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The Gulf Wars and the US Peace Movement
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This essay examines literary and cultural criticism written in the wake of the Gulf Wars, situating it within the broader history of the US peace movement. By convention, that history begins in 1792, when Benjamin Banneker, the free African-American scientist, and Benjamin Rush, a prominent physician and signer of the Declaration of Independence, proposed the creation of an “Office of Peace” to counterbalance the “Office of War.” The organized peace movement began in the US 23 years later with the establishment of the first peace societies in New York and Massachusetts—largely reactions to the War of 1812. Just over a decade later, the first national organization, the American Peace Society, was founded. However, it would be more than 140 years after that, toward the end of the Vietnam War, before antimilitarism moved from the margins to the mainstream of US culture and politics.

With the second Gulf War and the bloody occupation of Iraq, the peace movement has advanced to a new stage. Michael Crowley writes: “The playbook for opposing a war has changed markedly since the street-protest ethos of the anti-Vietnam movement. Tie-dyed shirts and flowers have been replaced by oxfords and BlackBerries. Politicians are as likely to be lobbied politely as berated. And instead of a freewheeling circus managed from college campuses and coffee houses, the new antiwar movement is a multimillion-dollar operation run by media-savvy professionals” (54). “I’ve never seen anything like it—the speed at which this has taken off,” said Don Gray, a self-described former draft dodger and veteran of the Vietnam War protests, discussing the demonstrations coordinated in more than 150 US cities one month before the invasion of Iraq: “I’d say this is a much more broad-based movement” (Anderson 1).

In the arts, since the advent of the second Gulf War, we have seen a flurry of plays, films, and documentaries mourning war, from Victoria Brittain’s and Gillian Slovo’s Guantánamo: Honor Bound to Defend Freedom (2005) to Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedures (2008) and Kimberly Peirce’s Stop-Loss (2008). We have also seen Gulf War literature begin to emerge as a powerful and bitter subgenre, composed of works like Anthony Swofford’s Jarhead (2003), Gabe Hudson’s Dear Mr. President (2003), Sam Hamill’s Poets Against the War (2003), and the National Endowment for the Arts “Operation Homecoming” anthology (2006) and writing workshops for veterans. A collection of more recent scholarly works, including Patrick Deer’s The Ends of War (2007), Jennifer James’s A Freedom Bought with Blood: African American War Literature from the Civil War to World War II (2007), and Philip Beidler’s American Wars, American Peace: Notes from a Son of the Empire (2007), points to an important parallel reemergence of war studies in literary and cultural criticism.

Similar antimilitarist cultural saturation in previous generations, however, has not liberated the US peace movement from its most basic historical pattern: its influence peaks as conflict looms but collapses rapidly as conflict begins, resurging only after conflict, or as conflict begins to fail. We are currently at the tail end of the pattern and, typically of such moments, we are evaluating expenses: the appalling expense of blood and treasure paid by some, and the astonishing profit this has generated for others. As Patrick Deer reminds us, the occupation of Iraq is costing $225 million per day. In the unflinching documentary War Tapes (2006), a staff sergeant explains: “Army truck drivers make seventeen grand a year, you know, E-5, so they outsource it, privatize, save the Army money, and now we pay KBR [Halliburton] one hundred twenty grand to do the same job.” Another soldier complains about the KBR convoys: “Why the fuck am I sitting here guarding this truck full of cheesecake? Are these people crazy? I feel like the priority of KBR making money outweighs the priority of safety.”

War profiteering and business-government collusion have always been sources of moral nausea in post-war discourse, from John Dos Passos’s claim that World War I provided “good growing weather for the House of Morgan” (147, 341), to Anthony Swofford’s grim joke...

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