Filed under Organizing & Activism Now

Speech for the Million Worker March (2004)

by Mark Rudd

[This speech was intended for a rally at the Million Worker March in Albuquerque, NM, on Oct. 17, 2004. I never gave it, due to rain and also the fact that it wasn’t exactly appropriate for the event. Most of the marchers were old timers and didn’t want to be lectured by me].

What I’d like to offer today is a little bit of history that’s been forgotten or suppressed: Once upon a time there was a mass movement in this country that helped end an American war of aggression against a foreign country. Millions of Americans rose up against our government, and that included soldiers in uniform and returning veterans. I am proud to have been a part of that movement.

This fact is fatally dangerous to the government and the media currently waging war against Iraq precisely because it means that a mass anti-war movement can happen again. That’s our job, all of us who are here today, to bring an anti-war movement into existence once again. And it’s happening! Thanks to Defending Democracy and the other organizations of young people, we are here today! Look at the 10,000 who came out to hear Michael Moore last Sunday night at the Pit! What a gorgeous crowd, so many young people with only a smattering of gray hairs such as myself.

Here’s another fact that emerged from the Vietnam war: American people, including soldiers, don’t like the idea that we wage wars of conquest, wars of occupation, wars of aggression for empire. It took long years of fighting and dying and organizing for the anti-war movement to expose the nature of the Vietnam war to the American people. When Americans understood that the war was not for Vietnamese freedom or for defense of the United States, as the government propaganda claimed, they turned against the war. It’s sad but true that the only public opinion in the world that matters to the U.S. government is the opinion of the American people. But anti-war sentiment helped end the war!

This dislike on the part of the American people for using American troops for foreign imperial adventures even has its own name: the Vietnam Syndrome. Less than 10 years after losing Vietnam, the U.S. government fought another war in Central America to maintain control over countries like Nicaragua and El Salvador and Guatemala which were attempting to secede from the empire. The war planners in Washington knew then that the Vietnam syndrome did not allow them to send main force U.S. troops to reconquer Central America, so they used proxy troops. In Nicaragua the puppet troops were called “Contra.” In El Salvador and Guatemala they were known as the national armies of their respective countries. After pursuing the Central America war for the entire decade of the 1980’s, the U.S. ultimately won, precisely because they used surrogate troops. The American people didn’t have to pay attention, so there was no mass uprising against the war, as had happened in Vietnam.

Now the war managers think the Vietnam Syndrome is over. They’re dead wrong. For the first year and a half they’ve been moderately successful in convincing Americans that this war of conquest and occupation is necessary to protect the U.S. in something called “The War on Terror.” But they have underestimated the American people. Since American troops are murdering thousands in Iraq, and dying by the hundreds, the American people are taking notice, which they did not in Central America twenty years ago.

It’s our job to point out to the U.S. people, in multiple ways, over and over again, the nature of the war. During Vietnam we had a chant, which it is said got under Lyndon Johnson’s skin, “Hey, hey, LBJ: How many kids did you kill today!” I must have screamed that chant 4,000 times. In thousands of other ways the anti-war movement pointed up the true nature of the war. Plus anti-war and rebellious sentiments worked their way into youth culture. The theme song of the troops in Vietnam was, “We Gotta Get Out of This Place.”

Eventually this pervasive opposition to the war got into the thinking of the American soldiers who were sent to murder and die there. They compared their own experiences to what the anti-war movement had been saying for years and many came to the conclusion, both while they were serving or else afterward, that the war was wrong and that they had been used. From 1969 on, anti-war sentiment within the U.S. military was so strong that the U.S. Army became absolutely unreliable and even mutinous; the Pentagon got so scared that the elite Marines would become infected with the anti-war virus that they withdrew the Marines completely starting in 1969, long before the end of the war.

The definitive study of the collapse of the U.S. military in Vietnam and the role of returning GI’s in the anti-war movement has yet to be written, but I would like to offer just one incident which I’ll bet you didn’t know about: In 1971, over 1000 sailors aboard the aircraft carrier Coral Sea based in San Francisco signed the following petition to the Congress of the United States:

“In our opinion there is a silent majority aboard ship which does not believe in the present conflict in Vietnam. It is also the opinion of many that there is nothing we can do about putting an end to the Vietnam conflict. That because we are in the military we no longer have a right to voice our individual opinions concerning the Vietnam war. This is where we feel that the majority of the Coral Sea has been fooled by military propaganda. As Americans we all have the moral obligation to voice our opinions. ….The Coral Sea is scheduled for Vietnam in November. This does not have to be a fact. The ship can be prevented from taking active part in the conflict if we the majority voice our opinion that we do not believe in the Vietnam war. If you feel that the Coral Sea should not go to Vietnam, voice your opinion by signing the petition.”

How many of you had heard of this incident? It’s one of literally thousands of acts of revolt among the troops in Vietnam, including murdering their officers, refusing to fight, getting stoned instead of going out on patrol, etc. etc. Incidentally, just this week reservists driving oil tankers refused to follow dangerous, stupid orders. I wonder how many other cases of disobedience have gone unreported.

