The documentary The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets aims to convey the worthy message that Americans need to remain active in opposition to the US government’s wars of aggression. The film focuses on the anti-war movement that arose in opposition to the US war on Iraq. It highlights the tactics of various anti-war groups and offers lessons for how to effect positive change. Disappointingly, however, the film winds up teaching the wrong lesson.
The Activists portrays Barack Obama’s two terms as president as though his being twice elected was a victory for the anti-war movement. As such, the film fails to relay one of the most important lessons from this period of US history. Had the key lesson been realized by the film’s makers, a more appropriate title would have been How the Anti-War Movement Was Duped by Barack Obama.
The film opens with a reminder of how an anti-war movement arose in opposition to the US’s war on Vietnam, which is then contrasted with the movement that arose in opposition to the war on Iraq. The film glosses over the war on Afghanistan that occurred in the wake of the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. This war is only briefly mentioned before moving on to Iraq. Presumably, this is because there was no anti-war movement to speak of with respect to the war for regime change in Afghanistan. Important lessons about the failure of the anti-war movement could have been drawn here, but this opportunity was passed up by the filmmakers.
Moving quickly on to Iraq, the film also fails to communicate the most important lesson about the mainstream media’s role. The media at the time, of course, had effectively served to manufacture public consent for the US government’s war on Iraq. Yet The Activists features Washington Post reporter David Broder asserting that “There was no way any reporter in the United States could check out” the claims being made by government sources about Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction (WMD).
No alternative views are presented in the film with respect to the media’s role, despite the absurdity of Broder’s claim.
Indeed, Broder’s cognitive dissonance is revealed to the astute viewer seconds later when he goes on to point out how he and his colleagues in mainstream so-called journalism had “discounted” the reports of UN weapons inspectors who had entered Iraq and “found no evidence” to support the US government’s claims.
In reality, the government’s claims that Iraq was manufacturing and stockpiling WMD and had a cooperative relationship with the terrorist organization Al Qaeda were obvious lies from the start, as some of us were pointing out at the time.
In reality, any journalist earnestly seeking truth would have seen right through the government’s transparent deceptions. There just weren’t many mainstream journalists who placed pursuit of truth above their careers or maintaining their personal faith in the state religion and its dogmatic belief of American exceptionalism.
The US government, in the paradigm of adherents to the state religion, is sometimes capable of making “mistakes”, but only ever acts out of benevolent intent and an earnest desire to spread goodness around the world. Even when there is recognition of the fact that individuals within government are capable of evil, there remains an unwavering faith in the institution of government itself. (If only a Democrat was president instead of a Republican….)
David Broder understatedly notes that the media establishment’s complicity in this US war of aggression—defined at Nuremberg as “the supreme international crime”—was “not a distinguished moment for the press”. He blames this on what he calls the media’s “one big handicap”, which was journalists’ “lack of direct access to the country”.
This is a puzzling explanation in light of how numerous claims being made by the George W. Bush administration were known to be false well prior to the invasion of Iraq in March of 2003.
For example, it was known well prior to the war that the documents relied upon for the claim that Iraq had acquired yellowcake uranium from Niger for an enrichment program to produce fuel for a nuclear weapon were crude forgeries.
Any journalist worthy of the job description could also have easily learned that the aluminum tubes the US government said Iraq had acquired to build centrifuges to enrich this uranium to weapons-grade could not in fact have been used for that purpose. The tubes were rather intended for a conventional rocket program. This was in fact pointed out as early as January 2003 by the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), the global nuclear watchdog agency, which was working alongside the UN inspectors.
These are just a couple of the many examples that illustrate the point of how The Activists passes along Broder’s self-serving excuses for his own admitted failure to do his job as though an accurate characterization of the situation journalists were faced with at the time. In other words, this ostensibly anti-war film completely lets the media establishment off the hook for its role in manufacturing consent for a war of aggression and the accumulated war crimes contained therein.
One of the film’s main focuses is on the need for activists to employ a wide variety of tactics to be effective. These mostly involve different things to do at protests, such as various kinds of performances, including street theater. The operations of groups like Code Pink and Iraq Veterans Against the War are highlighted. A primary goal of the movement was to keep the anti-war message in the press. The way the film portrays the anti-war movement’s tactics, one would think they were actually effective. Yet this is certainly not obvious, particularly in light of how the movement completely failed to stop the war.
The effectiveness of the movement as a whole becomes all the more questionable when the film comes to the 2008 presidential election. The Activists recalls how the anti-war movement by and large threw itself behind candidate Barack Obama, who was widely perceived as being anti-war.
