By Ben Mendelsohn
October 21, 2005
The Post: weekly column (Athens, Ohio)
Sometimes I get so distracted with whatever I’ve convinced myself is important that I completely forget our country is fighting a war.
Wednesday evening’s counter-recruitment presentation, organizing by the progressive student groups InterAct and Positive Action, was a thought-provoking reminder. Our world is violent and fractious, but that presentation demonstrated that nonviolent tactics are still relevant, effective and necessary.
The presenters were members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group, which has launched a number of protests against military recruitment efforts, particularly in high target (low income) areas of Pittsburgh. They brought along their stories of blocking recruitment centers and an extremely jarring video of some police brutality at an Aug. 20th protest.
The video – which was shot an Ohio University student [Roger Hill] – was the most intriguing and effective component of POG’s presentation. I watched police use a Taser to shock an already submissive woman lying on the ground, a police dog bite a 65-year-old woman’s thigh and a number of people get pepper-sprayed – all unprovoked actions. Serious stuff for sure.
Yet although I was deeply disturbed by the video, I was also thoroughly entertained At first I was uncomfortable with that fact, and with the idea that the presenters were so proud of having managed to please their audience. It seemed like they were getting off on being victimized, that their work is buttressed less by sound intellectual deduction and steadfast idealism than by thrill-seeking and ego.
That could be the case, but I really don’t think so. I’ve since realized that the dramatic effect of the video means that what the protesters are doing actually is working, and that what seems like a masochistic desire to be absurd is actually a shrewd tactic to contruct a narrative that will validate their cause.
In that sense, those protesters have succeeded where the Bush administration and advocates of the war in Iraq have consistently failed. They were pleased by and proud of their video because they had successfully tricked police into proving their point: organized violence is ridiculous and the forces behind it will be exposed as hypocritical, reactionary and repressive.
I won’t contend that the protesters’ thinking embodies inarguable truth. But I will, however, contend that their video presentation demonstrates how effective a tool of propaganda nonviolence can be.
It is impossible to prove that invading Iraq because of [non-existent] weapons of mass destruction was a legitimate impetus for the war, of that removing Saddam made the world safer from terrorist attacks. The hawks can never manipulate the doves into proving those points for them.
Yet while the supporters of the war in Iraq can never present an “I told you so” narrative without being full of garbage,
[Editor’s note 2/21/13 – Whoah…. Hold on now, Ben. Why exactly is that? Because post-modernity means there’s no objective truth and everyone is right? Because there’s nothing more intellectually respectable than moderation?
I was pleased that Mendelsohn wrote a generally favorable opinion column about a counter-recruitment presentation that The Post (and every other Athens paper) couldn’t be bothered to cover as news. In fact, I subsequently invited him to come write for The InterActivist. He accepted, and, while working on a kibbutz in Israel, he authored a couple solid pieces on the Israel/Palestine conflict from the perspective of a progressive, young American Jew. However, I cannot reproduce his column here without responding to this ludicrous statement.
No supportive argument is provided, so I don’t know if Mendelsohn had one, much less what it was if he did. Regardless, this much is certain: The anti-war movement’s central claims about the war were all based on demonstrable facts and sound logic. The Bush administration’s central claims about the war were based on neither facts nor logic. Thus the somewhat less-than-surprising result was that the anti-war movement was right about everything, while the Bush administration and its supporters were right about nothing.
Meanwhile, people who chose to stake out the “ideological middle ground” on this issue were right just as often as they were wrong – which in life, and even in academia, still gets you a failing grade.
Most important, however, this stuff actually matters. There’s nothing petty about saying “I told you so,” because this was a matter of life and death (mostly death, as it turned out) for hundreds of thousands of people. Thus the only problem I have with the “I told you so” narrative is that what former and current war supporters actually deserve is the “You’re a fucking moron” narrative.]
those presenters managed to have their opponents legitimize their agenda. And that’s pretty damn impressive.
In some sense, though, the members of the Pittsburgh Organizing Group seemed unaware of the fallibility of their own arguments. One member quoted a bunch of flimsy statistics in an attempt to prove that the promises made by military recruitment officers are bold-faced lies and must be exposed as such. I’ve personally come into contact with too many level-headed peers in the armed forces – people who clearly knew what they were getting themselves into ahead of time – to buy into that thinking.
