The Militant(logo) 
    Vol.62/No.7           February 23, 1998 
Lessons For Today From The Working-Class Campaign Against 1990-91 Gulf War  

On Nov. 1, 1990, the National Committee of the Socialist Workers Party issued a statement calling on working people around the world to "put at the center of their political activity campaigning against the horrendous war Washington, London, Paris, and their allies are preparing in the Middle East." Socialist workers and young socialists in the United States and elsewhere did exactly that over the following months -explaining to their co-workers, classmates, soldiers, and other workers and youth involved in struggles the reasons behind Washington's war drive and why working people should oppose the slaughter. They continued this political campaign unflinchingly through the six-week aerial bombardment of Iraq that began Jan. 16, 1991, the murderous 100-hour "ground war" that followed, and the subsequent months as the U.S. imperialist colossus kept up its deadly sanctions and imposed "no-fly" zones over much of Iraq.

As this unfolded, worker-bolsheviks in the SWP confronted many political questions that will be faced again in the new bloody assault Washington is preparing against the Iraqi people. It's important to study these lessons, many of which are drawn together in issue no. 7 of New International containing "The Opening Guns of World War III: Washington's assault on Iraq" and "The Working-Class Campaign against Imperialism and War," both by Socialist Workers Party national secretary Jack Barnes. Some of these lessons are explained in bulletins published by the SWP National Committee for the information of party members at the time.

The danger of denial
"The Working-Class Campaign against Imperialism and War" was first published in the International Socialist Review as a supplement to the Militant in December 1990. Together with the book U.S. Hands Off the Mideast! Cuba Speaks Out at the United Nations and the Militant, it was the main tool socialist workers used to explain the U.S. war drive and campaign against it.

One of the biggest hazards the working-class vanguard faced at that point was "the danger of denial," the article explained. "These hazards are compounded for those who are buffeted by the day-to-day swings and tactical divisions reflected in bourgeois public opinion" - a warmongering speech by the president one day, an announcement of renewed diplomatic "initiatives" the next, and so on. The capitalists and bourgeois politicians who are preparing for war "always claim to be acting in the interests of peace - and of freedom, democracy, and national sovereignty as well," the article noted. In fact, talk of negotiations with the Iraqi government by Paris and others in the imperialist alliance continued until the very eve of the bombing.

But from at least some point in September 1990, every step taken by Washington, including every fake "peace" proposal, was headed toward a bloody assault that would have devastating consequences for all the toilers of the region. Any hopes that the Stalinist bureaucracies in the Soviet Union or China would hold back the assault were an illusion as well. Moscow jumped into the U.S.-led coalition in hopes of gaining greater integration into the world market system, while Beijing declined to use its veto power as a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council to block even one of the war resolutions pushed by Washington.

The article on "The Working-Class Campaign" pointed out that the differences between the "war camp" and the "peace camp" in Washington were entirely tactical. The only debate in the halls of Congress was over the best methods for advancing the interests of U.S. imperialism in the Middle East. Most of the "doves" argued for giving the sanctions Washington had pushed through the United Nations a "chance to work."

For instance on Dec. 9, 1990, Sam Nunn, the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Armed Service Committee, called for "squeezing [Saddam Hussein] to his knees" through this embargo before moving on to a "viable military option," which he defined as a massive, sustained bombing assault on Iraqi cities and troop concentrations to minimize subsequent U.S. losses in a ground assault. Sen. Edward Kennedy, one of the most prominent "peace" politicians, argued for a full year of sanctions, before launching a military assault.

Communists explained that these sanctions - a full blockade on imports, including food and medicine, enforced by U.S. naval firepower in the Arab-Persian Gulf - were themselves an act of war. This is explained clearly and point by point in the book U.S. Hands Off the Mideast!, which contains speeches by Ricardo Alarcón, who at the time was Cuba's representative in the UN Security Council, and Cuban president Fidel Castro.

As part of a working-class campaign against the imperialist war drive, socialists called for unconditionally lifting the sanctions - and do so to this day.

