Like most wars, Operation Desert Storm was begun in a noble spirit of common purpose and national unity. But within a week it was mired in domestic politics and rivalries. The antiwar movement, as it geared up for last Saturday's mammoth protest in Washington, dropped some of its high-minded claims to be acting more in sorrow than in anger, threatening to "take back the government for the people" in next year's election. Police in San Francisco began agitating for the right to wear flag patches on their uniforms, warning demonstrators what kind of justice to expect. And on a visit to Fort Bragg, a man introduced generously as a "former soldier"--former National Guardsman Dan Quayle--denounced protestors with a vigor that reminded The New York Times of another vice president who made a name for himself as a scourge of dissent: Spiro Agnew.
Quayle was right about one thing: opponents of the war are a small minority of the American people. A "Newsweek" Poll showed that a record 86 percent of the population supported the president. But once the adrenaline of the first week's rallies wore off, the peace movement had to confront some hard choices about its future. Strategically, it was pursuing goals--an immediate cease-fire and withdrawal--that seemed quixotic in the midst of the largest aerial bombardment in the history of warfare. "The problem with the peace movement," said liberal Democratic Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota, "is that besides "peace now,' it has not presented a real alternative. It's a movement without a coherent message." Tactically, it seemed not to have thought much beyond last weekend's march, except for a suggestion by Alex Molnar of the Miliary Families Support Network that people "telephone their representatives and senators every day until this war ends, and ask politely what they did that day to end the war in the Persian Gulf," a campaign sure to elicit a great many reprints of speeches from the Congressional Record
Organizationally, the peace movement was beset by tension among its diverse components. Molnar, who carefully points out that although he opposes the war, he supports the troops (including his own son, a 21-year-old Marine), faced a pointed question from a listener who argued that soldiers in the gulf "are also perpetrators of a crime." (He also confronted a fellow peace lover who was as concerned about Molnar's use of a nonreusable paper cup as he was about the bombing.) And politically, it had to face up to at least a temporary loss of support in Congress. "There is still the feeling that by opposing the war, you are undercutting morale of the troops," said political analyst William Schneider. Come 1992, he added, "Republicans will want to use Saddam Hussein as the next Willie Horton"--a symbol with which to flay Democrats seen as soft on war criminals. A House leadership aide agreed that "Iraq's bombing of Tel Aviv and the apparent torture of POWs has quelled any antiwar sentiment there might have been on the Hill." To say nothing of the reaction Saddam's oil spillage provoked among environmentalists.
And there was the distracting question of how you react if right-wing extremists start handing out literature at your rallies. The violently anti-Semitic Liberty Lobby has taken a strong antiwar stand. Dick Gregory, a leader of one of the two main antiwar umbrella groups, spoke at the Liberty Lobby's 1990 convention. Followers of right-wing rabble-rouser Lyndon LaRouche have tried to join antiwar groups in several cities.
The movement, of course, is still young. Some of its leaders appear to be thinking ahead. Daniel Ellsberg is urging the movement to focus now on preventing an escalation of Desert Storm into a full-scale ground war, perhaps a more realistic goal than an immediate cease-fire. Democratic Rep. John Conyers predicted last week that Bush would soon have to reactivate the draft--and if so, he added, "we want it to be fair and there'll be no exemptions for college students." This was a shrewd tactic for stampeding young people, and their parents, into the peace movement. And there was, finally, undeniably, the presence of more than 150,000 Americans on the Mall last Saturday, little more than a week into a war whose worst horrors surely lie ahead of us. The peace movement, like the troops themselves, has barely begun to fight.