As a new academic year begins on college campuses in the US, the time may be right for a discussion of the changing state of “anti-war activism.”
The old anti-war activism is gone; long live the “new isolationism.”
On August 31, 2006, Andrew Rosenthal published a provocative New York Times essay entitled, “There Is Silence in the Streets; Where Have All the Protesters Gone?”
I suppose the most obvious answer is “long time passing.”
Indeed, nostalgia for the “real” anti-war movement–the one against war in Vietnam–has haunted every subsequent US military action. Nothing has measured up. (Just ask the boomers.)
Kennedy spoke for the Vietnam generation: Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.
Those were the days, I guess.
Rosenthal’s most basic observation is this:
Student protesters helped drive Lyndon Johnson â€” in so many ways a powerful, progressive president â€” out of office because of his war. In 2004, George W. Bush â€” in so many ways a weak, regressive president â€” was re-elected despite his war. And the campuses were silent.
Although there have been a couple of small, awkward “rallies” at Wesleyan University–the infamously “progressive” campus where I work–the place has been very quiet since the US invasion of Iraq.
There was a brief burst of protest when America first invaded Iraq. But if there is a college movement against the war, itâ€™s hiding pretty well.
Right again on timing. There were protests at Wesleyan at the start of the “War on Terror.” Even in the immediate aftermath of 9/11, when popular sentiment was strongly supportive of military action, there were protests at Wesleyan. Not only against war in Iraq, but even against war in Afghanistan.
And for many students, the February 15, 2003 global protests against the war seemed pretty intense, inspiring, and powerful.
Then came the actual invasion of Iraq, and everything fell silent.
(A subsequent letter to the New York Times correctly notes, in response to Rosenthal, that there have been many anti-war protests. Notwithstanding the tireless efforts of organizers, I wonder if even they would think of this as a time of significant mobilization? No complaints about abathy and indifference within the US?)
Some students seem to have been surprised, demoralized, and demobilized when the US went to war anyway, even though they had protested.
This is surely an unintended consequence of overly romanticized 60’s nostalgia: a few good protests and you stop a war. Maybe it would help if we started noticing that most of the best, most powerful elements of the ’60s–from anti-war activism to feminism and gay liberation took root in the 70’s.
Nevertheless, I do not begrudge contemporary students their demand for instant gratification. The “problem”–if there is one–is not that college students are too demanding but they are not quite demanding enough.
And I don’t entirely buy the “demoralized and demobilized” story.
Rosenthal raises the issue of “moral clarity.”
Vietnam never had the moral clarity that the 9/11 attacks provided to this generationâ€™s war. But in Iraq that proved to be a false clarity…
Of course, this explains nothing, since the largest protests came between the (presumably pro-war) “moral clarity” of 9/11 and the recognition of the “false clarity” in Iraq after post-invasion revelations regarding WMDs, etc.
It seems to me that campus protests stopped because many students knew that they favored peaceful negotiations, etc. over military action.
But once the US was in Iraq, many students adopted a position that echoes Colin Powell’s famous invocation of the (false) Potter Barn rule: you break it, you own it.
Students at elite private colleges–the same ones that generated much of the early anti-war sentiment in the 60s–are often encouraged embrace a notion of responsibility for the world. Part of preparing for power, I suppose.
To students ready to inherit the mantle of responsibility, the rush to military action and the neglect of legitimate international channels for conflict resolution surely seemed irresponsible. Hence the protests.
On the other hand, post-invasion “help” (i.e., occupation) seems–to such students–more responsible than withdrawal. Hence the awkwardness at poorly attended rallies.
After the invasion, such students replaced their anti-war protest hats with their imperial peace corps, caring hats.
It is on the issue of caring that the Rosenthal essay falters.
This, perhaps, is the ultimate difference between the Vietnam generation and the Iraq generation: When you hear Young and Company sing of â€œfour dead in Ohio,â€ their Kent State anthem, itâ€™s hard to imagine anyone on todayâ€™s campuses willing to face armed troops. Is there anything they care about that much?
Unfortunately, “caring”–about Iraq, at least in the abstract–helps explain why campuses are silent. The students who “care” the most are the ones least likely to protest and demand US withdrawal. Even as the Bush administration’s occupation looks like a disaster, it is a disaster that those who care most want to inherit and improve. As Thomas Friedman says, “We’ll take it from here.”
Rosenthal also mentions the draft as a crucial difference and he is surely right about this one:
But because there is no draft… no young person has to fear being conscripted into the fight.
This is surely true on the campuses of elite private liberal arts colleges. But the point actually goes to the heart of the issue of caring.
In the Vietnam era, protesters gave a lot of lip service to caring about the Vietnamese, but Rosenthal is probably right to imply that much of the movement was enormously self-interested in a very narrow but very potent way: students did not want to sacrifice their lives.
The movement never depended on caring. Today, with no draft on campus, caring is all we have. And it curbs enthusiasm for US withdrawal.
At the same time, Rosenthal totally conflates campus life with popular sentiment in the United States and assumes that real power and influence may come from the former rather than the latter. This is a very big mistake.
a majority of Americans now say they oppose the war and no longer trust Mr. Bushâ€™s leadership of it.
But he never explores possible implications–politically, for the Bush administration, or militarily, for the execution of the war.
It is hard to escape the conclusion that Americans find it much easier to stay silent when there is no shared sacrifice.
I would propose the opposite: because there is no notion of “shared sacrifice” for this war (Bush has repeatedly been attacked from the Right and Left for refusing to sound the call…), American public opinion has been highly intolerant of US casualties.
And there is no notion of “shared sacrifice” because Karl Rove is afraid that there is no appetite for sacrifice in the land.
The campuses are silent. But “Americans” are not. They speak against the war–at least not when the pollsters call.
Surely there is something far less communitarian and collectivist about polling sentiment, relative to mass rallies. A pity for those who seek, in an anti-war movement, the kernal of a collective and transcendent spirit.
For those who wish to obstruct war, however: are we sure that popular sentiment–in an age of commodified politics where politicians pander to polls–is less powerful than campus protest rallies?
Americans–and not primarily the ones on elite liberal arts campuses–do not “care” enough about Iraq to sacrifice lives for it.
And as for Iraqis, I trust that many surely “care” enough about the US occupation to tell us how they are feeling. The word is “insurgency.”
One can be disgusted with carnage in Iraq and still recognize that, given the number of US soldiers killed, the popular threshold of tolerance for U.S. casualties is much lower than it was in previous wars.
And the refusal to “take casualties” has almost certainly influenced political and military decisions to send fewer troops than the Generals wanted.
“Force Protection” is the name of the game in Rumsfeld’s world of military transformation.
Ask not what you can do for your country. Ask what your country can do for you.
The new isolationism recognizes sacrifice, but like Bartleby, the Scrivener, it would “prefer not to.”
For all that, one would be mistaken to confuse it with powerlessness.
What is the power of indifference, especially in relation to fighting and dying?