Sunday, October 25, 2009


Harry Targ

For purposes of comparison I want to make some predictions about the outcome of two current political struggles. I predict that some kind of health care bill will pass the Congress and be grudgingly endorsed by President Obama. It will include a “public option.” I am leaving aside for purposes of this essay the question of whether it will address the fundamental health care needs of the American people.

In addition, I predict that President Obama will authorize the sending of some increment of new troops to Afghanistan, just modestly short of the request made by General McChrystal for between 40,000 to 80,000 troops. While my predictive skills are modest at best-I predict victory for my beloved Chicago Cubs every year-I want to use these predictions to compare what I see as the relative strengths and weaknesses of the health care movement and the peace movement today.

First, let us reflect on the health care movement. Despite an enormous campaign by insurance providers, drug companies, some health professionals, a vigorous and angry anti-government movement from the right, and a 24-7 news advocacy television station partnered with about 80 percent of all of talk radio which is right wing, we are on the cusp of a modest legislative victory for health care reform. What has contributed to this movement?

Two movements, one years old and one relatively new, have been working tirelessly to achieve some substantial increase in access to health care for the American people. The modern single payer movement goes back to the 1970s, inspired by legislative proposals from that time. The vision of comprehensive health care goes back 100 years. More recently, supporters of so-called “universal health care” embedded in the electoral campaign of candidate Obama have penetrated the consciousness of the entire population. As a result of these two campaigns, almost everyone says the system is broken.

Single payer and other health care reform campaigners are working vibrantly in every state. They are critically supplemented by organized labor’s strong support for health care reform. Polling data indicates that majorities favor some reform and sizable minorities support a single payer system. Health care reform advocates lobby and are in the streets. Cultural performers devote whole musical concerts and documentary films to the subject.

In sum, the health care movement is organized, passionate, well-planned, and targets both ruling elites and the grassroots. It has had some success penetrating the barriers of class, race, and gender.

How about the peace movement?

While the health care movement has some formalized national, state, and local organization connections, the peace movement today seems in disarray. United for Peace and Justice no longer plays a national leadership role in the peace movement and no other national organization is taking its place. The most organized activities come from individual projects such as Robert Greenwald’s encouragement of communities to show his documentary “Rethink Afghanistan.”

Long-time peace activists, from the American Friends Service Committee, to Code Pink, to local groups organized around opposition to wars in Iraq or Afghanistan or against Israeli policy in Palestine collaborate for specific public events. They reach out to workers, communities of color, and women’s groups but with limited success.

Mobilizations are organized around a variety of demands: no escalation in Afghanistan, bring the troops home from Iraq, cut military spending, or abolish nuclear weapons. The messages at rallies are diffuse. They do not lend themselves to specific demands, clear petitions, and criteria for evaluating the conduct of politicians.

It is also the case that the diverse peace movement has not clearly enough linked its demands to the living experience of workers, people of color, and women. As to the former, while US Labor Against the War has lobbied vigorously and effectively within the labor movement, the labor movement has not been forced to play a critical role in campaigns for peace the way it has in reference to health care. “Health care not warfare” is demanded at rallies but almost as an “add- on” or afterthought to “end the war” slogans.

I raise these comparisons tentatively and with humility; tentatively because I may be drawing the comparisons too strongly. And the differences may also be a reflection of the immediate context of the two struggles, with health care highlighted by the media and the town hall right wing protests. I raise the comparisons with humility because grassroots peace activists are articulate, passionate, and committed to their struggle.

But if the comparisons are correct there are lessons to be learned. Peace and justice activists have to more rigorously connect the understanding and presentation of their issues-both health care and peace. Bringing a kind of structural analysis to educational work, lobbying, and street action is called for now more than ever. The lack of adequate health care, long-term unemployment, war and military spending, and global warming must be analyzed together.

These analyses require theory and political activism that is shaped by understandings of how the structures of society construct classes, races, and genders.