Yellow ribbons and patriotic pressures
In addition to the disorientation that can come from the propaganda of the bourgeois war makers, "individuals and currents from the petty bourgeoisie - sometimes because of the depth of their shock at the horrors of war, and their fear of the consequences -lose their moorings and get drawn into the undertow of one or another section of the war makers and their political parties," the article by Barnes in the ISR explained. Resisting the patriotic pressures transmitted by these middle- class layers is of the utmost importance for class-conscious workers. One of the forms this pressure took before and during the Gulf War was the slogan, "Support our troops - bring them home," put forward by many radicals and pacifists.

This is "simply one of many adaptations to increasing patriotic pressure," wrote Joel Britton and Ernie Mailhot in a December 1990 letter to socialists in the Oil, Chemical and Atomic Workers union. The letter, which was published in a bulletin for the entire party, was one product of an expanded meeting of the SWP Political Committee and elected leadership of the party's trade union work held December 15 - 16 to assess the progress of the party's campaign against the imperialist war drive.

"The `our' in the slogan is read by the overwhelming majority of people as `our country's' troops," the letter continued. "These are not `our class's troops'; the members of the armed forces are `their' troops, the troops of the imperialist state. Communists point out that individual soldiers - outside the officer corps - are in their big majority workers and farmers in uniform; they are fellow workers temporarily in the armed forces.. As they experience the unfolding of a bloody imperialist war, numbers of servicemen and -women will become unalterably opposed to continuing its prosecution.. But workers and farmers in uniform, citizen soldiers, are nonetheless part of the imperialist military - part of their military, the armed forces of the employing class - not ours."

The slogan "Support our troops, bring them home" was embraced by forces with varying positions on the U.S. war drive, including those who argued for intensifying the strangling sanctions on Iraq as a "peaceful" alternative to a shooting war. Instead, communists sought to advance the unconditional demand "Hands off Iraq! Bring the troops home now!" in street actions whenever possible, as well as in discussions with individual workers and soldiers.

Socialist workers also rejected participating in the collections of presents for the GIs stationed in the Mideast that took place in many factories, including those that the trade unions were involved in. In effect, such campaigns call on workers to lend moral support and help finance the deployment of an imperialist army. "We are opposed to one cent going toward this criminal war drive," the letter from Britton and Mailhot stated. Communists would vote against all military appropriations if they had members in Congress, along with the rest of the budget of the capitalist state.

Another form the patriotic pressure took was the widespread "yellow ribbon" campaign promoted by politicians, bosses, union officials and others as a way to show support for the troops. Some radicals in the trade union officialdom and various coalitions argued that opponents of Washington's slaughter in Iraq should attach a yellow ribbon to an antiwar button, or wear a different-colored ribbon. But the ribbons played "the same role as an American flag in bolstering patriotic support for the war," Barnes noted in the "Opening Guns of World War III," no matter what their color or who was wearing them.

A feature of the discussion at the December 1990 SWP trade union leadership meeting was the need to accurately assess the extent of antiwar sentiment in the working class and among its allies. The organizer of the party's work in the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union pointed out, "Many co-workers will say `I'm against war. That's why I'm for giving the embargo a chance to work.' When a worker says something like this, it means we must begin the work of talking to them about taking a class position against the war."

Among the many workers who expressed opposition to a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq beforehand, most remained under the influence of these kind of patriotic, prowar positions. Many resigned themselves to war, hoping for a quick U.S. victory and "peace," even at the expense of massive bloodshed, especially after the U.S. bombardment of Iraq began in mid-January 1991.

Antiwar sentiment has never stopped the imperialist rulers from going to war; they are affected only by the mobilization of this sentiment in the streets. Coming to grips with the limitations of the antiwar views among their co-workers was essential for socialists to build a working-class campaign against the imperialist war drive that would not buckle under the initial wave of patriotism when the war started.

Such a campaign was not simply an "antiwar" effort. What socialist workers carried out then, and what is needed again today, was a steady effort to promote among fellow toilers an understanding of and organize opposition to imperialism and its wars, and to explain the connection between this war drive and the employer and government assaults on workers rights and living standards at home. During the 1990 - 91 Gulf War, worker- bolsheviks in the United States found that the space existed within the working class to carry out such a campaign - that whatever their views on the war, workers in their big majority supported the right to hold a civil discussion on the question - and the communist movement was strengthened in the process.  
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