The Spirit of 1970

It wasn’t all Peace & Love, alas.

Anti-war planning meeting at the University of Illinois at Chicago, circa 1970. Photographer unknown.

I don’t recall who took this photo. I want to say an acquaintance from college, Paul Chen, but it may have been someone with the Illinois Institute of Technology student newspaper. Or someone else altogether. I’ve had the print since sometime shortly after the meeting. It accurately captures the spirit of some of the folks involved in lefty politics at the time.


The Wounds That Never Heal

a review

Originally published in New Ground 113, July — August, 2007.

by Bob Roman

Flashback: Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, Suicide, and the Lessons of War by Penny Coleman. Boston: Beacon Press, 2006. 223 pages, $23.95.

Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) has become recognized as an inevitable consequence of war, and this book is a wonderful discussion of PTSD, it’s history, and the efforts (or lack thereof) to treat it in just that context: war. My only problem with the book is that I agree far too much with the author. Why is this a problem? A great part of the book deals with the Vietnam War, a history that is very much in dispute and often written from a particular point of view. I would feel more comfortable, actually, with someone I had political disagreements with.

For example, Coleman discusses the Nixon Administration’s campaign to blame Vietnam veterans’ problems on abuse the veterans suffered from protesters and radicals. The iconic image, of course, is the spat-upon veteran. Coleman uses Jerry Lembcke’s work, The Spitting Image, to refute this; after extensive research, he was unable to find any evidence such a thing happened. But Lembcke’s research could be absolutely solid and still be wrong. Even if it never happened, why does it feel, to many, as though it did? Why would that be of any concern aside from politics? It turns out that one of several things that leaves combat veterans vulnerable to PTSD is a related violation of a sense of “what’s right.” This mostly applies to the soldier’s relations with the military (including peers), but it could apply to the soldier’s relation to society and country in general, especially given that soldiers were rotated out of Vietnam as individuals and not as units. For a good account of just how general a violation of “what’s right” could be during Vietnam, I’d recommend a slim book of poetry first published in 1976: The Long War Dead by Bryan Alec Floyd. As poetry, the quality is uneven but in affect each poem is etched with blood.

Aside from brief excursions into the Trojan and American Revolutionary wars, Penny Coleman begins her history with the American Civil War. The state of medicine in the States did not allow for any consistency in diagnosis, never mind treatment, but some military doctors made astute observations, even if military practice remained barbaric. For the U.S. military, at least, the big breakthrough was World War I. Apparently someone prior to our entry was paying attention to the European experience; the military devised a scheme to provide effective battlefield maintenance, essentially patching up soldiers well enough that they could be sent back to the front though their post-war fates are another matter. Coleman weaves together a number of interesting strands in her discussion of PTSD up to the Vietnam War: advances in psychology that provided insight into what was happening to these soldiers, lessons learned then discarded for bureaucratic convenience in time for the next war with a pretty consistent lack of interest in providing help to soldiers after their wars, and the epidemic of suicide that seems to plague combat veterans.

A majority of the book deals with Vietnam. This is not simply because of Coleman’s interests; the Vietnam war was different. Coleman uses the history recounted earlier in the book to compare and contrast with military practice during the Vietnam war. One of the more presently relevant observations concerns the implementation operant conditioning in military training after World War II. A study found that during that war, 75 to 80 percent of soldiers were not firing their weapons, even when their lives were immediately threatened. By the time of Vietnam, the firing rate had gone from 25 percent to 95 percent.

Intertwined with each chapter are personal testimonies by families of Vietnam veterans, accounts that give immediacy to the issues Coleman is discussing. All of the testimonies involve suicide. Coleman is making a point here, one that needs to be made. And it can be quite affecting, including one widow who exclaims, “This isn’t over, this isn’t over. It’s 1999, and my husband just died from the Vietnam War.”