Finally, we can use our knowledge of history to inform our campaigns. For example, President Johnson promised the American people that he would work to create a “Great Society,’ a society that eliminated poverty. That promise was destroyed in the jungles of Vietnam.

Dr. Martin Luther King was beginning to make the theoretical and practical connections at the end of his life when he said that: “A nation that continues year after year to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.”

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


Harry Targ

Speakers Link War on Afghanistan to Justice and Environmental Issues

Seventy Hoosiers rallied against escalating war in Afghanistan on Saturday, October 17, in Indianapolis, the capital of Indiana. They came from as far away as Fort Wayne, Manchester, Bloomington, and West Lafayette to demand that President Obama choose diplomacy rather than increased military operations in that troubled land.

The “October 7 Coalition” that organized the rally as the culmination of several days of anti-war events around Indianapolis included traditional peace groups and others such as Iraq Veterans Against the War, Central Indiana Jobs With Justice, Women in Black, Code Pink, and Earth House.

The opening plea for a reconsideration of the military commitment to war in Afghanistan was made by Reverend Mmaja Ajabu, Minister of Social Concerns, Light of the World Christian Church. Reverend Ajabu recalled that when he went off to the Vietnam War forty years ago he thought he was engaging in a noble cause. He said it did not take him long to realize that he was not engaged in a cause which justified killing and dying in battle. In fact, he suggested, most soldiers have a radical change of consciousness when they are planted in the middle of a war that is not about their interests.

Dave Lambert, Fort Wayne veteran of the military and the peace movement, documented in passionate prose the utter futility of wars, from Vietnam, to Iraq, to Afghanistan. Concerning the impact of war on soldiers, he referred to National Guard Specialist Jacob W. Sexton, on leave from service in Kabul, who just days earlier had shot and killed himself in a Muncie movie theatre.

Timothy Baer, Bloomington Peace Action Coalition, identified ten historically-grounded reasons why the United States needed to withdraw from Afghanistan including cost, growing unpopularity of invading forces, and massive violence against civilians.

Dave Pilbrow, North Meadow Circle of Friends, linked issues of war and peace to devastation of the environment. Not only war, but the allocation of resources for war-the military/industrial complex-needs to be challenged if the human race and nature are to survive.

Shehzad Qazi, a student at Indiana University/Purdue University and member of an undergraduate think tank on international security issues, and Lori Perdue, Code Pink, demanded a negotiated solution to the war in Afghanistan. Qazi asserted that what we call the Taliban is a loose coalition of forces with differing perspectives on the willingness to negotiate with their enemies.

Lori Perdue said that she had initially favored an attack on Afghanistan after 9/11 and was moved to that position by the terrible treatment of women in Afghan society. She later realized that the position of women would not be improved by a U.S. war on the country. Women’s rights and peace can only come, she argued, through an all-parties conference to end the war. As the primary victims of the Afghan war, women needed to be at the negotiating table.

Peace Activists Rally and March While Jobless and Homeless Convene for Food

After the speeches, participants marched through downtown Indianapolis chanting for an end to war and money for health care and jobs, not for warfare.

Meanwhile, across the grassy mall from the American Legion monument where the rally was held, and just across the street from the large and elegant Indianapolis public library about 75 people, the same number as those rallying for peace, lined up for free food provided every other Saturday to those without work and housing. This assemblage was mostly African American, while the peace rally was mostly white. The peace rally was in front of the sculpture depicting the history of the U.S. war on Vietnam. So at the same time, a block apart there was a protest against another Vietnam and an assembly of those needing free food, as the country was spending billions of dollars to kill Afghan people while neglecting to feed its own citizens.

Harry Targ, representing the Lafayette Area Peace Coalition, had reminded the assembled protestors of the tragedy of President Lyndon Johnson 45 years ago. As president, Johnson signed the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, declared a war on poverty, and called on Americans to create a “Great Society.” The goal remained unfulfilled due to the cost of the brutal war on the Vietnamese people.

Tim King, rally organizer and moderator, interspersed speeches with relevant statements from Dr. Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt, and former President Eisenhower who said in 1953 that; “Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired, signifies in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed.”

