A Majority for Peace: Anti-war Movements, Socialist Foreign Policy, and the Armed Forces

Socialists need to develop foreign policy expertise and appeal to active duty troops and veterans to rebuild an effective anti-war movement.

Last fall, Rep. Ilhan Omar gave one reason she supports Sen. Bernie Sanders for president: “I am beyond honored and excited for a president who will fight against Western imperialism and fight for a just world.” The Minneapolis crowd had of course been regularly cheering, but at this line there was a near-spontaneous outburst of enthusiasm. 

A few days later, Foreign Policy published a summary of data showing that Sanders had received more than twice as many donations from members of the military as other candidates in the Democratic primary. Predictably, Sanders was fifth among State Department and Justice Department employees, but, notably, he was nearly tied for first among those who donated from the Department of Homeland Security. More recent donation data from the Federal Election Commission shows Sanders leading even Trump in financial support among the military.

These developments should guide how the socialist movement approaches internationalism domestically, that is, how we relate to our own society as opposed to socialist movements in other countries. To the extent that they surprise us, it is because we imagine that we are far lonelier in our yearnings for peace than we actually are. But it is also because we have not appropriately surveyed the nature of our government’s power.

The way to connect a much-needed anti-war movement to socialist foreign policy is through members of the military themselves. The protests against the Vietnam and Iraq wars provide case studies in what makes an effective anti-war movement. And alongside the growth of DSA and other progressive trends, there have been a variety of outlets — in Jacobin, n+1, Fellow Travelers, and the Quincy Institute — that increasingly critique our existing foreign policy and propose specific socialist alternatives. 

We must keep one fact in mind: there is a majority in this country who want to end our wars. Recognition of the cost of our wars, and the fact that they have actually made us less safe, only increases among members of the military. It is the role of socialists to translate this pervasive sentiment into the political power that will dismantle the U.S. empire. 

An Anti-War Movement

The recent assassination of the prominent Iranian general Qasem Soleimani generated widespread fear of an imminent war between the U.S. and Iran. Accordingly, many socialists asked themselves, “Where is our anti-war movement?” But what does the phrase “anti-war movement” really refer to? 

The answer may appear obvious on the surface. When the U.S. uses force against other countries, we want millions of people to take to the streets to voice their opposition to war and pressure our elected leaders to oppose it too. But as socialists, we want an end to capitalism and a wholesale transformation of society as well. We know that this requires popular mobilization on a huge scale, so the call for an anti-war movement doesn’t seem so different from our standard call for the working class to assert itself. 

What differentiates an anti-war movement from the socialist movement, then, is the scale of protest and the focus on a specific issue. When socialists call for an anti-war movement, they imagine millions of people, socialists and non-socialists alike, expressing their opposition to war and understanding the need to take action to prevent it. This is absolutely necessary, but we should understand that we cannot wish an anti-war movement into existence. It requires not just preparatory organization on the part of socialists and our allies, but also an alignment of objective conditions with this preparation. Furthermore, socialists should use anti-war activity not just to oppose specific wars, but to politicize broad swaths of people and popularize the cause of socialism. An examination of the anti-Vietnam war and anti-Iraq war movements helps to clarify what these objective conditions are and why socialists must organize, not just participate in or lament the lack of, an anti-war movement.

To Vietnam and Back

The Kennedy administration had already sent military advisers to Vietnam before the formal start of the war in 1965. There was already an ongoing, smaller-scale peacetime draft but over 2 million men were conscripted and many more enlisted in order to potentially avoid combat duty. Some students and professionals were shielded from the draft, and recruitment standards were lowered. As a result, it was largely the sons of the working class — and disproportionately African-American youth — sent to die.

Because of the sacrifices the working class was forced to make for the war, its effects were soon felt at home. More than one in ten were killed or wounded. The Vietnam war effort didn’t unite the country the way earlier wars like World War II did. And the government was suppressing a struggle for national liberation by propping up a widely reviled dictatorship. Combined with the ongoing struggles throughout U.S. society — particularly the civil rights movement and the rising tide of working-class militancy — millions of people across the country began to ask “Why are we in Vietnam?”

Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized an unexpectedly successful march on Washington, D.C. in April 1965 that drew 25,000 people. Resistance reached its height in 1969, when nearly half a million people demonstrated in the capital on November 15th as part of the Moratorium to End the War in Vietnam. Students walked out of their classes and attacked ROTC offices, bombings and other expressions of political violence soared, and the National Guard was often called in to restore order. The domestic protests did lead to changes in military strategy. The policies of “Vietnamization” and intensified aerial bombardment were, at least in part, adopted to remove the basis of the domestic anti-war movement.  But it took over five years after the height of anti-war activity for U.S. forces to finally officially withdraw. 

Endless Wars in the Middle East

The protests against the war in Iraq and Afghanistan provide another, even less heartening example, from which to glean lessons. The U.S. invaded Afghanistan a month after 9/11, but did not invade Iraq until March 2003. On February 15, 2003, millions of people took to the streets around the world in the largest global demonstration in human history. Over the next few years, there were dozens of protests that drew tens of thousands of demonstrators across the country.

