Part three of a sketchy chronology of the contemporary antiwar movement. Part One. Part Two.
U.S. has "lost" Iraq war;
Presidential election subsumes activism
While the various Iraqi nationalist and religious insurgencies increased their ability to contest the occupation, the U.S. administration mucked around with constitutions and elections to try to create a compliant but also legitimate Iraqi government. Occupation authorities were transparently inept; Iraqi collaborators were transparently self-serving and venal. Iraq drifted toward becoming a bloody failed state torn by civil war.
The fact that, against all expectations, the U.S. was actually losing the war has been the backdrop against which all U.S. antiwar activism has played out since at least early 2005 -- though this is usually unacknowledged, even among peace movement people. The U.S. can't "win" in Iraq, or even project a meaningful description of what "winning" would look like. And gradually, mainstream elites have figured this out, largely without reference to the activities or demands of the antiwar movement.
And Iraqis and U.S. troops kept dying. The U.S. fatality count reached 1000 in September 2004. The Iraqi casualty count was and remains extremely disputed; for an overview of counts, see this article.
Two events in this period belatedly forced most liberal opinion makers -- and lots of Democrats -- to turn against a war they'd supported as long as they thought it would be successful and cheap. In April 2004, U.S. forces laid siege to the Iraqi town of Fallujah, wreaking havoc apparently in revenge for killings of four U.S. contractors/mercenaries. To the shock of many, after inflicting awful casualties on Iraqi civilians, the US units were forced to withdraw. Leveling centers of opposition was obviously going to be more brutal and bloody than liberals had bargained for. Smarter war supporters and opponents began to realize the U.S. could not "win" in Iraq at any acceptable cost. All that military might could not be usefully employed to reach any imaginable goal, not to mention any goal remotely acceptable to Iraqis. (Bush ordered the militarily useless but brutal destruction of uppity Fallujah after his re-election.)
Just weeks later, the Abu Ghraib torture photos hit the U.S. press. Iraqis of course knew that prisoners swept up by U.S. forces were being abused -- the revelation was to the world outside Iraq and particularly to the U.S. population. Widespread, visceral revulsion followed, This too showed liberal elites they had backed the wrong horse.
With Democrats now by and large leery of the war though not yet calling for withdrawal, antiwar activism was easily subsumed into the 2004 campaign. John Kerry failed to articulate an attractive antiwar position, but millions worked to elect him in place of George W. Bush as the only hope of ending what more and more was seen as a disaster. Folks in the peace movement made noises about keeping the war at the center of the campaign, but we didn't really have access to the megaphone -- the candidate and conservative elements in the Democratic Party held tight to their wishy-washy message. We fell in with the chorus of voices blaming George Bush for all the country's ills without being able to project any more sophisticated or positive critique.
Polls from that time illuminate the deep ambivalence about the war that helped Bush to eke out his victory. Sometime in 2004, both Bush's approval rating and the number of people in the U.S. who thought the war was not worth it slipped under 50 percent. But a majority continued to say that the U.S. "done the right thing" by going to war in Iraq. That is, a majority essentially still endorsed the right of the U.S. to wage preemptive war, or a war of revenge, or a war of conquest, on the say-so of its government, even if they didn't like this war. No wonder the peace movement felt we weren't making a dent -- though we kept trying.
Those who came to believe that the Iraq war had not been "the right thing to do," only fell consistently below 50 percent after Bush was re-elected and 2005 began. By October 2005, the number of U.S. soldiers killed in Iraq topped 2000.
To be continued...