Peace movements never end with peace

Posted: Jan 23, 2003 12:00 AM
WASHINGTON, D.C. -- Of the poor, it has been said, "Ye shall always have with ye." The same might also be said of peace movements. They are always with us, even in time of peace, and even when a Hitler or a Mao is rattling a saber. America did not need Saddam Hussein snarling from Baghdad to entertain a peace movement. In fact, even before President George W. Bush was sounding the alarm against international terrorism and Saddam's grisly arsenal, an American peace movement was gently purring with its customary moral superiority. To be sure, Saddam's insouciance toward UN resolutions and the president's impatience with him has given our peace movement a wonderful jump-start, as the phrase has it. Yet the American peace movement endured after the end of the Cold War, though it was only a pale version of its old boastful self and its melodramatic bumper stickers surely evoked rude laughs from 1990s Americans. There we were, a decade after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the Pentagon budget waning, Russian arms rusting away, and out of the faculty parking lot speeds a Volvo, its proud bumpers proclaiming, "Give Peace a Chance." Well, now the peace movement has renewed life and a goal: "Hands Off Iraq," "No Blood for Oil." The movement's march on Washington led by the gaudy likes of Jessica Lange and two plump clergymen of distinctly secular tastes, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, got me to thinking about the ironies of peace movements. The first irony is that peace movements almost never lead to peace. If you can think of exceptions, let me hear from you -- but do not include the Anti-Vietnam War peace movement. History is quite clear on the brutal consequences for Southeast Asia of the 1970s peace movement. As it grew in strength, war spread from South Vietnam to Cambodia and Laos; and war has continued to this day with re-education camps for the independently minded and tyranny wherever the communists triumphed. Reflecting on the dismal record of most peace movements, I would suggest that a far more successful peace movement is the 82nd Airborne and similar military contingents. It has been widely reported, at least by conservative observers, that the peace demonstrations of last week were populated by an assortment of zanies, not the sober middle-class citizenry who were reputed to have motored in from suburb and countryside. There were the environmental hysterics, the Trotskyites, the anti-Semites, vegetarians, anti-globalization reactionaries and -- my favorites -- the "Queers for Peace and Justice," and the Service Employees International Union Local 1199. Those last two groups were spotted by my young colleague from the New York Sun, Adam Daifallah, while covering the peace march at the National Mall in Washington. After he chronicled all the weirdoes and recorded their idiotic speeches (from the speakers' platform former Attorney General Ramsey Clark began an impeachment drive against Bush, Jackson sang --"The world is cold, but our hearts are warm"), we repaired to a local Vietnamese restaurant for dinner. What we found was amazing. The restaurant was filled with peace demonstrators. Later, I found out that for some reason after their glorious day of haranguing the "American War Machine," the marchers' favorite ethnic eateries were Vietnamese. It is odd that the mainstream press stressed the middle-class nature of the anti-war marchers, for our fellow diners the other night were all right out of a late 1960s teach-in. Their children looked pretty normal, but the parents were unreconstructed radicals, all united by something even more profound than the love of peace -- namely, a disdain for America. They were also utterly oblivious of their capacity for error. Pulling their legs was doomed to futility. When I tried by dreamily enthusing to one of the glassy-eyed idealists that, "If it were not for the peace movement of the 1970s we would not have this wonderful Vietnamese restaurant here in Washington today," he completely missed the point. To the owner of the Vietnamese restaurant, the 1970s peace movement had meant exile. To the butt of my ridicule it had meant the spread of Vietnamese cuisine. Struck by the similarity between last week's peace marchers and my recollection of the anti-Vietnam War marchers, I attempted to reread Norman Mailer's supposedly journalistic account of his participation in a famous anti-Vietnam march on the Pentagon, "The Armies of the Night." Read today, it is a terrible book. Mailer's eyewitness accounts are utterly unconvincing. He could not possibly remember the conversations during the demonstrations that he claims to have recorded. He speaks of blood being splattered and other dramatic acts that simply did not take place. And the prose is often inscrutable. If I had the space here, I would quote page 113 in its entirety. It is all one sentence, possibly the most clangorous concatenation of mixed metaphors and random nonsense ever published by a major American publishing company. Fittingly, the book won a National Book Award. It is that bad. Yet peace movements are not governed by orderly thought. They are usually manifestations of self-love by people completely incapable of self-criticism. This is because when one decides to join the peace movement (or to become a progressive, for that matter) one does so assuming that never again will he be wrong, probably about anything. The decision leads to comedy and to some really infantile books.