After reading the book twice, I’m still not certain what all the political implications are. But an important one is the degree to which the Vietnam war was ended not by protest and politics here in the States but by the disintegration of the combat forces in Vietnam. This has become a fashionable observation in the anti-war movement today, recalling especially those soldiers who were active in organized resistance. This is perhaps a bit of wishful thinking on the part of wannabe revolutionaries; Coleman’s book documents that while there was considerable organized resistance, a better part it was very individual and sometimes violent (e.g., “fragging”). But this does suggest that anti-war organizing within the military and among veterans is not to be neglected.

Perhaps Coleman’s conclusion is correct:

“Those injuries to mind, and the deaths they so often provoke, do not deserve to be erased. They deserve to be included in an honest and honorable reckoning of war’s cost. They deserve to have a public as well as a private meaning. Perhaps the naked magnitude of the cost will convince us that finding peaceful solutions to our problems, though a tall order, offers a compelling, motivating ideal…”

Perhaps. Though Nelson Algren’s short story, “pero venceremos” comes to mind. The protagonist, a veteran of the Spanish Civil War, spends much of his time in a bar where he reiterates, endlessly, a particularly gruesome encounter in battle to the complete and uncomprehending distraction of his friends and acquaintances. Finally one of his friends tells him to forget it; the battle was a hundred years ago. No, he says, it’s just like yesterday. But after a long pause, he asks, “Did I say yesterday? It wasn’t even yesterday, the way it feels.”

“How does it feel, Denny?”

“It feels more — like tomorrow.”

Chicago Rallies for Peace and Justice

the guiding principle for the peace movement should be to speak loudly and carry a big stick

A version of this article was originally published in New Ground 96, September — October, 2004.

by Bob Roman

While hundreds of thousands marched against the Bush agenda at the Republican National Convention in New York, similar demonstrations were held on a much smaller scale in numerous cities across the nation on Sunday, August 29. In Chicago, some fifteen hundred people gathered in the Federal Plaza at Dearborn and Adams for a Unity Rally for Peace and Justice, a demonstration against the Bush agenda.

Some press reports estimated the crowd at 1000, others at 500, and all of them were accurate. It was a bright, unseasonably chilly afternoon. Even fifteen minutes after the scheduled start, there were only a few hundred people. The numbers then ballooned until, after about an hour, people began drifting away faster than they gathered. But people had come from all across the metropolitan area and beyond. A “feeder” rally was organized in DuPage County with participants taking the train into Chicago, a chartered bus came from the Rogers Park neighborhood, and car pools were organized from as far away as Fort Wayne, Indiana.

One of the goals of the rally was to answer the policies that the Bush Administration would be advocating at the Republican National Convention by providing the news media with an alternate story. And the rally was somewhat successful at this despite the modest turnout.

The “Unity Rally for Peace and Justice” was organized by a coalition of community, labor, political and religious organizations. In July, a call to organize the rally was issued by 30 of the leaders who had organized the March 16, 2003, Daly Plaza demonstration against the Iraq war. The number of participating groups grew to over 60 by August 29. Much of the organizing work was done by Chicago Jobs with Justice and its Committee for New Priorities, Chicago Labor for Peace Prosperity and Justice, Chicagoans Against War and Injustice, and the American Friends Service Committee. But the event actually mobilized a significant percentage of the sponsoring organizations to help with various tasks beyond mobilizing their own people.

Rallies such as this one are not cheap. This event had a bare bones budget of $12,000. That this was an ad hoc coalition and that the money had to be raised in a month and a half, these facts made fundraising interesting. Deep pocket contributions from SEIU and UNITE HERE started the process, but the overwhelming majority of the money came in smaller amounts from each of the other sponsors, including Chicago DSA. Some additional money came from a grant and from individuals.

The rally organizers emphasized that the opposition to the Bush agenda was far more than just being against the Iraq war and occupation. But they did want that issue prominently displayed at the rally. To that end, Chicago DSA distributed hundreds of fluorescent “No War” buttons. DSA signs also complimented the broader agenda of the demonstration and were quoted by the press, for example: “Bush says leave no billionaire behind” and “Georgie Porgie, president by theft. We will not miss you, once you have left.”

