idea about one. And in those days in the United States there was a military draft; today no one except the terminally stupid thinks the government will resort to a draft to fight a war in Iraq (or anywhere else).
 Telltale Hearts: The Origins and Impact of the Vietnam Antiwar Movement (Macmillan/St. Martin’s Press, 1995), pp. 126-7.