For decades, I kept a poster on my wall that I’d saved from the year I turned 16. In its upper left-hand corner was a black-and-white photo of a white man in a grey suit. Before him spread a cobblestone plaza. All you could see were the man and the stones. Its caption read, “He stood up alone and something happened.”
It was 1968. “He” was Minnesota Senator Eugene McCarthy. As that campaign slogan suggested, his strong second-place showing in the Maine primary was proof that opposition to the Vietnam War had finally become a viable platform for a Democratic candidate for president. I volunteered in McCarthy’s campaign office that year. My memory of my duties is now vague, but they mainly involved alphabetizing and filing index cards containing information about the senator’s supporters. (Remember, this was the age before there was a computer in every pocket, let alone social media and micro-targeting.)
Running against the Vietnam War, McCarthy was challenging then-President Lyndon Johnson in the Democratic primaries. After McCarthy had a strong second-place showing in Maine, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy entered the race, too, running against the very war his brother, President John F. Kennedy, had bequeathed to Johnson when he was assassinated. Soon, Johnson would withdraw from the campaign, announcing in a televised national address that he wouldn’t run for another term.
With his good looks and family name, Bobby Kennedy appeared to have a real chance for the nomination when, on June 5, 1968, during a campaign event in Los Angeles, he, like his brother, was assassinated. That left the war’s opponents without a viable candidate for the nomination. Outside the Democratic Party convention in Chicago that August, tens of thousands of angry, mostly young Americans demonstrated their frustration with the war and the party’s refusal to take a stand against it. In what was generally recognized as a police riot, the Chicago PD beat protesters and journalists bloody on national TV, as participants chanted, “The whole world is watching.” And indeed, it was.
In the end, the nomination went to Johnson’s vice president and war supporter Hubert Humphrey, who would face Republican hawk Richard Nixon that November. The war’s opponents watched in frustration as the two major parties closed ranks, cementing their post-World-War-II bipartisan agreement to use military power to enforce U.S. global dominance.
Cassandra Foresees the Future
Of course, the McCarthy campaign’s slogan was wrong on two counts. He didn’t stand up alone. Millions of us around the world were then working to end the war in Vietnam. Sadly, nothing conclusive happened as a result of his campaign. Nixon went on to win the 1968 general election and the Vietnam War dragged on to an ignominious U.S. defeat seven years later.
Nineteen sixty-eight was also the year my high school put on Tiger at the Gates, French playwright Jean Giraudoux’s antiwar drama about the run-up to the Trojan War. Giraudoux chronicled that ancient conflict’s painful inevitability, despite the fervent desire of Troy’s rulers and its people to prevent it. The play opens as Andromache, wife of the doomed Trojan warrior Hector, tells her sister-in-law Cassandra, “There’s not going to be a Trojan war.”
Cassandra, you may remember, bore a double curse from the gods: yes, she could see into the future, but no one would believe her predictions. She informs Andromache that she’s wrong; that, like a tiger pacing outside the city’s walls, war with all its bloody pain is preparing to spring. And, of course, she’s right. Part of the play’s message is that Cassandra doesn’t need her supernatural gift to predict the future. She can guess what will happen simply because she understands the relentless forces driving her city to war: the poets who need tragedies to chronicle; the would-be heroes who desire glory; the rulers caught in the inertia of tradition.
Although Tiger was written in the 1930s, between the two world wars, it could just as easily have appeared in 1968. Substitute the mass media for the poets; the military-industrial complex for the Greek and Trojan warriors; and administration after administration for the city’s rulers, and you have a striking representation of the quicksand war that dragged 58,000 U.S. soldiers and millions of Vietnamese, Laotians, and Cambodians to their deaths. And in some sense, we — the antiwar forces in this country — foresaw it all (in broad outline, if not specific detail): the assassinations, carpet bombings, tiger cages, and the CIA’s first mass assassination and torture scheme, the Phoenix Program. Of course we couldn’t predict the specifics. Indeed, some turned out worse than we’d feared. In any case, our foresight did us no more good than Cassandra’s did her.
Rehabilitations and Revisions
It’s just over a month since the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and the start of the “Global War on Terror.” The press has been full of recollections and rehabilitations. George W. Bush used the occasion to warn the nation (as if we needed it at that point) about the dangers of what CNN referred to as “domestic violent extremists.” He called them “children of the same foul spirit” as the one that engenders international terrorism. He also inveighed against the January 6th Capitol invasion:
“‘This is how election results are disputed in a banana republic — not our democratic republic,’ he said in a statement at the time, adding that he was ‘appalled by the reckless behavior of some political leaders since the election.’”
