It sounds like a blast from the past.
Here in Florida, outrage at the war often manifests itself in small, fragile, highly personal ways. And sometimes it’s a lonely business.
A Unitarian preacher in Fort Myers spends his evenings marching and dodging pro-war insults; in Ocala, a former foreign-service officer sits home writing letters to newspapers against the war and protests on a busy highway; a former Iraq War soldier and conscientious objector in Sarasota meditates and marches to take away the pain of an unsettled world; a mother and daughter in Tampa whose son and brother once served in Iraq organize monthly protests; a sophomore at a small Miami university, new to activism, battles frustration as he tries to mobilize other students.
Though fewer than the hundreds of thousands who organized four decades ago during the mired conflict of Vietnam, today’s peace advocates also are no longer content merely to worry about, pray for and support the young men and women whose lives now have been thrust into danger.
Other comparisons with Vietnam are inevitable. In that war and this one, the public was at first largely supportive, then grew weary as more and more money was spent, and more and more soldiers came home in boxes. In both cases, protesters campaigned against a government they felt was uncompromising in its stance.
But the contrasts are also stark.
The number of U.S. casualties in Iraq so far is less than 10 percent of those in Vietnam, which over 17 years topped out at 58,000.
Vietnam protesters, angered by the war and the draft, were a highly energized, highly dramatic group whose leaders took on rock-star qualities and whose demonstrations, often on college campuses, became the cause du jour. They burned draft cards, occupied public spaces, and, led by firebrand Abbie Hoffman, once unsuccessfully tried to levitate the Pentagon through psychic energy. The era’s most tragic standoff was four days of demonstrations at Kent State University in 1970 that included the burning of an ROTC building and the shooting deaths of four students.
There are a couple of other differences that I’ve noticed between the anti-war movement of the Vietnam era and today. For one thing, there is no draft so that young men, regardless of their feelings about the military in general or the war in specific, were not being called up to serve involuntarily. That has removed the immediacy and the sometimes randomness of the question for some people about whether or not this is a just cause for which to go to war.
In a larger sense, though, the protests against the war in Vietnam were more passionate and widespread not just because of the higher number of deaths but because for the first time in our history, many Americans did not believe that the war we were fighting in Asia was worth our blood and treasure, and there was an overriding feeling that our own government had lied about the circumstances that got us into the war and exaggerated the threat to our own national interest to get us into the war. The outrage that many people felt about this was fresh in 1964, especially since we had, less than twenty years before, fought and won what was seen as a “good” war against Fascism. We felt as if we could not trust our own government to tell us the truth. And while skepticism about the government is inbred in the American psyche, to realize that it had happened on such a massive scale and at such a great cost resulted in the outrage that gave us the peace movement and the dissent that polarized the nation and led to the downfall of a president.
Today, more’s the pity, we acknowledge this deception and shrug it off as just one more awful truth about the people we’ve chosen to lead us.