Veterans returned, from 1970 on, to lead the anti-war movement, just as student involvement was winding down due to the transformation of the draft to a lottery system and the murder of four students at Kent State. John Kerry should be honored for his part in Vietnam Vets Against the War and the Winter Soldier Hearings which exposed the widespread, systematic war crimes our troops were forced into in the war of occupation against Vietnam. Kerry knew about these war crimes personally, because he himself had killed innocent civilians in “free fire zones.” When foreign soldiers occupy a country they inevitably murder and humiliate the people, who fight back, and a cycle of attack and revenge is born. There is no other way in a war of occupation. We are seeing that cycle right now in Iraq. Six Americans killed on Thursday, four on Friday, untold thousands of Iraqis murdered. The atrocities mount up on both sides.

Soldiers in Iraq today are fed a constant diet of propaganda about what they are engaged in and who the enemy is. I’ve talked to several returning GI’s who believe that they were sent for good reasons and that they accomplished good things. One of my students was in the Marine contingent that tore down the statue of Saddam in that famous televised incident in March, 2003. He didn’t know who Ahmed Chalabi was or that the Iraqis who he helped in pulling down the statue were Chalabi’s hired hands, sent there for the photo op. It was reported that many of these guys weren’t even Iraqis, but how would my student know any of this? He’s a good guy and he knows his intentions are good. But he needs to be exposed to another way of looking at the war, which of course he can’t get from his officers or the press or President Bush.

In general, most Americans can’t wrap their minds around the concept that they’ve been duped into going to war by a totally corrupt and lying government. This is too much for people to handle. Soldiers, in general, don’t like to think they’re being used. They like to think all their sacrifice and hardships are in some good cause. That’s why it’s so hard and takes so long to change our fellow Americans’ minds. My fear is that not enough voters will break with the lies of the Bush administration on Nov. 2 and that they will “support our troops” in the wrong way. Perhaps if the election were held a year from now that wouldn’t be the case.

So our work is cut out for us: we must build an anti-war movement which never stops repeating the truth about the nature of the war, which never tires of explaining to the American people what’s really going on. They’ll snap, only it will take time. For me, repetition is no problem, since I’m an algebra teacher by profession and I make my living by repeating myself again and again and again.

We have to make so much noise, so much propaganda, that the American people and the American soldiers in Iraq will hear us. They have to understand that the people fighting them are not “Al Queda” or evil Jordanian terrorists sent by some shadowy al Zaqarwe, but, rather, Iraqis who don’t like their country being invaded. The Iraqis are resisting our invasion in precisely the same way we would resist a foreign invasion of this country.

Whoever wins this election, we’ve got to keep on building our anti-war movement and making noise. Personally, I’m hoping for Bush’s reelection, because he is the reason our movement exists! Thank you, George W. Without you we wouldn’t be here today and wouldn’t be talking about building an anti-war movement. If the crazies running this country have four more years to wreak havoc on the world, they’ll need a draft to force young Americans to do their dirty work. Great! A draft will also force thousands, no, millions of young people and their families out into the streets. I want a draft for precisely that reason!

Actually, Bush knows how dangerous a draft for him and he will try to do everything else in his power to avoid a draft. Most likely, the government will offer citizenship and residency to foreigners willing to fight in our military, just as the Romans and the Greeks and the Ottoman Turks and the British empires did before us. So we will have a huge Latino contingent in the U.S. military along with the other economic conscripts. Already we had a Mexican-American commander in Iraq, General Ricardo Sanchez from California, parents born in Mexico (though when things went wrong at Abu Ghraib, the war managers did not hesitate to fire Sanchez and blame the whole thing on him).

In truth, I don’t know what’s going to happen on November 2 or beyond that. No one does. Also, I lack the courage of my conviction about the importance of four more years for Bush and will vote for John Kerry under the belief that the Democrats are less violent and repressive than the Republicans. In that I could be wrong, too.

But I do know that all our future depends on us building an anti-war movement that understands this is a war for empire and never ceases telling that to the American people. And I also know that we can win precisely because it happened once before!

One more thing: What’s our alternative to the War on Terror? Many people have been led to believe that this war is inevitable, that we have to fight “the terrorists” abroad so we don’t fight them here at home. To many well-meaning people Bush’s aggressiveness seems logical and right.

I think we’ve got to talk with people about how our country is relatively peaceful and safe due to a structure of laws. The laws and the police may not be totally just or fair, especially as experienced by the poor and people of color, but by and large most of us agree that they keep us from killing each other in cold blood, which happens where there are no laws. Look at what happens when there are disputes in the former USSR or right here in the illegal drug trade.

Yet between nations, there are virtually no laws, and the few that appear on some books somewhere such as the Geneva Conventions on War and the UN Declaration of Human Rights are disregarded at will by the U.S. as well as by non-governmental “terrorist” groups such as al Queda. So the goal of our peace movement, and ultimately of the people of the U.S. and the world, should be to bring into effect a structure of international law as an alternative to war. We’ve got to show the American people what people all around the world see, that the U.S. acting unilaterally to attack countries works against everyone’s interest, including our own. That law can and must replace war. This is going to be a hard sell, too, but in time we can lay the basis for a future peace in which both the weak and the strong are subject to international law, or some semblance of it. This is our very long term goal.

If you meet one of the many who can’t imagine such a thing working, ask that person to step up to a world map and note that one of the seven continents is not owned by any nation, yet every square inch of territory in all the other six continents is owned by one or another state or nation? How did this come into being? The answer is obvious even if the details are murky.

Mostly, realize that we are doing great work in fighting against this war and for peace! We can win if we don’t get tired and demoralized. The American people will not be won overnight to realize that are being lied to and used and abused. The struggle will last the rest of our lives and well beyond. What else you got to do on a Sunday afternoon, watch a reality show on TV?