[Editor’s note, 2/21/13 – Sorry, time to hit the brakes again. First of all, anecdotes don’t trump empirical data – particularly when the empirical data isn’t even presented. Also, here’s a good rule of thumb: If someone is willing to kill people on the basis of totally unsubstantiated charges, then they’re not level-headed.]
But that doesn’t change the fact that there is need for potential recruits to hear another story, so that they can decide for themselves who is being more honest with them, whether it is the protesters or the recruiters.
Ultimately, the Pittsburgh Organizing Group proved to be a dedicated bunch of activists effectively pursuing a clear agenda. Protesting the war by countering the military recruitment effort, as was done in the Vietnam Era, is a logical means of resisting the government’s misuses of power impacting the political surroundings.
What a relief that those folks haven’t forgotten what’s going on at all.
By Damon Krane
February 21, 2013
Alas, despite some flaws in his overall outlook, Mendelsohn clearly grasped what a lot of peace activists couldn’t: counter-recruitment was “a logical means of resisting [the war].”
By October 2005, the same could not be said about big, legally-permitted marches, candlelight vigils and other non-disruptive demonstrations. Indeed, in the absence of other tactics, these demonstrations had ceased to be part of logical strategy for stopping the war by late 2003.
Prior to that point, the movement’s preferred tactics had made sense. The big, sedate, family-friendly demonstrations made opposition visible and helped turn majority opinion against the war. Yet shortly after the invasion, there developed an inverse relationship between opposition to the war and participation in anti-war activism. As opposition grew – eventually peaking at more than 70 percent of Americans – activism shrank.
There’s no paradox here. The anti-war movement simply failed to provide people with a logical means of ending the war. Surely, a lot of people concluded that bottom-up change was impossible, the best you could do was to vote for some lousy Democrat. But what the events of the past decade really proved is that public opinion changes nothing by itself. (And to evoke Frederick Douglass, let me add: “it never did, and it never will” – at least not until we stop believing we live in a democracy and finally get around to building one.)
However, the public’s alienation from the movement didn’t make people any more supportive of the war. Thus by 2004 the movement had nothing to lose, but much to gain, by changing tactics. With military recruiters failing to make enlistment quotas and the military stretched to the breaking point, counter-recruitment presented a logical direction in activism when it gained visibility in late 2004/early 2005.
Unfortunately, the economic crash that quickly followed caused enlistment figures to rebound, and the window of opportunity closed on counter-recruitment. But had counter-recruitment emerged earlier or been met with less resistance from within the movement when it finally did emerge, it is totally conceivable that counter-recruitment could have saved tens of thousands of lives. True, the U.S. government could have reacted by focusing more on aerial bombardment and less on ground troops, but even this would have taught the public that activism can change policy – a lesson our marches had certainly failed to convey. Militant, logical activism could have only increased as a result – and that would have put the movement in a much better position to deal with whatever new course the U.S. government took. Meanwhile, fears of civil unrest and cultural dissolution would have led more U.S. elites to believe that, as far as their long-term interests were concerned, the costs of the wars in both Iraq and Afghanistan were becoming too high.
Eight years have passed since Mendelsohn wrote his column for the student newspaper of a university he has long since graduated. He lives in New York; I’m in Atlanta. We’re both in our 30s now. The Pittsburgh Organizing Group disbanded in July 2011. Of the groups that brought POG to Athens, Positive Action disbanded in 2006 and InterAct has continued to exist since then only for the sake of The InterActivist magazine. Yet our country is still fighting a war.
The war on Iraq may have “ended,” but an equally unpopular war on Afghanistan continues. So do the U.S. practices of torture and indefinite detention. Meanwhile, the Obama administration has expanded the worst of Bush administration’s foreign policy by carrying out thousands of extrajudicial murders outside of any formally declared war zones – including the assassination via drone strike of a 16 year-old boy and other U.S. citizens who had not been convicted of any crime. Thus it is just as imperative now as it was in 2003 that people of conscience in the U.S. devise logical tactics for overcoming “our” government — even if that urgency is something far too many of us have forgotten.