What's going on with the movement against the war?

"Small turnout." "Anti-war protesters lament apathy." The media theme for the peace marches that sprang up across the world this weekend -- the 3rd anniversary of the Iraq war -- wasn't hard to figure out. Short version: there is little public outcry against the administration's war agenda. Resistance is useless.

These are exactly the kind of headlines Karl Rove like to read, and most media accounts were way too dismissive. Although the numbers were nothing like the millions that marched world-wide in early 2003 -- when many thought there was still a chance to stop the war -- it's impressive anytime 1,000-2,000 people come out to demonstrate in a military town like Fayetteville, North Carolina. Many of the vets who would have been in Fayetteville were marching from Mobile, Alabama to New Orleans to draw connections between Iraq and the neglect of the Gulf Coast.

But let's face it, there's also a real kernel of truth to the reports. Despite polls showing that up to 60% of Americans think the Iraq war isn't worth the cost, the marches this past weekend were small -- and most importantly, have been getting smaller each year. Today's peace movement is headed on the opposite trajectory of the 1960s movement against Vietnam.

While today's movement appears to be growing more demoralized with time, the anti-Vietnam struggle grew rapidly as the war dragged on: a March on Washington in 1967 drew 250,000 people; by 1969, 500,000 came to the nation's capitol. And it's not just about the marches -- they were a barometer of a larger movement, where campuses and communities were ablaze with teach-ins, organizing drives, and massive political pressure to Stop The War.

In 1970, when news came out about the Mai Lai Massacre that killed over 500 civilians in Vietnam, hundreds of campuses were shut down in a storm of protest, including the deadly shooting at Kent State. Long-time Iraq reporter Andrew Cockburn recently put the number of killed Iraq civilians anywhere from 183,000 - 511,000. Estamm at DKos says that we may already have our Mai Lai in Iraq, as Knight Ridder reports:

Iraqi police have accused U.S. troops of executing 11 people, including a 75-year-old woman and a 6-month-old infant, in the aftermath of a raid Wednesday on a house about 60 miles north of Baghdad. The villagers were killed after U.S. troops herded them into a single room of the house, according to a police document obtained by Knight Ridder Newspapers. The soldiers also burned three vehicles, killed the villagers' animals and blew up the house, the document said.

So what's going on? Why is today's anti-war movement so weak, given these atrocities and especially given the public's clear -- if silent -- support for the peace movement's core positions?

One theory is that much of the public is intimidated from speaking out thanks to our chilly post-9/11 political climate, where to publicly disagree with the "war on terror" is considered tantamount to treason. This is no doubt true -- and stories of the FBI snapping pictures of peace vigils in Pittsburgh doesn't help.

But overall, I think the space for disagreement has loosened up since the Dixie Chicks got roasted in 2003 for the mere mention that they didn't like President Bush. And the climate for dissent is certainly more open than it was in the 60s, when professors were routinely fired for publicly opposing Vietnam. In 1966, the state of Georgia wouldn't even allow state representative Julian Bond (a founder of the Institute for Southern Studies) to be seated in the legislature because of his anti-war views.

So what else can explain it? Another argument, which I find more persuasive, is that part of what's stopping a broader anti-war movement from taking shape is partisan politics.

Much progressive energy over the last 3-4 years has been channelled exclusively into defeating Bush or the campaign of this or that Democratic hopeful. Whatever one thinks about this approach, the dilemma it has created is clear: what happens when those who are inclined to speak out about peace have hitched their entire fortunes to Democratic Party politics -- and the Democratic Party has no clear position on Iraq?

I remember seeing this dynamic at work in 2003, when idealistic young activists who had thrown their lives into the Howard Dean campaign would privately tell me how frustrated they were about Dean's bizarre vascillations on Iraq, condemning the war one moment and then calling for more troops a few weeks later. Many of the grassroots and the "netroots" of the Democratic Party have been screaming about the Iraq war from day one. But you wouldn't know it in Washington, where -- aside from a couple public apologies and the quickly-shunned Rep. John Murtha -- the Democratic position is as confused and ineffectual as ever.

Or, as "Army wife" Jennifer Battaglia is quoted as saying about the Democrats during the Fayetteville peace march, "they have no plan." She has a point.

In the late 1960s, muckraking journalist I.F. Stone (the real kind, who broke stories before Google) wrote that with Vietnam, the issue wasn't Democrats vs. Republicans, "it's about the Pentagon Party vs. the People's Party," each with a shifting cast of characters of all political stripes.

The Iraq war demonstrates what will be one of the greatest challenges of the progressive movement in the coming years: to figure out when electoral politics serves its interests, and when it does not.