“Early on a Sunday morning,” tweeted New Yorker staff writer Susan Glasser this February, “with Russia and its 100k army on the brink of invading Ukraine, I’m wondering where are all the anti war protesters in western capitals who hate imperialism so much?” Glasser, an advocate of American military intervention in the region, meant this as a rebuke to those soft-handed American and European noninterventionists who believe that the only “imperialism” worth opposing is draped in red, white and blue. “A striking absence,” she impugned, “of the present moment…” However snide her criticism, there was something she was right about: popular resistance to Western involvement in war was, for some decades, exhibited by mass street-level mobilizations in cities across America and Europe. Given the signs at the time that America and its NATO allies might be gearing up for another conflict, the absence was not insignificant.
But on February 24th, as Vladimir Putin launched his invasion of Ukraine, untold numbers of Russian citizens filled the streets of Moscow and St. Petersburg in opposition—despite the Putin regime’s ongoing ban on “unauthorized” protest and the memory of the aggressive crackdown on last year’s widespread demonstrations in support of opposition leader Alexei Navalny. Taking to the streets, the protesters faced two brute facts: first, the government’s very credible threat of retribution; second, that their protests would surely do little to sway the regime’s war effort. By acting in the face of these facts they modeled on the world stage the first principle of protest, the gesture from which all other street-level mass politics flows: that the first step into the narrow window of moral urgency afforded by an event is to register affirmation or refusal. (Usually, of course, the latter.)
In the latter half of 2002, as the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom began preparing for the bombardment and invasion of Iraq, Americans and Britons flooded the streets to voice their opposition. In September, after Prime Minister Tony Blair voiced his support for military action if Iraq refused to submit to unlimited UN-led weapons inspections, more than a hundred thousand Londoners gathered to demonstrate in Hyde Park; the next month, after Bush signed Congress’s authorization granting him unilateral military power, a hundred thousand Americans marched on Washington. In the months preceding the war, protests broke out in countries all over the world—and on February 15, 2003, a rally of several million people coordinated across six hundred cities and sixty countries—with about three million in Rome alone—became, according to the Guinness Book of World Records 2004, the largest protest in world history.
The protests did not stop the allied war effort in Iraq; those in Russia will not end the invasion of Ukraine. But both mobilizations imply an attitude about the relationship of citizens to the military: namely, that there is one. To protest a war means to believe that one’s actions as a citizen are connected in some way to the actions of the military, however contorted or tenuous the link may be. Americans in 2002 still believed the military to be subject to democratic control, that its operations might still require confirmation through a congressional act of war: the actions in the street were meant to sway the hearts and minds of the politicians whose hands lay on the levers of military power. Protesting the war, Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote in the Atlantic in 2013, “meant that you got to firmly and loudly say, ‘No. Not in my name.’ It meant being on the side of those who warned against the seductive properties of power, and opposing those who would bask in it.” The Russian protesters likely have few illusions about their government’s pretensions to democracy. But they nonetheless believe that they have a duty to say to their government—and to the world—what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn said to the Soviet Union: “Even if all is covered by lies, even if all is under their rule, let us resist in the smallest way: Let their rule hold not through me!”
But if protest can be a duty of a civilian in wartime, what other duties might there be? Those of the soldier seem clear: to be called to muster, to march, to shoot, to achieve victory over the enemy and win glory for oneself and one’s homeland. But even here, duty becomes complicated. At the conclusion of World War II, German general Anton Dostler faced a military tribunal for having ordered the execution of American prisoners of war in Italy, in direct contradiction of the 1907 Hague Convention. Dostler insisted that he was simply passing along his superior’s orders; his subsequent execution by firing squad put to bed the “just following orders” defense forever.
Part of the increasingly fraught enterprise of international law has been to establish a paradigm, under the aegis of “human rights,” in which a soldier’s duty—whether to their superiors or nation—is never absolute. But in the early part of the twentieth century this unfolded alongside an intensification of patriotic demands on civilians, by which civilian life was reengineered to constitute the “home front” of a total war. Though the Sedition Act—which resulted in the imprisonment of Eugene Debs, among others—was repealed in 1920, only two decades later FDR signed the Smith Act, making it illegal to “advise, counsel, urge, or in any manner cause insubordination, disloyalty, mutiny, or refusal of duty by any member of the military or naval forces of the United States.” If civilians were to speak about the war, the government demanded uniformly positive discourse. And in his book Wartime Strikes, Martin Glaberman details how industrial union leadership leveraged the notion of national duty to pass wartime no-strike resolutions that curtailed the rights of rank-and-file to strike for better working conditions. “Labor knows its duty,” American Federation of Labor president William Green declared the day after Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor: “It will do its duty, and more.”