The rally organizers needn’t have worried about the war. While the speakers at the rally did indeed cover a range of issues, they also made the war a central issue. It is ironic, then, that the speakers almost uniformly boosted Kerry, a candidate with not exactly an anti-Iraq war record. (The organizers had told the speakers that this was not a Kerry rally, but once you let people loose on a platform…) It’s even more ironic that the best turn out for the rally was from the anti-war movement.

But I think it’s true that if the rally audience had been polled, the vote would have been overwhelmingly (not at all unanimously) for Kerry. And it’s not that most of those (and certainly not the rally organizers) have any great expectations for Kerry. We’ve had far too many Presidents who have promised peace then delivered war. For example, Daniel Ellsberg pointed out in his memoir, Secrets: A Memoir of Vietnam and the Pentagon Papers, how U.S. policy toward Vietnam was really pretty consistent from Truman through Nixon. Ellsberg does not claim that it makes no difference who wins a presidential election even in the context of Vietnam, but it does illustrate the difficulty in voting for peace except, perhaps, as a gesture or wishful thinking.

Yet from Tariq Ali to George Kennan, analysts have noted how domestic political considerations in the States (and we are not unique) have driven U.S. foreign policy. In electoral politics here, the foremost principle guiding most of our politicians is “Cover Your Ass.” It seems that it should be easy: that the guiding principle for the peace movement should be to speak loudly and carry a big stick.

Except it’s never so straightforward. Because of the deliberately built in advantages of incumbency (including gerrymandering of districts), Kerry will (should he win) most likely face a Congress still run by Republicans, Republicans mostly well protected by safe districts. It will be conservatives who have a first and best shot at Kerry’s hams.

What to do? This is very much on the minds of the rally organizers. And in the weeks and months following the November elections, you will be hearing more from them as part of an effort to address that very question. But that brings us to the final goal of this rally, one explicit in its title: unity.

Those with an eye for such things will have noticed a fairly well balanced selection of speakers at the rally, from politicians (Representatives Schakowsky and Gutierrez, Alderman Munoz), labor (Lynn Talbott and Tom Balanoff), religious, community and others. This was not to display an aesthetic of political correctness; these speakers were intended to illustrate the breadth of opposition to the Bush agenda and the unity of the opposition to it. I’m afraid the latter is mostly wishful thinking.

First, my experience with ad hoc coalitions has been that they do their work then die or they are institutionalized as an organization or as part of an organization, gaining resources while narrowing in scope. Except that the core of this coalition is a network of organizations that have a history of working together, I don’t see that there is any reason to expect things to be different. The coalition that organized this rally will not be that One Big Venue sought so earnestly and endlessly by the left, nor will it even be the harbinger of it.

Second, with respect to foreign policy, the movement has always been fragmented among a variety of ideologies, theologies and constituencies, all speaking in one way or another to a basic political fracture. That is: it would be possible to develop a laundry list of policies and approaches to policy for a democratic, peaceful foreign policy that would be supported by a large majority of the movement. But there would be no agreement on whether it would be possible to use as tools the State Department or the Defense Department to implement such a policy. The arguments vary from case to case, from ideology to ideology, etc., but the point is the permanent lack of agreement.

The peace movement is fairly good at saying “no”. Often enough that is a good and honorable statement. But it is a crippled vehicle for proactive advocacy.

Even so, the Unity Rally for Peace and Justice accomplished most of its immediate goals. The two most common criticisms were that, however worthy individually, the speakers in sum were too much. And a great many people really were not in the mood to be talked at; they wanted to march, to demonstrate their displeasure, something that a rally alone did not provide.

