Thursday, December 14, 2006

Where's the American anti-war movement?

Iraq and the wilting of flower power
by Jacob Weisberg

Financial Times (December 13 2006)

The American experience in Iraq, as many have pointed out, looks a lot like the American experience in Vietnam. But one element seems to be missing: anti-war protests. There were enormous demonstrations around the world, including in New York and San Francisco, on the eve of invasion in February 2003. But since the war began, protesters have not been part of the picture. Support for the Iraq war and the president’s handling of it are significantly lower than they were for Vietnam and Lyndon Johnson at an analogous point in 1968. Where have all the flower children gone?

The obvious reason students are not marching against the Iraq war is that there is no draft. In the Vietnam era, or at least from 1965 on, young men faced the possibility of conscription. In practice, there were generous deferments and avenues for avoidance, especially for the well-connected. Even so, young men had to do things that were dishonest or dishonourable to avoid being sent against their will to kill and die. Many of the earliest Vietnam demonstrations in Berkeley and elsewhere were specifically protests against the draft.

Since the advent of the all-volunteer force, the US government no longer puts young people in this position. American soldiers might not be happy to be in Iraq, but they cannot say they did not have a choice. Congressman Charles Rangel, who represents Harlem, supports the return of the draft on the argument that not having one is unfair. He also recognises that its resumption would be the most powerful anti-war measure available. If we had a draft, there would indeed be anti-war protests in the streets.

Another reason opponents of the war have not mobilised publicly may be that the scale and visibility of the American carnage in Iraq are nothing like what they were in Vietnam. As of this week, 2,937 Americans had been killed in Iraq. That is just 5 per cent of the 58,193 who died in Vietnam, more than half of them by a comparable moment in the war. (The death toll in Iraq would be much higher but for breakthroughs in field medicine.) What is more, Americans are not really seeing the carnage. Unlike during Vietnam, the Pentagon does not permit photographs of coffins arriving at Dover Air Force Base, the president avoids attending military funerals and the television networks seldom show dead US soldiers. All these factors combine to diminish the war’s visceral impact.

The broader explanations are moral and ideological. At the time of Vietnam, many student radicals not only opposed the war but sympathised with the enemy. Many 1960s radicals were not just against America’s involvement in the war, but also in favour 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 Vietcong as revolutionaries fighting against imperialism without actually being in favour of communism. That radical perspective was undermined by subsequent events. But it did not become transparently and obviously wrong until after the repression that followed the American exit in 1975.

The mainstream American left deserves some credit for learning from that mistake and for developing a greater recognition of moral complication in the years since Vietnam. 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 war generally appreciate that the question of how and when to withdraw involves a choice among evils. And this time, there is no idealisation of the enemy outside of a truly lunatic fringe. There is no latter-day Jane Fonda cheering on the Mahdi Army. For the most part, Americans who want us to withdraw from Iraq are not advancing any grand radical agenda. They are making a pragmatic choice about a war they think was a mistake.

If the scope of opposition is narrower, it may be because Iraq does not fit into any powerful political vision 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 American college campuses today, there is plenty of altruistic sentiment, but little in the way of revolutionary consciousness. Greens and anti-globalisers are the exception, but Iraq is not 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 style and methods seem painfully outdated. is no more likely to take its cues from Students for a Democratic Society 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. Demonstrating in the 1960s, one gathers, was a lot of fun. People went for the politics but stayed for the party – or was it the other way around? Forty years later, anti-war rallies are politically and socially disagreeable. The organisers are inevitably moth-eaten leftwing sectarians, some of whom actually do favour the Iraq insurgents. The sane and rational are quickly routed by the first anti-Semite to grab hold of the microphone. The latest protest songs have much the same effect.

The writer is editor of