Postscript on the Rally and March Against the War in Afghanistan

Reflections on the rally and march stimulated both praise and self-criticism. What was praiseworthy was the numbers, group representation, sense of determination of participants, and emotional and intellectual power of speeches and chants. The rally was the culmination of networking and organizing of multiple events in a city and state with strong conservative traditions in the context of a political environment dominated by an enormous array of issues: health care, global warming, jobs, and unparalleled Wall Street corruption.

However, the peace movement in Central Indiana, and everywhere, must continue to connect the issues that impact on people’s lives. Metaphorically peace activists must strategize about crossing the mall from the Vietnam War memorial to the food distribution line. While the peace movement bridges some of the divides between people in terms of gender, and religion, for example, more work can be done to overcome barriers of class and race.

Finally, peace and justice activists need to figure out ways to overcome inertia, issue-fatigue, and the overuse of traditional tactics, to mobilize masses of people everywhere to be part of the struggles to create peace and justice. The dilemmas peace and justice activists face in the Heartland of Indiana are similar in substance to the problems all progressives face.

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


Harry Targ

“Media frames” are orientations towards information that shape the interpretation of events: what facts are used to report key events, what words are used to describe events, and what options are presented to address the problem in the story. Media frames depend on what sources are quoted as “experts,” the amount of space or time that competing interpretations and recommendations are given in a story, and which perspective gets the last word. In print media what is said in headlines matters as well as photographs accompanying stories. Of course, sound bites on television or radio shape the viewer and listeners' expectations about the story.

Communications scholars correctly point out that most of us experience the world through the media frames that shape the news we consume. While we are active receivers of information, we are limited by the frames that are communicated to us. Probably a majority of Americans who follow news know that Fox television is not “fair and balanced.” The way they frame virtually every story fits the extreme rightwing agenda they promote. But these same Americans often assume that other media outlets, “the mainstream media,” are “objective,” neutral,” or contrary to Fox, “fair and balanced.” And here is the problem.

Our most trusted media, from the networks to CNN (and even MSNBC), or from the Washington Post to the New York Times frame their stories. In fact, all communication of information is framed by the communicator. In the case of the “mainstream” media most often stories are shaped by pro-war agendas.

Take stories on the recent assessments going on in the White House about the next moves in Afghanistan. The occasion for decision is a seemingly endless eight year war in that country waged by the NATO alliance, and prominently the United States, against the so-called Taliban who ruled the country until the United States attacked them in October, 2001. In addition, the recently held election in Afghanistan is believed to have been riddled with corruption. Finally, the general running the war there, Stanley McChrystal, has recommended an additional 40,000 United States troops adding to the over 60,000 troops already in the country.

Given the context, National Public Radio and CNN frame the relevant debate over policy as between those who want to grant General McChrystal’s request for troops, implying an escalation of war, and those “in the left of the Democratic Party” who want to reject any additional escalation. Time after time, mainstream commentators suggest the debate is about those who support the McChrystal recommendation, the reasonable and necessary approach, and those who reject reason because they are “playing politics,” that is possibly being influenced by the 65 percent of the American people who oppose U.S. involvement in Afghanistan. They also suggest that President Obama is not acting in a timely manner to authorize the troop increases because he too is playing politics or is afraid to buck his own party.

MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow has reframed the debate to more fully incorporate an analysis of the dangers of escalating U.S. military force in the country. She has effectively analyzed the eight years of failed policy, the rising opposition to the U.S. presence in the country, election corruption and the lack of popularity of the Hamid Karzai administration. But her frame is one with two alternatives, escalating U.S. troop commitments or continuing the current policy.

In the end, the news consuming public is given a story of Afghanistan that reflects either the need for military escalation-that is the dominant frame-or perpetual war. There is no discussion of other options, gradual but steady demilitarization of western troops, initiating dialogue with the “enemy,” reconceptualizing the “enemy” (that is the perpetrators of 9/11 rather than the former Taliban regime), and perhaps most importantly, drawing upon regional states, relevant secular and religious leaders, and others to launch a South Asia Peace Conference. These options have been suggested by a variety of public intellectuals, activists, and a few members of Congress.