Has Peace a Chance?

peace means more than just opposing war

There are times when a peace movement seems more an aspiration than a reality. In the run up to the 2nd Gulf War, it often seemed so. Originally published in New Ground 86, January — February, 2003.

by Bob Roman

The good news is that somewhere around 2,000 people gathered on the Federal Plaza in Chicago as part of a Midwest Mobilization Against the War. Saturday, January 11 was a miserably cold day, albeit sunny, and this was a comforting turn out under the circumstances. The crowd was addressed by mayoral candidate Reverend Paul Jakes, Aaron Patterson fresh from death row, representatives from the Puerto Rican and Palestinian independence movements and others, and introduced by an impassioned address by one of the primary organizers of the event, Chicago Anti-Bashing Network’s Andy Thayer.

This was a demonstration that needed to happen, given its proximity to Dubya’s January 27 deadline and other pending events. The event was organized by the Chicago Ad Hoc Coalition Against War and Racism (though the Chicago Anti-Bashing Network seemed also to serve as an organizational vehicle). Chicago DSA was one of 60 organizations endorsing the demonstration.

The Bad News

The bad news is that there were only about 2,000 people at the rally. For a regional mobilization in a major urban center, this was hardly a demonstration of broad support. And while people attending such events are very much disposed toward cheering whatever is said, they were addressed by a series of speakers whose agendas seemed tangential, at best, to the issue of peace, followed by a march on the Israeli embassy. The people leaving early as a consequence were a distinct minority, acting individually thus not particularly noticeable, but people did leave.

It seems the intent of the event’s organizers was to use the rally as a united front of identity politics. As such, its agenda was inevitably broader than just the war. For many of the organizers, the prospect of preventing a war may be secondary to building a movement to first opposing an ongoing war, and racism, and economic injustice then on to revolution? I can’t fault them for hoping this time will be different, but I hope they don’t confuse the cheers of the crowd with agreement and commitment to that agenda.

Given the organization of the rally, it was inevitable that the issue of Israel and Palestine would be a part of event. I wish I could say that the rally represented a break through in resolving the tensions on the left over this issue but it didn’t seem so to me.

On one hand, the power and impunity with which Israel has operated seems a perfect reflection of the power and impunity with which the United State has and is operating. It shouldn’t be a surprise that for much of the left, Israel, particularly under Sharon, has become as popular as the United States under Richard Nixon. On the other hand, for those for whom democracy, law and speech are important (and not just for American Jews with a sense of solidarity with Israel), this is at least disconcerting, particularly when coupled with a silence about neighboring dictators whose power and impunity domestically make Sharon and Dubya seem positively benign. But breaking that silence would then require a discussion about just what to do about them, and on this there would be absolutely no agreement. For example, for some of the left even the idea of the U.S. State Department implementing a democratic foreign policy is an oxymoron. At a rally, it’s far easier to just say no.

One place to start resolving these tensions might be to keep in mind that while the Palestinian ­ American and Arab ­ American communities are under attack, neither is anti-Semitism dead in this country. While it ain’t what it once was, examples are not hard to find. It wasn’t much more than a year ago that a Jewish friend of mine was told by a neighbor that what she needed was to be “chained to the back of a pick-up and dragged for a spell”. This awareness might be a first step but I’m at a loss for the next.

Labor and the War

On the same day as the demonstration, Gerry Zero and Teamsters Local 705 was hosting a meeting in Chicago to establish a new national anti-war organization, USLAW: U.S. Labor Against the War. While there was an open meeting on Friday, January 10, the Saturday meeting to actually establish the organization was a delegated meeting, the participants actually representing in one way or another unions that had taken a stand against a war with Iraq.

Aside from adopting a resolution establishing the organization, the meeting selected an organizing committee charged with getting more unions to adopt resolutions against a war with Iraq and to contribute money to the new organization.

Chicago Against the War

In a similar strategy directed at local government, the Washington, DC, Institute for Policy Studies, working through United for Peace and Justice, the National Priorities Project and Education for Peace in Iraq has begun a campaign to get local governments to adopt a resolution opposing a war in Iraq. As New Ground goes to press, nearly four dozen municipalities have adopted such resolutions.

