What Happened to the Antiwar Movement?

Barack Obama owes his presidency largely to the Iraq war. It was Obama’s purity on the war–he opposed it when Hillary Clinton, John Kerry and others were voting for it–that endeared him to the Democratic Party’s base. Indeed, one could say that the contemporary American Left owes its vigor, if not its existence, to the Iraq war. Those who lived through the years from 2003 to 2008 won’t forget it–the online hysteria, the demonstrations, the wild charges, the assassination fantasies, the calls for impeachment. Remember when antiwar demonstrations could bring out enough people to fill the streets? This was Washington, D.C. in 2007; click to enlarge:


This is Hollywood, also in 2007. Note the caskets. American casualties were, properly, a chief focus of the antiwar Left:


Calls for the impeachment of George Bush and Dick Cheney were frequent. Remember when Cindy Sheehan camped out in Crawford, Texas, cheered on by an adoring throng of reporters? Good times, good times!


Curiously, the antiwar movement, which was already winding down, ended abruptly the day George Bush left office. One might almost think that the U.S. has been at peace since then. But no: Barack Obama has presided over a conflict in Afghanistan that has been, while not as bloody as the war in Iraq, of the same order of magnitude.

For some reason, this hasn’t been widely recognized, perhaps because the press has discontinued the breathless body counts that were a prominent feature of its coverage of the war in Iraq. (Remember the countdown to 5,000 American dead? Happily, that milestone was never reached.) But let’s go to the numbers: how many American servicemen have been killed in Afghanistan, compared with Iraq? Here are American fatalities in Iraq during the Bush administration:

2003: 486
2004: 849
2005: 846
2006: 823
2007: 904
2008: 314

That’s a total of 4,222 deaths, an average of 704 per year.

Now, Afghanistan under President Obama:

2009: 310
2010: 496
2011: 412
2012: 301
2013: 120

That’s 1,639 fatalities, an average of 328 per year. That is fewer than Iraq, of course; the Afghan war has always been relatively low-intensity. But the fatalities are, as I said, of the same order of magnitude, and more than 70% of our deaths in Afghanistan have come under Obama, not Bush. One might have thought that an antiwar movement that could turn out 300,000 people for an anti-Iraq war demonstration could turn out 150,000 for an anti-Afghanistan war demonstration. But there is no antiwar movement, and there are no demonstrations; none worth mentioning, anyway. The antiwar movement ended the day Barack Obama was inaugurated.

One might almost think that the antiwar movement was all about politics, not principle. That it was really an anti-Bush, anti-Republican movement. And that once a Democrat was in the White House, its purpose had been served and the protest signs went into the trash. There is precedent for this, as we have written before. The anti-Vietnam war movement, which also was celebrated by the press, wasn’t really a movement against the Vietnam war. It was led mostly by people who were not at all opposed to the war, but wanted the other side to win. The rank and file were not so much anti-war as they were anti-draft. On the day the draft was abolished, the anti-Vietnam war movement ended. Whatever you think of the merits of the Vietnam war, there never was anything noble or idealistic about the anti-war movement.

History may, perhaps, say the same thing about those who protested the Iraq war so passionately, but have been so strangely silent about Afghanistan.

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