In short, the presentation of facts, expert opinions, data on incidences of violence, pictures, headlines, ‘leaks’ from military spokespersons, and speculation about what the President and his party leaders and the opposition are thinking all conspire to leave the media consumer with the view that escalating the U.S. war on Afghanistan and the President overruling his party and the American people is the only right thing to do.

Friday, October 2, 2009


Harry Targ

We are approaching a time when critical decisions will be made on Afghanistan; whether the U.S. government will expand the war for years, sucking us into a quagmire of unimaginable proportions, or disengage, increasing the possibility of investing in health care reform, modest responses to the danger of climate change, and jobs and justice for workers.

Forty-five years ago, as President Johnson was signing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and launching the Great Society programs to lift “the other America” out of poverty he was making apocryphal decisions to send thousands of young men to fight and die in Vietnam (and to kill some three million Vietnamese people). With growing Vietnamese resistance to the U.S. war effort, the U.S. military turned to massacring villagers, assassinating suspected enemies, and carpet bombing and napalming. The hopes and dreams of a better America were burned to a crisp in the jungles of Vietnam.

As many have written in print and cyberspace, the war in Afghanistan must come to an end. Francis Boyle, an international lawyer and professor, wrote in 2002 that the United States should never have made war on Afghanistan. The tragedy of 9/11 was an act of terrorism, not an act of war launched by Afghanistan. “An act of war is a military attack by one state against another state. There is so far no evidence produced that the state of Afghanistan, at the time, either attacked the United States or authorized or approved such an attack.” Nothing ever since justifies the war the United States initiated in Afghanistan in October, 2001.

In the subsequent years, the United States and its NATO allies slipped deeper and deeper into the Afghanistan quagmire with the same historical ignorance that characterized American lack of awareness of Vietnamese history. As Marc Pilisuk, social psychologist, reminds us about Vietnam, “Fear of admitting we were wrong led to one new tactic after another. With military efforts bogged down in unfriendly jungle areas, we resorted to the use of toxic herbicides and ‘open target area bombing,’ burning villages, torturing peasants for information, propping up a succession of puppet governments.…Efforts to ‘win the minds and hearts’ of people were undermined by military violence and a nearly universal wish to get the U.S. troops out of their country.” Pilisuk then elaborates on the complex history of Afghanistan; which includes defeating invading imperial armies, internal tribal conflicts, U.S. support for those now seen as terrorists in the 1980s war against the pro-Soviet regime in Kabul, and shocking underdevelopment. He compellingly argues that: “Planning to remake Afghanistan in the back offices of the Pentagon is to repeat the neglect of cultural and historical factors in Vietnam.”

What to do now? Tom Hayden initiated a petition campaign in September, 2009, securing signatures of those who demand an end to the war in Afghanistan. In it he proposes an exit strategy that makes sense.

“Our government should adopt an exit strategy from Afghanistan based on all-party talks, regional diplomacy, unconditional humanitarian aid, and timelines for the near-term withdrawal of American and NATO combat troops.- The aerial bombardments of Afghan and Pakistan villages, like burning down haystacks to find terrorist needles, should end.- Military spending should be reversed in Afghanistan to focus on food, medicine, shelter, the socio-economic needs of the poor, and the dignity of women and children.”

As these scholar/activists correctly state: the United States should never have made war on Afghanistan and the eight year war reflects the same ignorance of the history the U.S. displayed in Vietnam. As the Hayden petition argues, the Obama administration must embark on a diplomatic effort to bring together contending political forces in Afghanistan with the assistance of interested governments in Asia and the Persian Gulf. The only solution to the war in Afghanistan is the withdrawal of United States troops from that country. Adopting the recommendations of Generals McChrystal and Petraeus for more troops is a blueprint for disaster.