It should have been easy to get out of the house on Sunday, March 18 - the day before the fourth anniversary of the invasion of Iraq - for the first of a nationwide series of demonstrations to bring the troops home. The weather was clear and crisp in New York, where I was; most of the slush had dried up. My affinity group, Take Back the Future, was prepared to march. What could be better than a Sunday afternoon with my friends, chanting for peace?
The news was on our side. CNN polls that week showed support for the war at an all-time low: The number of Americans in favor had halved since 2003, while those strongly opposed doubled. Six in 10 believed Bush lied to get us into the war. Most people wanted Congress, not the president, to direct war policy.
The Democrats were pulling their caucus behind a withdrawal plan, in spite of a precarious majority in the Senate. And Bush was feeling the heat. On Monday, he would go before the American people to "plea," as the press universally described it, for patience. His podium was set before a portrait of Teddy Roosevelt on a rearing steed. But on the front page of The New York Times Tuesday, Little George's ink-dot eyes and wobbly-straight-line mouth made him look more like Charlie Brown on the pitcher's mound than the Rough Rider on San Juan Hill. You could almost see a thought bubble blooming above his head, reading, "Sigh."
And yet I didn't feel like marching. What good would it do? I thought. Born in 1952, as the Korean War dragged on and the hydrogen bomb was being tested, I marched - or was pushed in my stroller - to Ban the Bomb. Vietnam followed close behind, then Cambodia, Desert Storm, Afghanistan - not to mention all the conflicts for which America supplied the arms and the advice and let the bodies of other nations fall.
As I laced up my walking shoes and filled my water bottle, I tried to bring a lifetime's blur of peace marches into focus. Still fresh in memory was February 15, 2003, when a half million poured into the streets of New York, the mounted police unable to corral us into "free-speech" pens. That Monday, I opened my email to a cascade of jpegs. Along with us, 30 million people in 800 cities around the world had cried out, "No War in Iraq!"
A month later, after a Take Back meeting, we watched the bombs of Operation Shock and Awe falling on Baghdad. The TV screen was that now-familiar weird green of nighttime desert videotape; the explosions were silent. I remember thinking that to viewers tuning in after a gory evening of prime-time entertainment, it wouldn't look so bad.
This time the demonstration was small, a couple thousand in New York, perhaps three times that in Washington. Some things had improved, notably the attitudes of New York's Finest. One cop recited the route through a bullhorn as if he were a United for Peace & Justice marshal: "We march up Sixth to Fifty-Seventh. Then we turn right and go to Second Avenue . . ." At Fifty-Seventh, another officer cheered us on: "Only 11 blocks to go! Burn a hundred more calories!"
The evening news programs carried short clips of the events. The next day, the Times ran a tiny item in the Metro Section. And Bush reaffirmed his commitment to staying the course. If we pull out, he threatened, a "contagion of violence" will "engulf the whole region."
Some glimpse in the recent terrible news the signs of better news to come. After all, Iraq's unremitting chaos has turned America against the war. Marxists used to call this "heightening the contradictions," a process by which the desired end - back then it was proletarian revolution - is supposedly hastened; in other words, worse is better.
I tend to think that worse is worse, but in this case it's hard to say what's worse and what's better: Saddam's totalitarian tyranny or today's Hobbesian anarchy? A partitioned Iraq, each region suppressing women and freedom according to its own interpretation of scripture, or an endless, fruitless American occupation, the "long war"? All are evils, some greater, some lesser.
Maybe I'm demoralized because I fear that the president is right. If we leave, we abandon Iraq to self-immolation. We may simply be betting, perversely, that if we stay, the same will happen: a bloodbath, only with American blood and treasure in the mix. Calling for peace, tout court, the left appears to be as much in denial about the aftermath of our withdrawal as the Bush administration was about the aftermath of our invasion. We don't want to admit that U.S. policymakers can do little more now than make of a monumental catastrophe a merely enormous one. The Iraqis know this better than anyone, and they are as confused as anyone: In an ABC-BBC poll, half said they oppose the occupiers' presence in their country, but only 15 percent want us to pull out now.
So why did I march? The child of activists goes to peace marches as an adult raised Catholic goes to mass: ritually, whether she feels like it or not. My mother, who was there too, always told me that if we did not march, things would be even worse than they are.
Sometimes she complains, as I do, that the message is too complicated; the media images can't sum it up. Some-times, like now, I wonder if it's too simple. Still, the message must be sent: No. We do not consent.
It's the message a group of pacifists sent last week when they sat in at Congressman Peter Welch's Burlington office, demanding that he oppose the Democrats' bill to fund military operations in Iraq while imposing deadlines for withdrawal. These seasoned activists knew that the vote would be complicated for Welch. To oppose the bill would be to side not just with antiwar progressives but also with anti-withdrawal Republicans. The activists must have known, too, that immediate withdrawal could not pass the House, much less the Senate.
Welch voted for it, and the protesters condemned him. But their message went deeper; its provenance and future are longer than this appropriation, even than this war. They were rejecting all the options on the table, because none was good enough.
What is to be done? It is not, in the end, the job of a protest placard to spell out a policy plan. So I carried my poster - Take Back the Future for Peace - and, alas, I will carry it again and again.
I marched, and not just because I'm afraid of what would happen if I didn't. I marched to tell the world that we must create more to choose from than greater and lesser evils.
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