In the Chicago area, Evanston, Gary and Chicago have adopted anti-war resolutions. The Oak Park Coalition for Truth and Justice (of which GOP DSA is a part) is leading an effort to have Oak Park adopt a similar anti-war resolution.

As legislation or even as specific expressions of opinion (the Chicago resolution was greatly amended, and it’s not untypical for local groups to craft their own resolutions), these actions do not mean a lot. But as a way of educating local political leaders and as a way of creating a buzz (important in professional politics), this effort is certainly useful.

Metastasizing Into the Mainstream

When Chicagoans Against War on Iraq was organized last fall, it began by organizing a Federal Plaza rally on October 2 that drew about half as many as the recent Chicago Ad Hoc Coalition Against War and Racism rally. It did, however, have a politically significant line up of speakers, including U.S. Representatives, a candidate for the U.S. Senate, and well known community leaders and journalists.

Two months later, on December 7, Chicago Jobs with Justice’s Committee for New Priorities organized an afternoon teach-in on the economic consequences of a war on Iraq. They recruited a similar cast of political heavies, along with academics and a list of endorsing organizations, including Chicago DSA. They pretty well filled Teamsters Local 705’s union hall; several hundred people attended.

Both of these events serve to educate and to create a buzz. The Committee for New Priorities event was particularly strong on the education side (useful informational handouts were available in addition to the speakers). Because some of the participants were in government, there was also pressure to express an alternate policy. Unfortunately, the mainstream left is every bit as unprepared to deal with the question as the rest of the left. At both events, the best the professional politicians could do was call for a return to the status quo ante, the ante being before 9/11: a return to inspections and sanctions.

With few exceptions (possibly the Kurds), U.S. policy had been accomplishing (with the complicity of the Iraqi government) nothing but death, poverty and a new generation of Iraqis educated in hatred and resentment. A return to the status quo ante is not an acceptable answer. Even though there is absolutely no chance of consensus on the left on this subject, we need to start posing alternatives.

Has Peace a Chance?

By the time you receive this issue of New Ground, we may be at war. But I think there’s a reasonably good chance that we may not be. Part of it is that the peace movement is very much international in scope, and the American electorate has indicated a distinct disapproval of unilateral warfare. Part of it is that as far as the 2004 elections are concerned, war at any time up to around this time in 2004 would be fine. On the other hand, the logic of logistics would seem to argue for an early war as would the logic of empire. The latter demands something that international players would see as a U.S. victory. As North Korea has demonstrated, Dubya and Saddam are not the only players on the field; the longer the delay, the more opportunities Dubya has for being blind-sided.

In the meantime, every day without an invasion is an opportunity to organize against it. If we can link the war to the looming disaster in Republican domestic policy, we’ll have a powerful argument indeed.

Falling Towers

Falling Left

Originally published as “Comments and Opinions” in New Ground 78, September — October, 2001.

by Bob Roman

Does New Ground seem particularly antique this issue, like a surviving specimen of an extinct species? The answer is yes and no. On September 11, the political world changed. It changed decisively, massively, but not completely. Yes, in many ways, this issue of New Ground belongs to the previous era.

The World Trade Center attacks were equivalent in political magnitude to the attack on Pearl Harbor. Dubya is now every bit as popular as Roosevelt was. People are every bit as angry. And, like Pearl Harbor, the story leading up to the attacks will likely unfold as rather more complicated and less straight forward than is currently known.

But as so many commentators are fond of pointing out, this is not Pearl Harbor. There is no return address that accompanies these acts. And more importantly, there was no message either, no effort by the organizers of the attack to give it meaning, to state demands or grievance.

How is one to interpret this silence? Cowardace? Contempt? Hatred? In the context of mass media that continually replay scenes of horror, as if we were in the grip of some national collective Post Traumatic Stress disorder, the lack of meaning leaves a political (and spiritual and psychological) vacuum larger than the World Trade Center and the Pentagon in each of us.

