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1,000 Voila Moments to Stop the War

At the Pentagon they call it the “Voila Moment.”

That’s when Iraqi soldiers and civilians , with bombs raining down on Baghdad, suddenly scratch their heads and say to themselves: “These bombs aren’t really meant to kill me and my family, they are meant to free us from an evil dictator!” At that point, they thank Uncle Sam, lower their weapons, abandon their posts, and rise up against Saddam Hussein. Voila!

Or at least that’s how it is supposed to work, according to the experts in “psychological operations” who are already waging a fierce information war in Iraq. The “Voila Moment” made its first foray into the language of war last Monday, when a New York Times reporter quoted an unnamed senior U.S. military official using the term.

This peppering of military jargon with bon mots could be Colin Powell’s latest plan to win over the French on the Security Council. More likely it’s the product of the Bush administration’s penchant for hiring advertising executives and flaky management consultants as foreign policy advisors (doesn’t the “Voila Moment” sounds suspiciously like the “Wow Factor”—sold to millions of corporate executives as the key to building a powerful brand?)

Wherever it came from, the Pentagon has “Voila” in its sights, and it is sparing no expense to hit its target. Airborne transmitters are flying over Iraq broadcasting radio propaganda. Iraqi business, military and political officials have been bombarded with emails and phone calls urging them to see the light and switch sides. Fighter planes have dropped more than 8-million leaflets informing Iraqi soldiers that their lives will be spared if they walk away from their military equipment. “It sends a direct message to the operator on the gun,” says Lt. Gen. T. Michael Moseley, commander of allied air forces in the Persian Gulf.

According to the senior military official quoted in The Times, Central Command will know it has reached “Voila” when “we see a break with the leadership.” In other words, the U.S. military is advocating nothing less than mass civil disobedience in Iraq, a refusal to obey orders, or to participate in an unjust war. Will it work? I’m skeptical. There was, after all, a Voila Moment during the last Gulf War, when many Iraqis living near the Kuwaiti border believed U.S. promises that they would be supported if they rose up against Hussein. It was followed shortly after by a Screw You Moment, when the rebels watched U.S. forces abandon them to be massacred by Hussein.

But all this Voila talk got me thinking: the civil disobedience the U.S. military is hoping to provoke in Iraq is exactly the sort of thing the anti-war movement needs to inspire in our countries if we are really going to stop, or at least curtail, the pending devastation in Iraq. What would it take for large numbers of people in the U.S., the U.K, Italy, Canada—and any other country assisting with the war effort—to truly break with our leaders and refuse to comply? Can we create thousands of “Voila Moments” back home?

That is the question facing the global anti-war movement as it plans its follow up to the spectacular marches on February 15. During the Vietnam War, thousands of young Americans decided to break with their leaders when their draft cards arrived. And it was this willingness to go beyond protest and into active disobedience that slowly eroded the domestic viability of the war.

What will today’s conscientious objectors and military deserters look like? Well, all week in Italy, activists have been blocking dozens of trains carrying U.S. weapons and personnel on their way to a military base near Pisa, while Italian dockworkers are refusing to load arms shipments. Last weekend, two U.S. military bases were blockaded in Germany, as was the U.S. consulate in Montreal, and the air base at RAF Fairford in Gloucester, England. On March 1, thousands of Irish activists are expected to show up at Shannon airport, which, despite Irish claims of neutrality, is being used by the U.S. military to refuel its planes on route to Iraq.

In Chicago last week, more than a hundred high-school students demonstrated outside the headquarters of Leo Burnett, the advertising firm that designed the U.S. military’s hip, youth-targeted “Army of One” campaign. The students claim that in under-funded Latino and African-American high schools, the army recruiters far outnumber the college scouts.

The most ambitious plan has come from San Francisco where a coalition of anti-war groups is calling for an emergency non-violent counter-“strike” the day after the war starts: “Don’t go to work or school. Call in sick, walk out… We will impose real economic, social and political costs and stop business as usual until the war stops.” It’s a powerful idea: peace bombs exploding wherever profits are being made from the war—gas stations, arms manufacturers, missile-happy TV stations. It might not stop the war but it would show that there is a principled position between hawk and hippy: a militant resistance for the protection of life.

For some, this escalation of the war against war seems extreme: there should simply be more weekend marches, bigger next time, so big they are impossible to ignore. Of course there should be more marches, but it should also be clear by now that there is no protest too big for our politicians to ignore. They know that public opinion in most of the world is against the war. What our politicians are carefully assessing before the bombs start falling, is whether the anti-war sentiment is “hard” or “soft.” The question is not “do people care about war,” but how much do they care? Is it a mild consumer preference against war, one that will evaporate by the next election? Or is it something deeper and more lasting — a, shall we say, Voila kind of care?

On one end of the caring spectrum, Levi’s Europe has decided to cash in on the anti-war fad by releasing a limited edition teddy bear with a peace symbol attached to its ear. You can clutch and hug it while watching the scary terror alerts on CNN.

Or you could turn off CNN, refuse to be a soft and cuddly peacenik, get out there and stop the war.

This article first appeared in The Globe and Mail.

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