BURNS: The strategy behind the Guard Home movement

October 14, 2009
Steve Burns

"Bring the Guard Home - It's the Law!" is a national campaign, now active in more than 20 states, that is raising a legal challenge to the Federal Government's use of our National Guard troops for deployments in Iraq and Afghanistan. In Wisconsin, the campaign is promoting AB 203, a bill in the Wisconsin state assembly which would give the Governor the authority to examine the legality of any federal order for deployment of the Wisconsin National Guard and to challenge in court any orders determined to be unlawful. I'm excited about this campaign because I see it as the beginning of a much larger national movement that is asking the long-overdue question: "Who decides about war?" This was the title of a recent conference in Washington D.C. that brought together grassroots peace activists and legal and constitutional scholars to ask one of the most fundamental questions we can ask, as citizens of a nation that claims to be a democracy.

Just take a look at our current situation: The United States exists in a permanent state of war, can even be said to be addicted to war, and all decision-making about the question of war has now been placed in the hands of one man: the President. Whatever we think of the current occupant of that office, this is clearly a dangerous, unhealthy and undemocratic state of affairs.

And yet who is pushing back against the idea of one-man rule on questions of war and peace? Certainly not Congress. Here's Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, after a recent meeting of Congressional "leaders" with President Obama about Afghanistan:
"The one thing that I thought was interesting was that everyone, Democrats and Republicans, said whatever decision you make, we’ll support it basically," said Senator Harry Reid, the majority leader.

But that's really just a continuation of Congress' supine behavior over the past eight years. Congress no longer even bothers to declare war, even though it is the only body given authority by the constitution to do that. Instead, it passes "Authorizations for Use of Military Force" which are either based on blatant falsehoods, like the Iraqi Authorization, or are an unconstitutional abdication of Congressional war-making powers to the President, as with the Afghanistan Authorization, which says, in effect, "You go wherever you think you need to go, and for as long as you need to, Mr. President, in pursuit of the people who did 9/11, and we'll just sit here and sign the checks."

If Congress is worse than useless, what other centers of power in this country might be mobilized in opposition to the permanent-war state?

There is popular opposition, of course, and the peace movement has proved remarkably successful in building public opposition in the face of an almost complete blackout of pro-peace voices in the corporate media. When you read, for example, that 57% of Americans now oppose the Afghanistan war, remember that this shift in opinion happened even though Americans have never seen a single person on their televisions calling for withdrawal from Afghanistan. Clearly, the American people are capable of making up their own minds even while they swim in a sea of government propaganda, and the peace movement can take a large share of credit for that.

There is also opposition within the uniformed military. Iraq Veterans Against the War has helped to amplify the voices of antiwar vets like Camilo Mejia, and, as Dahr Jamail reports in his new book, "The Will to Resist", even soldiers who do not go public with their opposition are engaging in lower-level resistance through "search and avoid" missions in Iraq and Afghanistan, choosing to park their vehicles and radio in reports of "patrols" while avoiding contact with the resistance.

And let's not forget the resistance by youth, parents and educators against military recruiters in schools and elsewhere. Although the recruiters are now reaping the benefits of an economic collapse and widespread joblessness and are currently meeting their quotas, counter-recruitment can, over the long term, help to choke off the supply of warm bodies needed to fuel the war machine.

But we, as a peace movement, would not be doing our jobs if we did not explore every center of power and its potential for anti-war resistance. And that takes us back to "Bring the Guard Home - It's the Law!" The military has become increasingly dependent on the National Guard, especially for the logistical tasks that make war-fighting possible, and authority for the National Guard is not granted exclusively to the Federal government. It is shared by the States and the Feds, in a complex arrangement that raises numerous legal questions - and opportunities. Can we, joining with activists in more than 20 states, turn our state legislatures into centers of opposition to the misuse of the Guard? I don't claim to know the answer to that question, but I think that a peace movement that doesn't explore this option is leaving one of the most important "pillars of war" untouched.

But can AB 203 pass the legislature? At our first legislative lobby day in support of AB 203, one legislative aide told us, "There are a thousand bills introduced in the legislature every session." That's a daunting statistic, to be sure, but it also clarifies our task: Through constituent phone calls and meetings, we must raise ourone bill above the sea of a thousand bills, so that it first becomes one of the hundred bills that your legislator has actually heard of, and then one of the few dozen bills that your legislator will vote for. Still discouraged? Ask yourself: How many bills have citizens roaming the halls of the Capitol on their behalf? Ours does, and whether our bill succeeds on what we do, including how many of us make the trip to Madison for the October 20 lobby day in support of AB 203.

But will any Governor use the authority given by AB 203 to withhold the Guard? As with the question about whether AB 203 will pass the legislature, the answer depends on us. I can easily imagine, if AB 203 becomes law, a thousand pro-peace citizens (or thousands, even) surrounding the Capitol, demanding that the Governor do the right - and legally proper - thing and refuse the next deployment order to send more of Wisconsin's Guard to Iraq or Afghanistan. When that happens, it will be because those citizens have been provided with an opportunity to protest, closer to home and directed at a target that's more subject to pressure than Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi, or Barack Obama, and because the Governor has lost an excuse for inaction that he once enjoyed. This is why it's a mistake to see the campaign for AB 203 in opposition to other tactics, such as street protests. Done strategically, a legislative campaign can create opportunities for protest and raise the level of popular interest in street protest.

Clearly, peace movement activity is now at a low ebb. Some cite the "Obama effect", some note that other issues, such as health care, have drawn away the interest of politically active people. These explanations all contain a grain of truth, but the peace movement also needs to examine the types of activities it is promoting, and constantly assess our strategies and tactics and search for new strategies when the old ones clearly aren't working. "Bring the Guard Home - It's the Law!" is one of the new strategies we should be exploring. Whether it leads anywhere depends, at least in part, on us.

Additional Information: 

Steve Burns, Outreach Director
Wisconsin Network for Peace and Justice