This is a puzzling delusion. In the days just prior to the election, this analyst wrote an article titled “Whoever Wins U.S. Election, Policy in ‘War on Terror’ Unlikely to Change”. Point being, it is not as though Obama’s propensity for enforcing US hegemony through military force was not obvious enough behind the transparent mask of rhetoric.
The trouble was that anti-war activists identifying themselves with the political left were deeply indoctrinated into the same aforementioned state religion. They simply failed to free their minds from the prison of partisan politics. Hence the limited dissent against the establishment evident in The Activists and its characterizations of Obama as though his two terms as president represented some kind of victory in the struggle to bring the US war machine to heel.
While not its makers’ intent, this film essentially documents how liberal anti-war activists were duped en masse by Obama’s empty rhetoric.
The film goes so far as to characterize candidate Obama as having been an anti-war voice. The cognitive dissonance once again becomes evident as one interviewee explains how badly Obama needed to win Iowa. This required him to distinguish himself from Hillary Clinton and organize an army of volunteers. His stand on the Iraq war is what enabled Obama to do that.
Despite the recognition of this political reality, the faith in Obama as being supposedly anti-war does not waver in the film’s presentation. The disparity between Obama’s thin veil of rhetoric and his actual deeds as president is explained away as though he was, deep in his heart, truly opposed to illegal and immoral wars, but just couldn’t change the direction of US policy as much as he would have liked due to the pressures of his office.
The alternative possibility that Obama was just another corrupt and immoral politician willing to say whatever was necessary to advance his own pursuit of power is evidently inconceivable to the filmmakers.
The cognitive dissonance becomes even greater as the film notes how some activists “became uneasy” with Obama when he immediately moved to escalate the war in Afghanistan. Despite this unease at having voted into power someone who effectively sustained the Bush administration’s policies when it came to the use of military force, the film then recalls how ostensibly anti-war leftists were duped yet a second time. Once again in 2012, liberal activists en masse voted for Obama to remain in office for a second term, his actual war record notwithstanding.
Obama’s record by that time included having waged yet another illegal war of aggression to implement regime change, in Libya. As the film also notes at the end, the Obama administration likewise continued US involvement in military conflicts through the Middle East. Indeed, Obama bombed more than half a dozen different countries during his tenure.
In an apparent attempt to claim some victory for the ostensibly “anti-war” left’s decision to vote for Barack Obama twice, the film at the same time notes that the last combat troops left Iraq on December 18, 2011. But to implicitly credit Obama with this outcome is simply to propagate Obama’s own revisionist history on the ostensible end of the Iraq war.
In truth, the US had no choice but to withdraw combat troops after Obama tried and failed to obtain an agreement with the Iraqi government that would allow those US forces to remain.
The portrayal of Obama in The Activists is a highly romanticized one. Tellingly, the one and only truly anti-war candidate in both elections, Ron Paul, receives nary a mention in the film. Likewise, the possibility of simply choosing not to legitimize the system that has produced endless war (i.e., not participating in the electoral process) also seems inconceivable to the film’s makers. Implicit throughout is an adherence to the “vote for the lesser of two evils” paradigm that has served so effectively to perpetuate the status quo of endless war.
The ultimate takeaway lesson The Activists seeks to deliver to the viewer is that activism requires persistence. Once the victory was achieved of getting the allegedly “anti-war” Democratic candidate into the Oval Office, it was not yet time to give up the struggle. Rather, activists had a duty to support him further, to “help” him do the right thing in the face of other pressures and influences. Once again, there is no cognizance of the possibility that Obama had no intention of doing what was right, given a choice between that and doing what was necessary to further his own pursuit of power, with consideration also for his deep dedication to preserving the status quo of the American political establishment.
The Activists purports to show how anti-war activism should be done. Instead, it unwittingly illustrates what not to do if one’s goal is to end the US government’s illegal and immoral wars. It purports to draw lessons from the methods and tactics of Iraq war protesters (including courageous veterans who risked a court martial by refusing to participate in the war). Yet it does so by portraying the two-term presidency of Barack Obama as though this represented a great achievement, rather than what was arguably the anti-war movement’s single greatest failure.
Accordingly, the film does present useful lessons for anti-war activists—just not chiefly the ones intended. Principle among these is the need to rise above partisan politics and the left-versus-right paradigm, to cease legitimizing the status quo of perpetual war by voting for either one pro-war candidate or the other, and to liberate oneself from being deeply indoctrinated into the state religion.
The Activists: War, Peace, and Politics in the Streets (2017) is directed by Melody Shemtov; produced by Melod Shemtov, Michael T. Heanye, and Marco Roldán; and distributed by Bullfrog Films (running time 60 minutes). To learn more about the film, visit TheActivistsFilm.com.
This review was originally published at Foreign Policy Journal.