You might almost think he’d forgotten that neither should elections in a democracy be “disputed” by three-piece-suited thugs shutting down a ballot count — as happened in Florida during his own first election in 2000. Future Trump operative Roger Stone has claimed credit for orchestrating that so-called Brooks Brothers Rebellion, which stopped the Florida vote count and threw the election to the Supreme Court and, in the end, to George W. Bush.
You might also think that, with plenty of shoving from his vice president Dick Cheney and a cabal of leftover neocons from the Project for a New American Century, Bush had never led this country into two devastating, murderous, profoundly wastefulwars. You might think we’d never seen the resumption of institutionalized CIA- and military-run state torture on a massive scale under his rule, or his administration’s refusal to join the International Criminal Court.
And finally, you might think that nobody saw all this coming, that there were no Cassandras in this country in 2001. But there you would be wrong. All too many of us sensed just what was coming as soon as the bombing and invasion of Afghanistan began. I knew, for example, as early as November 2001, when the first mainstream article extolling the utility of torture appeared, that whatever else the U.S. response to the 9/11 attacks would entail, organized torture would be part of it. As early as December 2002, we all could have known that. That’s when the first articles began appearing in the Washington Post about the “stress and duress” techniques the CIA was already beginning to use at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. Some of the hapless victims would later turn out to have been sold to U.S. forces for bounties by local strongmen.
It takes very little courage for a superannuated graduate student (as I was in 2001) to write academic papers about U.S. torture practices (as I did) and the stupidity and illegality of our invasion of Afghanistan. It’s another thing, however, when a real Cassandra stands up — all alone — and tries to stop something from happening.
I’m talking, of course, about Representative Barbara Lee, the only member of Congress to vote against granting the president the power to “use all necessary and appropriate force against those nations, organizations, or persons he determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored such organizations or persons.” It was this Authorization of the Use of Military Force, or AUMF, that provided the legal grounds for the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan in September 2001. Lee was right when, after agonizing about her vote, she decided to follow the counsel of the dean of the National Cathedral, the Reverend Nathan Baxter. That very morning, she had heard him pray that, in response to the terrible crimes of 9/11, we not “become the evil we deplore.”
How right she was when she said on the House floor:
“However difficult this vote may be, some of us must urge the use of restraint. Our country is in a state of mourning. Some of us must say, ‘Let’s step back for a moment, let’s just pause, just for a minute, and think through the implications of our actions today, so that this does not spiral out of control.’”
The legislation she opposed that day would indeed allow “this” to spiral out of control. That same AUMF has since been used to justify an ever-metastasizing series of wars and conflicts that spread from Afghanistan in central Asia through the Middle East, south to Yemen, and leapt to Libya, Somalia, and other lands in Africa. Despite multiple attempts to repeal it, that same minimalist AUMF remains in effect today, ready for use by the next president with aspirations to military adventures. In June 2021, the House of Representatives did finally pass a bill rescinding it, sponsored by Barbara Lee herself. At present, however, it languishes in the Senate’s Committee on Foreign Relations.
In the days after 9/11, Lee was roundly excoriated for her vote. The Wall Street Journal called her a “clueless liberal,” while the Washington Times wrote that she was “a long-practicing supporter of America’s enemies.” Curiously, both those editorials were headlined with the question, “Who Is Barbara Lee?” (Those of us in the San Francisco Bay Area could have answered that. Lee was — and remains — an African American congressional representative from Oakland, California, the inheritor of the seat and mantle of another great black congressional representative, Ron Dellums.) She received mountains of hate mail then and enough death threats to force her to seek police protection.
Like George W. Bush, Lee received some media rehabilitation in various 20th anniversary retrospectives of 9/11. In her case, however, it was well-deserved. The Washington Post, for instance, praised her for her courage, noting that no one — not Bernie Sanders, not Joe Biden — shared her vision, or, I would add, shared Cassandra’s curse with her. Like the character in Tiger at the Gates, Lee didn’t need a divine gift to foresee that the U.S. “war on terror” would spin disastrously out of control. A little historical memory might have served the rest of the country well, reminding us of what happened the last time the United States fought an ever-escalating war.