As the postwar peace quickly resolved into the great-power competition of the Cold War, the view of society as a united front against a common enemy remained the dominant paradigm for American domestic and foreign policy. But the era of protest that broke out less than twenty years later—for civil rights, against Vietnam—relitigated the notion of civilian duty. “One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws,” Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote from his jail cell in Birmingham in 1963. “Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that ‘an unjust law is no law at all.’” Muhammad Ali’s frank (though likely apocryphal) remark about what the Viet Cong never called him; Stokely Carmichael’s “Hell no, we won’t go!”; Phil Ochs’s antiwar hymn “I Ain’t Marchin’ Anymore”; Joan Baez’s letter to the IRS, protesting her civilian contribution to the defense budget: “I do not believe in war. I do not believe in the weapons of war. I am not going to volunteer the 60 per cent of my year’s income tax that goes to armaments.” For many Americans, nonparticipation in injustice had become the most binding duty of the civilian: cities and streets were now the “home front” in a struggle against war itself. Indeed, the question of civilian duty had split America into two opposing factions: those still abiding by the earlier dispensation in which justice is defined in reference to national interest; and those who took the just and the unjust to be determined by reference to a moral standard that transcends political advantage and expediency.
This paradigm carried through to the end of the twentieth century, and into the early 21st. Then, in the late 2000s, something strange happened. Command of the American military passed from George W. Bush the warmonger to Barack Obama, supposedly a harbinger of peace. But American engagement in the Middle East did not end. Instead, one year after taking the reins, Obama committed another thirty thousand troops to the battlefield in Afghanistan, including a sixfold increase in Special Forces operatives. Obama’s fervent opposition to the Iraq War during his campaign had been crucial in courting the support of the far left—including ostensible anarchists like Noam Chomsky and Cindy Milstein, who along with Howard Zinn called for a “Popular Power Bloc” at his 2009 inauguration. But his years of continued military engagement in the Middle East were met with little street-level attention. To be sure, reports of Assad’s crimes in Syria gave engagement a far clearer sense of urgency than an insistence upon anti-interventionism. But in Libya, and even more clearly in Yemen—where American cruise missiles were launched in support of our disreputable ally, Saudi Arabia—the lack of domestic opposition to American bombardment was noteworthy.
Of course, the post-Iraq engagements in the Middle East were not “wars,” and they were not fought with “boots on the ground.” Rather, they were NATO-backed “military interventions” carried out largely by missile-launching warships, submarines and “unmanned combat aerial vehicles,” or UCAVs—drones, in layman’s terms. These interventions—like those before them in Nicaragua, El Salvador, Cuba and elsewhere—were planned and executed by panels of politicians and experts, representatives of the people. They were the fruit of the “military-industrial complex” that Eisenhower foresaw in his farewell address: “This conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry,” which, in 1961, was “new in the American experience.” “The total influence,” he warned, “economic, political, even spiritual—is felt in every city, every state house, every office of the Federal government.” Now, in the age of drone warfare, it is felt around the entire planet.
This fact, though often noted by writers on modern war, has rarely been considered in relation to its full impact on civilian responsibility. A war declared by representatives of the people and carried out by infantry—however unjustly—bears an intimate relationship to the civilian population back home; a military action administered by distant managers and executed by drone strike does not. The former is carried out in the name of the nation that includes the civilians, who may refuse to be represented in such a manner and assert “not in my name”; the latter, carried out in the name of abstract international organizations elected by no one, admits of less possibility for moral refusal.
Perhaps this is one reason why, as the Iraq and Afghanistan occupations stretched out, they also receded from public view. Meanwhile, the pattern that had been set when the bombs were still falling on Baghdad, with two warring American tribes rallying around the slogans “No Blood for Oil” and “Support Our Troops,” went on to spend itself in a repetitive spiral of domestic struggle sessions. The fervency that was once reserved for war now became a weekly ritual, responding to any scale of crisis—whether the issue was the “war” on Christmas, the whiteness of the Oscars or mask mandates during the pandemic.