But the U.S. is still occupying Afghanistan, where we maintain some 13,000 troops, and Iraq, where there are roughly 5,000. In the meantime, we have established a presence in Syria and greatly expanded the U.S. military footprint in Africa. And now Iran — for so long the lusted-after target of the foreign policy establishment — is in the cross hairs of the White House. There will soon be a whole generation for whom constant war, always in the background, is a given. What should we conclude from this about building an anti-war movement?

The main objective condition that determines the likelihood of the emergence of an anti-war movement is the level of class struggle throughout society. Imperialism is a feature of capitalism, and if the drive to war by elites occurs when workers are fighting, the connection between profits at home and killing abroad becomes clear. Fewer workers were on strike in the early 2000s than perhaps any time in the previous century. An anti-war movement cannot cohere in the absence of wider social struggles, because it requires coordination and funding that only a base of militant workers and their organizations can support at scale.

The only way to prevent a war and to end our ongoing wars is to possess political power. Even the mass global demonstrations of 2003 were not enough to stop the drive to war because of how concentrated the control of the modern war making apparatus is in the executive. From an historical perspective, mass movements have ended wars perhaps three times: the Russian revolutions of 1917, the German Revolution of 1919, and the Portuguese Carnation Revolution in 1974. Significantly, none of these examples were exclusively “anti-war” movements, but were broader struggles for the democratization of society, led by socialists in the midst of social exhaustion and the collapse of existing political regimes.

Socialist Foreign Policy

Because the reinvigorated socialist movement is largely a product of the Great Recession, it is not surprising that it has focused primarily on domestic economic and political issues. The new democratic socialist movement also wants to dismantle the U.S. empire, but to do so we need a foreign policy vision for when we hold political power. There are several obvious planks in a socialist foreign policy program: end the endless wars in the Middle East, close our 800+ bases and bring home the troops, etc. Ideally, however, the socialist movement would supply its elected representatives with comprehensive plans for the enactment of this program.

Sanders’s own foreign policy is admirable for its attention to the horrors of the U.S.’s recent interventions. It provides guiding values that a more-detailed socialist foreign policy should take up, but also highlights the limitations of current socialist thinking about foreign policy. Sanders aims to “[i]mplement a foreign policy which focuses on democracy, human rights, diplomacy and peace, and economic fairness.” This entails ending U.S. support for the Saudi-led intervention in Yemen and ending our endless wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria. Phyllis Bennis of the Institute of Policy Studies builds on these points, suggesting that Sanders: 

  • Withdraw troops from countries around the world
  • Terminate the “Kill List” and end all secret bombing campaigns
  • Issue an executive order reestablishing the legitimacy of the War Powers Act, which requires Congressional consent to make war
  • Declare that no individual who has worked for a defense contracting company can be appointed to a federal agency
  • Establish a commission to conduct a top-to-bottom review of the military budget
  • End the program providing free and low-cost military equipment to law enforcement agencies

For all of the latitude that Sanders would enjoy as president, his ability to implement this vision would depend upon the people around him. The president appoints nearly 4,000 people to lead the executive bureaucracy, over 1,000 of whom require Senate confirmation. This immense bureaucracy cannot be counted on to faithfully implement the foreign policy vision of a President Sanders. An anonymous person in the British civil service recently wrote in Tribune about how a prospective Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn would have faced ingrained hostility from the permanent government. The same is no doubt true of the U.S. Are there hundreds of socialists and progressives waiting in the wings to fill these appointments, who have the knowledge, experience, and political skills necessary to marshal the forces of the state towards an agenda for peace? My guess is that there are maybe dozens of genuine anti-imperialists with the necessary level of expertise to fill these positions. While this means that the socialist movement must develop its own anti-imperialist experts, it also points to the dire need to democratize the making of foreign policy and to take as much of it as possible out of the hands of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats.

The “imperial presidency” has effectively usurped Congress’s constitutional responsibility over matters of war and peace. Sanders acknowledges this when he says that he wants to “[a]llow Congress to reassert its Constitutional role in war making, so that no president can wage unauthorized and unconstitutional interventions overseas.” This constitutional approach, however, neglects the reality that a Congress full of enthusiastic militarists would still not produce a democratic and peaceful foreign policy. There are a variety of statutes, treaties, and conventions that the United States has not signed and/or ratified, including the International Criminal Court or the Comprehensive Nuclear-Test-Ban Treaty. Socialists should demand that the U.S. sign or ratify these agreements But the fact remains that the law, whether domestic or international, is a function of political power. Paradoxically, then, the role of a Sanders presidency would be to wield the power of the imperial presidency in order to deconstruct it.

