The American experience in Iraq, as many analysts have pointed out, looks a lot like the American experience in Vietnam. But one element seems to be missing: antiwar protests. There were enormous demonstrations around the world, including in New York and San Francisco, on the eve of the invasion in February 2003. Support for the Iraq war and the president’s handling of it are significantly lower than comparable polling numbers for Vietnam and LBJ at an analogous point in 1968. Yet since the war began, antiwar protesters haven’t been numerous, visible, or influential. Where have all the flower children gone?
The most obvious reason students aren’t marching against the Iraq war is that there isn’t any draft or threat of a draft. In the Vietnam era, or at least from 1965 on, young men faced the dire possibility of being conscripted. In practice, of course, there were generous deferments and avenues for avoidance, especially for the well-connected. But even so, young men had to do things that were dishonest or dishonorable to avoid being sent against their will to kill and die. Many of the earliest campus demonstrations in Berkeley and elsewhere were specifically protests against the draft.
Since the post-Vietnam advent of the all-volunteer military, the government no longer puts young people in this position. American soldiers might not all be thrilled to serve in Iraq, but they can’t say they didn’t have a choice. Rep. Charles Rangel supports the return of the draft on the argument that not having one is unfair. He also recognizes that its return would be the most powerful antiwar measure available. If we had a draft, there probably would be peace protests in the streets.
Another reason opponents of the war haven’t mobilized publicly may be that the scale and visibility of the American carnage in Iraq are nothing like what they were in Vietnam. As of Dec. 12, 2006, 2,937 Americans had been killed in Iraq. That’s just 5 percent of the 58,193 who died in Vietnam, more than half of them by a comparable moment in the war. (The Iraq death toll would be much higher but for breakthroughs in field medicine.) What’s more, Americans aren’t really seeing the carnage. Unlike during Vietnam, the Pentagon doesn’t permit photographs of the coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base, the president avoids attending military funerals, and the television networks seldom show dead soldiers, or even wounded ones. All these factors combine to diminish the war’s visceral impact on American society.
The broader explanations are moral and ideological. At the time of Vietnam, many student radicals not only opposed the war, but also sympathized with the enemy. Many ‘60s radicals weren’t just against American involvement in the war, but also in favor of what they saw as a liberation movement in Vietnam. Because the conflict began as a struggle against a European colonial power, it was possible, if naive, to view the Viet Cong as revolutionaries fighting against imperialism without actually being in favor of Communism. That view was undermined by subsequent events. But it didn’t become transparently and obviously wrong until after the repression that followed the American exit in 1975. (Christopher Hitchens, a leading advocate and defender of the Iraq war, still admires Ho Chi Minh.)
You have to credit the mainstream American left with learning from that mistake and with developing a greater recognition of moral complication in the years since. This time, opponents of the war do not oppose or vilify the troops. This time, they do not expect any good to flow from Iraq throwing off the yoke of foreign occupation. Opponents of the Iraq war generally appreciate that the issue of how and when to withdraw involves a choice among evils. And this time, there is no idealization of the enemy outside of a truly lunatic fringe. There’s no latter-day Jane Fonda cheering on the Mahdi army. For the most part, Americans who want us to withdraw from Iraq aren’t advancing any larger radical agenda. They’re merely trying to end a war they think was a mistake.
That’s partly because opposition to Iraq doesn’t fit into any powerful political vision or paradigm coming from the left. In the 1960s, a number of transformative ideologies came together in opposition to Vietnam—the civil-rights movement, feminism, Christian pacifism, democratic socialism, sexual liberation, and so on. On campuses today, there is plenty of altruistic sentiment but little in the way of revolutionary consciousness. Greens and anti-globalizers are the exception, but Iraq isn’t central to their concerns, since its environmental catastrophe must get in line behind all the others, and Baghdad has no Starbucks windows to smash. Moreover, hippie styling and methods seem painfully outdated. Moveon.org is no more likely to take its cues from SDS than SDS was to look to the 1930s-era League for Industrial Democracy for inspiration.
Lastly, there is the matter of the Iraq war protests themselves, such as they are. Have you been to one? Demonstrating in the ‘60s, I gather, was a lot of fun. You went for the politics but stayed for the party—or was it the other way around? Forty years later, antiwar rallies are politically and socially disagreeable. The organizers are inevitably moth-eaten left-wing sectarians, some of whom actually do favor the Iraq insurgents. The sane or rational are quickly routed by the first LaRouchie, anti-Semite, or “Free Mumia” ranter to grab hold of the microphone. The latest in protest music has much the same effect.
Thanks to Paul Berman, author of Power and the Idealists and an expert on the revolutions of 1968, for a helpful conversation.