Putin has either adopted the West’s vocabulary of modern warfare, or he’s deliberately parodying it. The Kremlin, as I write this, continues to insist that their campaign in Ukraine is but a “special military operation” seeking to “demilitarize and denazify” the country. But Russian tanks crossed the border into Ukraine, not unmanned drones; flesh and blood soldiers are marching into Mariupol, Odesa, Kharkiv and other cities in Ukraine, while teenagers and grandmothers alike hurriedly arm themselves with rifles and Molotov cocktails. And as the world wakes up again to the reality of war, streets across Europe have once again filled with marches, chants, flags and banners, calling for an end to the bloodshed and destruction. In America, the response has taken a symbolic, often consumerist form: skyscrapers and public buildings around the country lit up in blue and yellow; Instagram explainers with easy-to-follow instructions on how to help the displaced; in-app donation buttons added by companies like Uber and Apple; shirts and stickers, bearing images of sunflowers and javelin missiles, to raise money for Ukraine. A sense of civilian duty, it seems, has returned to the West.
And yet for many of us, the scars of the post-2003 culture war, aided by the explosion of social media and its attendant sense of performance and unreality, follow us even here, now that we are faced with a war that is inescapably real. “I was morally certain of the injustice of the 2003 US invasion of Iraq,” writes the philosopher and critic Justin E. H. Smith: “I am morally certain of the injustice of the 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine as well, but I find myself rather less certain about the utility and the wisdom of ‘onboarding’ with the opposition.” As Smith notes, much has changed in the twenty years since we took to the streets in 2003, among the most significant being that “today the way we express our political commitment is often largely by entering into the pseudo-public sphere known as social media and inserting our ‘views’ into an algorithmically determined system.”
Protest—inasmuch as it satisfies the demand to do something, for urgent action—makes moral sense. By contrast, George W. Bush’s plea, less than a week after 9/11, to “Go down to Disney World in Florida” is—and was—morally absurd. Scrolling newsfeeds in dumbstruck horror, or posting rallying cries to one’s social-media timelines—our age’s most popular forms of “doing something”—are perhaps even less helpful. The result is that, while many of us feel nagged by a renewed sense of duty in response to a new war, we have no clear idea how to discharge it. The nag felt by Americans and Western Europeans is, of course, of a very different nature from that of Russians and Ukrainians who bear direct responsibility for the conflict’s course and outcome. But surely there remains some essential relationship between noncombatants and war, not only in Kyiv where schoolteachers are taking up arms in the subway stations, but also here, among those of us who remain blessedly far from the conflict and thus still have the privilege—held a little more dearly every day—of being able to teach, and write, and read. But what is it?
It can be easy to overestimate, in this as in so many other things, the novelty of our situation. In October of 1939, less than two months after German tanks had rolled into Poland, C. S. Lewis gave a sermon at St. Mary the Virgin, Oxford to an audience of university students and dons. He asked the question that surely must have hung in the room like a dense fog: “Why should we—indeed how can we—continue to take an interest in these placid occupations when the lives of our friends and the liberties of Europe are in the balance? Is it not like fiddling while Rome burns?” This same question hangs over us today. Lewis’s answer, however, was uncompromising: “Human life has always been lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself. … The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it.”
No longer able to ignore our permanent situation, we civilians are challenged by the opportunity—colored by a rare clarity and urgency—to reflect on it: to join the ranks of Homer, Herodotus, Thucydides, Hobbes, Tolstoy, Arendt and others who have responded to the crisis of war to think anew those urgent questions that hang forever overhead human existence, however distant or obscured by the veil of civilization. What is justice? Toward what ends should we organize our lives together? What kind of community do we really want to inhabit with one another, and how might we better achieve it? It is, in the end, an opportunity to face up to the brute facts of death and destruction that the soldier at war can never afford to forget, and to rediscover for ourselves what is ultimately worth fighting for. What greater duty could there be?
Image credit: U.S. Department of Defense. A female demonstrator offers a flower to military police on guard at the Pentagon during an anti-Vietnam demonstration. Photo taken October 21, 1967 by Staff Sgt. Albert Simpson.