Tough lessons from 20 years of antiwar protest

It’s finally over. After 20 years, the last U.S. troops are leaving Afghanistan. In some ways, we got what we wanted from the war on terror. Osama bin Laden, and the other underwriters of death, are gone. Their organization, al Qaeda, lies in tatters.

But the price was steep. Over 2,000 American soldiers did not return to their families. The Watson Institute at Brown University estimates that approximately 71,000 Afghan civilians perished as a result of the warfare between U.S. and Afghan forces. The same report also notes that 170,000 additional casualties were Afghan combatants. The economic damage was immense. The Associated Press estimates that $2.2 trillion dollars was spent waging this war — a figure that doesn’t include the losses suffered by the Afghan economy.

How could this have been prevented? Was there some way to conclude this war sooner?

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Many people look to the antiwar movement for answers. Protest is often seen as a crucial tool for opposing unwise or repressive policies. If only more people had poured into the streets, some argue, the Afghan war might have been brought to a faster end and thousands of lives might have been saved.

But the history of the antiwar movement in America shows that protest isn’t enough. In the early 2000s, we saw massive waves of protest against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but they didn’t influence elected leaders. The crowds were enormous. At their height, antiwar protests could draw hundreds of thousands of people across the country. The global wave of protests against the Iraq War in 2003 attracted millions of people. Yet, these massive expressions of protest did not change the underlying dynamics of the war.

There is a second problem with relying on antiwar protest: It is unreliable. The massive protests of the early 2000s were not matched in 2010 when the Obama administration mobilized 100,000 troops to Afghanistan. The reasons for this decline are complicated.

Part of the story has to do with electoral politics. Evidence collected by my colleague Michael Heaney and me for the 2015 book “Party in the Street” shows that protests shrank in size starting in the late 2000s. Democrats were less likely to attend antiwar protests as well. We also reviewed congressional bills and showed that there was a drastic drop in antiwar bills during Obama’s administration. When Obama escalated troop levels in Afghanistan, protests remained small and mobilization against the U.S. interventions in Libya and Syria were also small. Another important part of the story is that other issues displaced the Iraq and Afghanistan wars in American politics, such as the Great Recession and health care reform. For these reasons, and others, antiwar activism can’t be relied upon to be a constant pressure for ending armed conflict. 

Another tough lesson is that public opinion is slow to mobilize against war. When wars begin, public opinion is usually pro-war. Peace activists are often labeled as unpatriotic cowards. It can take years for public opinion to move against a war. Gallup poll data show that only 20 percent of Americans thought the Iraq war was a mistake in 2003. It took two years for a majority of Americans to arrive at the same conclusion as antiwar activists. The public was split about the Afghanistan War. A 2019 Gallup poll shows that 52 percent of survey respondents think that going to war was not a mistake — a number that remained unchanged throughout the 2010s.

Even when the public agrees with the antiwar movement, the government doesn’t always respond. Most polling after 2006 on the Iraq War, for example, showed that a consistent majority of Americans thought the U.S. government should end the war, but there was a significant American presence in Iraq until the end of President ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaStephen Sondheim, legendary Broadway songwriter, dies at 91 With extreme gerrymanders locking in, Biden needs to make democracy preservation job one Republicans seem set to win the midterms — unless they defeat themselves MORE’s first term. 

We saw a similar pattern in Libya. Initially, Gallup polls showed that Americans approved of the U.S. intervention in Libya in early 2011 but soon turned against that policy. Yet, the Western mission in Libya continued. This pattern is common. The public often supports military intervention at first, then turns against the conflict and governments are slow to respond. 

If antiwar activism and public opinion don’t end wars, then what is to be done? The only way that the wars of the future will be slowed and prevented is through a transformation of American character. Much in the same way that Americans came to realize that slavery and segregation were perverse and oppressive institutions, we can develop a deep understanding that wars are incredibly violent and usually unjustified.

Our moral leaders must adopt this message and bring it to our classrooms, newsrooms and houses of worship. To be American is to lead the world without resorting to war. Elected leaders will hesitate to send our sons and daughters into combat only when they know that their choices will be rejected at dinner tables and porches across the land.

Fabio Rojas is professor of sociology at Indiana University, Bloomington and a senior fellow at the Institute for Humane Studies.