Can We Make a Difference?

“They were right,” says David S. Meyer in the foreword to A Peaceful Superpower: Lessons from the World’s Largest Antiwar Movement, the new book by longtime peace activist David Cortright. Meyer is talking about the millions of people, worldwide, who assembled to oppose the 2003 U.S. war in Iraq.

Meyer, a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine, who has authored or co-edited seven books on social movements, argues that the ultimately failed effort to stop the war had “some success, but left much undone.” Cortright’s book is the first comprehensive, book-length scholarly analysis of that effort, the work that led up to it, and the lessons that can be learned from it.

Cortright began his opposition to war as an active-duty soldier during the U.S. war in Vietnam. He went on to work in the Nuclear Weapons Freeze campaign of the 1980s, and helped found Win Without War in 2002 to oppose the imminent U.S. attack on Iraq. He has also been a scholar and professor of peace studies at the University of Notre Dame for more than thirty years. He is author or co-editor of more than twenty books, including 2019’s Waging Peace in Vietnam, about GI resistance during the Vietnam War.

Win Without War is one of the many groups he profiles in A Peaceful Superpower. Cortright looks at the various movements that came together, many with different agendas, to oppose a war that all of them saw as illegal, immoral, and bound to be devastating for the people of Iraq, as well as the rest of the world.

As Cortright notes early in the book, he wrote an article for The Progressive in August 2002, titled “Stop the War Before It Starts,” in which he argued, “We must use every means of citizen action at our disposal to build a chorus of opposition to the madness of war in Iraq.” The rest of the book chronicles and analyzes those efforts. Cortright looks at the groups and their messaging techniques, including the growing use of the Internet for organizing. He also discusses the lessons learned from past movements, and some of the divisions and shortcomings that made this effort less effective than it could have been.

Ultimately, Cortright is hopeful. As he notes in the book, “The experience of the Iraq anti-war movement holds many lessons that can inform and motivate future peace campaigns. The movement mobilized and spread its message on a global scale and achieved unprecedented legitimacy.” But, he concludes, “the challenge for the future is to learn lessons from that experience.”

A Peaceful Superpower is well organized and has extensive endnotes and a useful bibliography. It is a tremendous contribution to our knowledge of the efforts to try to “stop a war before it started.”

If I have one criticism of this important study, however, it is that, although it is briefly mentioned on page forty-eight, Cortright gives rather short shrift to the role of the international coalition building that took place at the third World Social Forum in Porto Alegre, Brazil, in 2003. It was probably the largest gathering of social movement activists in one place in history, with more than 100,000 people participating. I was there reporting on the Forum in January 2003, and I well remember the meetings—some formal, some informal—that brought together activists and organizations from across the globe who would, in a few short weeks, make the demonstrations in more than 600 cities on February 15 of that year into what became “a peaceful superpower.”