Cassandras and Their Mirror Images
It was clear from the start that Vice President Dick Cheney and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were never that interested in Afghanistan (although that was no solace to the many thousands of Afghans who were bombed, beaten, and tortured). Those officials had another target in mind — Iraq — almost literally from the moment al-Qaeda’s hijacked planes struck New York and Washington.
In 2002, after months of lies about Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein’s possession of (nonexistent) weapons of mass destruction (WMD) and his supposed pursuit of a nuclear bomb, the Bush administration got its second AUMF, authorizing “the President to use the U.S. armed forces to: …defend U.S. national security against the continuing threat posed by Iraq,” functionally condoning the U.S. invasion of his country. This time, Barbara Lee was not alone in her opposition. In the House, she was joined by 132 Democrats, 6 Republicans, and one independent (Bernie Sanders). Only 23 senators, however, voted “nay,” including Rhode Island Republican Lincoln Chafee and Vermont independent Jim Jeffords.
In the run-up to the March 2003 invasion, figures who might be thought of as “anti-Cassandras” took center stage. Unlike the Greek seer, these unfortunates were apparently doomed to tell falsehoods — and be believed. Among them was Condoleezza Rice, President Bush’s national security advisor, who, when pressed for evidence that Saddam Hussein actually possessed WMD, told CNN’s Wolf Blitzer that “we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud,” implying Iraq represented a nuclear threat to this country.
Then there was secretary of State Colin Powell, who put the case for war to the United Nations General Assembly in February 2003, emphasizing the supposedly factual basis of everything he presented:
“My colleagues, every statement I make today is backed up by sources, solid sources. These are not assertions. What we’re giving you are facts and conclusions based on solid intelligence.”
It wasn’t true, of course, but around the world, many believed him.
And let’s not leave the mainstream press out here. There’s plenty of blame to go around, but perhaps the anti-Cassandra crown should go to the New York Times for its promotion of Bush administration war propaganda, especially by its reporter Judith Miller. In 2004, the Times published an extraordinary mea culpa, an apologetic note “from the editors” that said,
“[W]e have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged — or failed to emerge.”
I suspect the people of Iraq might share the Times’s wish.
There was, of course, one other group of prophets who accurately foresaw the horrors that a U.S. invasion would bring with it: the millions who filled the streets of their cities here and around the world, demanding that the United States stay its hand. So powerful was their witness that they were briefly dubbed “the other superpower.” Writing in the Nation, Jonathan Schell extolled their strength, saying that this country’s “shock and awe” assault on Iraq “has found its riposte in courage and wonder.” Alas, that mass witness in those streets was not enough to forestall one more murderous assault by what would, in the long run, prove to be a dying empire.
Cassandra at the Gates (of Glasgow)
And now, the world is finally waking up to an even greater disaster: the climate emergency that’s burning up my part of the world, the American West, and drowning others. This crisis has had its Cassandras, too. One of these was 89-year-old John Rogalsky, who worked for 35 years as a meteorologist in the federal government. As early as 1963, he became aware of the problem of climate change and began trying to warn us. In 2017, he told the Canadian Broadcasting Company:
“[B]y the time the end of the 60s had arrived, I was absolutely convinced that it was real, it was just a question of how rapidly it would happen and how difficult it would become for the world at large, and how soon before people, or governments would even listen to the science. People I talked to about this, I was letting them know, this is happening, get ready.”
This November, the 197 nations that have signed up to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change will meet in Glasgow, Scotland, at the 2021 United Nations Climate Change Conference. We must hope that this follow-up to the 2015 Paris agreement will produce concrete steps to reverse the overheating of this planet and mitigate its effects, especially in those nations that have contributed the least to the problem and are already suffering disproportionately. Italy and the United Kingdom will serve as co-hosts.
I hope it’s a good sign that at a pre-Glasgow summit in Milan, Italy’s Prime Minister Mario Draghi met with three young “Cassandras” — climate activists Greta Thunberg (Sweden), Vanessa Nakate (Uganda), and Martina Comparelli (Italy) — after Thunberg’s now famous “blah, blah, blah” speech, accusing world leaders of empty talk. “Your pressure, frankly, is very welcome,” Draghi told them. “We need to be whipped into action. Your mobilization has been powerful, and rest assured, we are listening.”
For the sake of the world, let us hope that this time Cassandra will be believed.
Copyright 2021 Rebecca Gordon. First published in TomDispatch.