WASHINGTON — Make no mistake about it, Douglas King, a 32-year-old carpenter from Frederick, Va., opposes U.S. military involvement in the Persian Gulf. Yet, even as he participated in a recent Washington march against the war, he found himself shaking his head at the prudence of a protest against the war.
"Look over there," he said, pointing to a placard that featured the likeness of President Bush and marked "Murderer" in dripping, blood-red letters. "That's what worries me. I don't see any need for that.
"Don't you think it makes us look bad as a nation? I mean we're here (protesting) and our soldiers are over there getting shot down. I don't know, but it just doesn't feel right."
King's comments reflect some of the deep contradictory emotions felt about the Gulf War by many peace activists in the emerging anti-war movement. Sociologists say that, in the wake of the end of the Cold War, many Americans expected that international conflicts could be resolved without violence. Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait and President Bush's reaction have destroyed those hopes.
Consequently, they say, many anti-war protesters are "giving vent to their rage" by demanding U.S. withdrawal from the region, while opposing Hussein's actions. The ambivalence also shows the difficulty the anti-war movement is having in establishing whether it is a more traditional peace movement or simply an outlet for anti-government feelings.
"I'm here praying for the safety of the troops--both U.S. and Iraqi troops--because I'm opposed to the war," said John McLoughlin, a 32-year-old seminary student who was among the estimated 25,000 at last week's protest across from the White House. "But I'm also worried about what would happen if we didn't (send over the troops). Do we allow Saddam to take over the world?"
The uncertainty felt by protesters is shared by many pro-war advocates, said Robert Pickus, president of the World Without War Council, a Berkeley-based peace advocacy organization.
"You'll find the confusion and frustration of what the nation should be doing on both sides of the line," he said, noting that peace and war advocates are opposed to Hussein and don't want any American blood spilled in removing him. "But it's primarily the peace advocates in the streets protesting."
"Because the emotional horror of war is moving a lot of people," Pickus said. "It's a mindless response to what's going on without a lot of thought to how best to solve the issue.
"If there ever was a time for a genuine peace movement, this is it," he said. "But what we have now are not true peace movements, but anti-American power movements. The leaders of these groups are more interested in airing a grievance with the country and they're using the frustration and fears of the public to enlarge their political agendas."
Most prominent among the protest leaders' complaints is that money spent to wage war could be spent on the environment, civil rights and health care, said Todd A. Gitlin, a professor of sociology at UC Berkeley who is studying the current anti-war movement.
"That's a valid argument to make when the public is confused and frustrated about the reasons for the war," he said of the protest movement's strategy. "They're trying to define the war in a way that's likely to increase the potential number of their supporters."
But protesters and observers say that strategy has created a movement of people who seem more committed to complaining about America's problems than ending the war. And those who are truly pacifists or adamantly opposed to the reasons for U.S. involvement in the Persian Gulf war must join protests that feature a number of "sideshow issues," said George Weigel, president of the Ethics and Public Policy Center.
"There is a bit of frustration on their part because their message isn't getting out," he said. "But they're going along with the people who have 'Peace' on their signs."
Edna Suarez, a New York photographer who participated in a Washington peace protest last week, said she didn't agree with all the issues raised by fellow demonstrators. "The fragmentation (of the anti-war movement) is working against the need to be united for one thing," she said. "Everyone is pushing their own thing."
Many would-be protest participants have targeted the New York-based Coalition to Stop U.S. Intervention in the Middle East, an anti-war organization that sponsored a series of demonstrations across the country last week, as a prime offender in fostering anti-American sentiments under the cover of protesting the war. Many advocacy groups have gathered under its banner, from AIDS activists to environmentalists.
The other leading anti-war group, the National Campaign for Peace in the Middle East, is a more mainstream protest organization. Campaign supporters are expected to gather in Washington on Saturday for a protest rally.
"The leadership of these (anti-war) groups are from the left end of the political spectrum whose political compass is primarily directed by their opposition to the use of American force," Pickus said, arguing that many anti-war activists reject their political ideology.
Cindy Mobley, a graduate student at Johns Hopkins University, who marched in Washington last week, said it was certainly true in her case. "These (non-war issues) start to alienate people," she said. "I feel this was sort of their rally and not mine."