Politics, to coin a cliché, abhors a vacuum. Dubya and His Band of Thieves have been busy filling it with something simple: a villain, Osama bin-Laden. How could this fail to be effective? It’s uncomplicated, dramatic and concrete. Mr. bin-Laden may even be guilty. And it conveniently avoids the complexities of “blow back” and links between corporate interests and foreign policy.

Unfortunately, it also begs the question of what to do about Osama bin-Laden. In his efforts at reassurance, Dubya’s unfortunate attempts at coherence will be forgiven for now. If his actual policies match his syntax, he may end up facing a domestic blow back though not necessarily one to the left’s advantage.

Unfortunately, the left, what there is of it, has been every bit as ineffective at providing meaning as Dubya’s attempts at speech. Much of it has been an attempt to point out how these attacks are a natural consequence of our own foreign policy. This is not something most people are prepared to listen to right now even if it’s a point that needs to be made. But like Osama bin-Laden himself, it’s not the whole story and it begs the same question. What do you do about it?

If we have played Dr. Frankenstein and created a gollum in our own image, even if people can be persuaded that this is the case, you might forgive them for being skeptical that providing flowers, an apology and a promise to never do it again will count for much in preventing future attacks.

But who said anything about preventing future attacks? There is a significant body of opinion on the left that holds Western society, and the United States in particular, as being hopelessly corrupt, hopelessly exploitative, domineering, and ultimately self-destructively morally bankrupt rather like Osama bin-Laden is said to regard the West. While it would be untrue to say any but lunatics would approve of mass murder by airliner, it would be unreasonable to expect people with this opinion to react in quite the same way as everyone else. After all, isn’t the enemy of my enemy my friend? Not necessarily, and this confusion will be an ongoing problem.

So in this new dismal period of politics, what strategy and tactics should we be pursuing?

First, a peace movement is absolutely necessary even if it may be ultimately wrong. This situation is far too dangerous to allow the Bush Administration a blank check.

Second, hate crimes and racism should be another priority. The left is not in a position to defend the immigrant communities, but we are in a position to build coalitions. The realization they are not alone will make a major difference in how these communities react.

Finally, the ball is not in our court. If the Bush Administration is willing to sacrifice much of its domestic agenda and some of its “free” trade agenda in exchange for liberal and labor support, there will be almost no space for the left: democratic, anarchist or otherwise. It’s not clear to me what we might do except try to survive. Under these circumstances, the divisions within the left will become far more prominent and history does allow for much optimism when that happens.

But if this most ideological of American presidencies insists on having it all then the answer to my initial question is also “no”. We will still need to fight the FTAA. We will still need to defend Social Security. All the fights we were involved with will continue, even if their context has changed.

By chance, the Chicago DSA Executive Committee met the evening of September 11, 2001. We adopted the following resolution with regard to the World Trade Center / Pentagon terrorist attack:

Chicago DSA Statement on the World Trade Center Bombings

Chicago DSA condemns this act of mass murder directed at the World Trade Center, civil aviation and the Pentagon. It leaves us sickened, dismayed, outraged. These bombing are hardly a political act; they do have political consequences and it’s hard to imagine many of them being good.

It’s hard to imagine how this tragedy will move the Middle East toward peace rather than a hardening of positions and passions. It’s hard to imagine how this will not result in further restrictions on civil liberties. It’s hard to imagine that there will not be economic consequences.

We are not accustomed, in the United States, to being victims. There will be talk of war. Certainly the organizers of these acts should be brought to justice. In considering justice, and in considering future U.S. foreign policy, we should not forget these acts, but we should also not forget that the easiest lesson learned from hate is not love but how to hate; the easiest lesson learned from oppression is not freedom but how to dominate; the easiest lesson learned from exploitation is not fairness but how to steal.

Adopted by the Chicago DSA Executive Committee, September 11, 2001.