In the short term, the main problem facing socialists is the need for resources. Proposing credible democratic forms to replace the imperial presidency will first require groups of intellectuals (professional or amateur) to devote their efforts to research and writing on democratizing foreign policy. As the socialist movement grows, we should encourage sympathetic academics to independently organize themselves into groups for this purpose. The obvious source of funding for such projects — besides socialist organizations themselves, which can use all the money they can get — is unions. Winning over unions to support progressive foreign policy think tanks or commissions will require that the socialist movement strengthens its ties with the labor movement. Until then, workers will have only a tenuous say in U.S. foreign policy.

The Troop Question

Socialists must understand that the military has a class character, and that different forces within the military have contradictory interests according to their position within the hierarchy of ranks. 

The draft ended in 1973 because class struggle had emerged within the armed forces themselves. Soldiers fighting the Vietnam war protested racial discrimination, refused to go out on patrols, took drugs, sabotaged equipment, fragged their officers, and deserted. A striking illustration of the level of self-organization of soldiers is that there were over 300 G.I. newspapers circulating, clandestinely and openly, not just stateside but also in Vietnam and aboard ships. In 1971, a Marine Corps Colonel wrote in the Armed Forces Journal that the Army was “in a state approaching collapse.” The scale of the draft meant that some anti-war people, progressives, radicals, and socialists got called up and brought their politics with them into the ranks. The end of the draft marked a recognition by the ruling class that it cannot carry out its imperial adventures on the backs of conscripts. 

Because the current professional military is voluntary, it is probably much more ideologically homogeneous than in previous eras. Accordingly, there were still heroic dissenters during the Iraq war, just far fewer of them. The nature of political opinion among the majority of troops — likely some combination of civic nationalism and unconsidered belief in the righteousness of U.S. military action, as opposed to outright xenophobia or blood lust — is also unclear. But plenty of people’s political views, not just active duty personnel, are fairly incoherent. A key tenet of socialist organizing is that people can learn and change their minds. And we must keep in mind that a form of conscription persists in the form of the “economic draft.” The military itself acknowledges this when it meets its recruitment goals with the help of the student loan crisis. The requirement that commissioned officers have bachelor’s degrees effectively serves as a class sorting mechanism. Officers make around twice as much as the enlisted, and the distinction of their service sets them up for much more high-paying jobs after getting out. African-Americans and Puerto Ricans are overrepresented in the military, but the picture is most grim in the U.S. territory of Guam, which has the highest enlistment rate, a casualty rate in Afghanistan four times the national average, and where one in eight in the population are veterans, but which ranks dead last in federal spending on veterans’ care.

Socialists must also pay attention to how war is conducted to better understand how to oppose it. The increased use of drone strikes and special forces, for instance, represents an increased degree of insulation from democratic accountability. But some drone operators, not unlike social media censors, are thoroughly traumatized by what they do, and some special forces in Syria began to object to training what were essentially jihadist groups. Where there is dissent, socialists must support it.

Even if this picture of the class composition of the armed forces is slightly inaccurate in one direction or another, socialists must appreciate the importance of the military because class is not simply a measure of income or wealth or determined by industry or job title. It is also a function of control. Workers don’t just get paid less than the value they create, they are also subject to the orders of their bosses and political rule by the representatives of the capitalist class. In the military, this relationship holds far more literally. Officers issue commands which are essentially legally binding. The permanent occupation in the Middle East provides officers with lines on their resumes and medals and awards. They find the conflict intractable and aimless but do their time and return home. Meanwhile, their patrols are manned by their inferiors, who suffer the majority of the casualties. 

The same problems that affect workers also affect the troops: racism, sexism, homophobia, and abuse by peers and superiors; restricted political rights; and inadequate funding for healthcare. Socialists must appeal to rank-and-file troops by promising to right these injustices.

For Peace and Socialism

A recent Politico headline says that “a stronger anti-war movement” has stopped war with Iran. We should be skeptical about how much of an anti-war movement there actually is right now. It’s true that the resurgent Left is paying closer attention to foreign affairs right now. But the reason we are not at war with Iran right now is most likely the same reason we might have been at war with Iran in the first place: nothing more than the whims of a president. This is the power that socialists must work to break.

To continue the renewed national discussion on the government’s militarism, DSA must run or support more candidates for Congress, because war and peace are national issues. An end to foreign conflicts must be a non-negotiable part of any political program we develop, and we should consider requiring candidates to at least vote against any military funding that is not below the current colossal levels. And our elected officials must coordinate on the issue of opposing war, whether that means introducing resolutions and legislation or holding simultaneous rallies from their offices.

It is obvious to most Americans that our bloated defense spending prevents investment in healthcare, education, and good-paying green jobs. The problem is that most people don’t think anything can be done about it. Our task is to convert that resignation into action. Socialists must fight to provide veterans with the care they deserve. And when active-duty members of the military realize that the ideals of honor, integrity, and courage they signed up believing in don’t correspond to the machine they’ve become a part of, socialists must offer them solidarity. To end the wars and win peace, the socialist movement must continue to confidently march onward to power.