A turning point in the anti-war movement?

The January 27 demonstration in Washington DC was the largest anti-war protest in the US since September 2005.

In 2005, one reason for the size of the September action was that it was not an election year. In 2006, there were only scattered demonstrations despite anti-war sentiment burgeoning in the US population, because the eyes of the anti-war activists and the general population were on the congressional elections.

The hope was that the victory of the Democrats in taking over Congress would mean meaningful steps taken to end the war. One aspect of the recent demonstration was that participants wanted to pressure the Democrats.

But there was another aspect, evident in reports and interviews with many marchers. That was growing anger that the Democrats are doing nothing substantial to oppose the war. Right after the November 2006 elections, the top Democratic Party leaders — including Nancy Pelosi, the new speaker of the House of Representatives, and Senator Hillary Clinton — made clear they would continue to vote for US President George Bush's war budget. It was downhill from there after the new Congress was sworn in.

The best that Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy — the most "liberal" senator — could do was try to introduce a motion that the number of troops in Iraq be capped at the January level. Even a very mild motion respectfully disagreeing with Bush's "surge" has been bogged down in the Senate. Some mealy-mouthed motion may still be passed, but it will fall far short of what the majority of US people want — for the war to end and the troops be brought home before more are killed and maimed.

Of course, the marchers were also furious at Bush and the Republicans. Vice-President Dick Cheney on national television openly stated it didn't matter what Congress did, the administration was going full steam ahead with expanding the war. Bush wasn't so blunt as Cheney, but also made the same point. This was like spitting in the face of the people. The imperial arrogance of this administration is almost breathtaking.

Some of the small minority of Democratic representatives in the lower house who oppose the war spoke at the demonstration, however not a single Senator or any of the Democratic leaders came.

On the other hand, Hillary Clinton did address members of a Zionist organisation a few days after the demonstration, forcefully promising that she would do everything she could to "stop Iran", including using the military.

Another aspect of the demonstration was the increasing visibility of soldiers opposing the war, both in the march and on the speakers' platform. Soldiers are organising. One group was Iraq Veterans Against the War. The New York Times reported, "Tassi McKee, from Bastrop, La., who said she was a staff sergeant in the Air Force, was among a small contingent of about 20 active-duty service members who turned out … She said that it was not illegal for active-duty members to attend protests but that it was strongly discouraged.

"Veterans were more numerous among the crowd.

"Dressed in the olive green, military-issued flight jacket he said he wore during the invasion of Iraq while serving as a Marine sergeant, Jack Teller, said he joined the caravan from Greenville, N.C., because he felt it was his duty.

"'I don't like wearing the jacket because it reminds me that I participated in an immoral and illegal war,' said Mr. Teller, who had 'Iraq Veterans Against the War' stenciled on the back of his jacket. 'But it's important to make a political statement.'

"Fernando Braga, a 24-year-old Bronx native who is a member of the Army National Guard, said that he was skeptical of the war before it started. Mr. Braga said his views hardened into opposition while he served in Iraq from March 2004 through January 2005.

"'My own commander told us when we arrived that if we thought we were there for any reason other than oil then we had another think coming,' he said. 'I realized that even commanding officers were against it but following orders.'"

One of the most forceful speeches at the January 27 protest was given by Navy Seaman Jonathan Hutto, who is one of the organisers of the Appeal for Redress, an anti-war petition signed by more than 1200 active duty soldiers.

Other contingents and speakers were from Gold Star Mothers, who have lost sons and daughters in the war, and Military Families Speak Out.

On February 5, the court-martial of Lieutenant Ehren Watada began. He is the first commissioned officer to refuse to redeploy to Iraq. Truthout.org reported on February 7: "In a stunning defeat for military prosecutors, Lt. Col. John Head, the military judge presiding over Watada's court-martial, said he had no choice but to declare a mistrial because military prosecutors and Watada's defense attorney could not reach an agreement regarding the characterization of a stipulation agreement Watada signed before the start of his court-martial. The judge characterized the stipulation agreement as an admission of guilt by Watada for 'missing movement' and making statements against the Iraq war."

Watada originally joined the army after 9/11. He became disillusioned with the war and came to the conclusion that it was illegal and immoral. He was charged with missing a deployment to Iraq, and with "conduct unbecoming an officer and gentleman" for publicly speaking out against the war and explaining his reasons for refusing to go to Iraq.

"From what I understand", Watada said at a January public forum, "that under military law those in the military are allowed to refuse — in fact have the right and duty to refuse unlawful orders …"

He bases his refusal to follow orders to deploy on the fact that the war is illegal under US and international law. The judge in his court martial, Lieutenant Colonel John Head, ruled out Watada raising the issue of the war's illegality in his defence. Watada has said he will fight against this ruling, which makes a mockery of the trial.

The charge of "conduct unbecoming" — it sounds like something out of the 19th century! — was based on Watada's statements that the Bush administration falsely used the 9/11 attack to justify the war. That Bush, Cheney and the whole bunch lied is common knowledge around the world. But Bush is "commander in chief" of the military, so to tell the truth about him is "conduct unbecoming".

This attack on soldiers' right to free speech was been compounded by statements by the brass that to criticise the "commander in chief" "undermines the morale" of the armed forces. It is a small logical step to charge that anyone who criticises Bush and the war "undermines the morale" of the military.

Watada faces two years in military jail for refusing to deploy, and another two years for publicly criticising Bush. His case has become a cause celebre for the anti-war movement. His father spoke at the Washington demonstration, and his mother at the San Francisco one.

That soldiers and their families are increasingly speaking out and organising can only increase anti-war sentiment and organisation. There is reasonable optimism that January 27 will mark a turning point in organising against the war, and can overcome the crisis of leadership in the movement. It can also be hoped that the revival of the movement in the US will give an impetus to anti-war action worldwide, including in Australia.