Missing in Antiwar Action

By John McMillian, a lecturer in history and literature at Harvard University (THE WASHINGTON POST, 20/01/07):

Recently I finished teaching a freshman seminar at Harvard called «From Reform to Revolution: Youth Culture in the 1960s.» When I built the syllabus, I asked students to ponder a single, overarching question: «How did the youth rebellion of the 1960s happen?» That is, what caused millions of young people to pierce the bland and platitudinous din that characterized the early Cold War years? Why did so many youths — many of them affluent and college-educated — suddenly decide that American society needed to be radically overhauled?

But as the semester progressed, my students frequently turned the question around: Why is there no rising protest movement among young people today? At the very least, they asked, shouldn’t we be seeing more antiwar activity? According to a CNN poll this month, 67 percent of Americans oppose the war in Iraq, and more than half would like to see all U.S. troops home by year’s end. Given that it was not until August 1968 that a majority of Americans began calling the Vietnam War a «mistake,» this is a remarkable statistic. By 1968, of course, antiwar teach-ins, sit-ins and marches were commonplace on many campuses; demonstrators had violently clashed with soldiers on the steps of the Pentagon; and the Democratic National Convention had descended into chaos over the war.

Today, grass-roots antiwar activism has not been entirely absent. But one would be hard-pressed to argue that we’re on the cusp of a rising protest movement. Why not?

First, the civil rights movement exerted a forceful influence on left-wing protesters in the 1960s. When African Americans bravely stood up against attack dogs, cattle prods and fire hoses, they dramatically demonstrated the power of collective action to foster social change.

Second, the draft personalized the Vietnam War not just for the hundreds of thousands of young men who were conscripted but also for their loved ones. No matter how strained the U.S. military becomes, our all-volunteer army — widely regarded as a lethal «third rail» in American politics — isn’t going away anytime soon. As a result, too many of us enjoy the luxury of regarding the Iraq war as an abstraction. Among my 12 students, only two personally knew someone serving in Iraq. One is a medic, the other a chaplain.

But my students suggested some other reasons today’s youth seem so passive. Although this high-achieving group was hardly representative, many of them spoke plaintively about being pressured from an early age to begin building their credentials for college. «Students are expected to get perfect grades, excel in extracurricular activities, save the world and be home before dinner time,» quipped one freshman. These demands seem to be common nationwide. The American Academy of Pediatrics warned this month of the physical and mental health problems that may arise from the competitive and hurried lifestyles of many youths. In such pressure-cooker environments, students are unlikely to become committed organizers.

Nor are many students likely to be socialized into antiwar activism. Every campus has its left-wing organizers, but today the gauzy idealism that circulated among teenagers in the 1960s seems almost freakishly anomalous. According to a recent U.S. Census report, 79 percent of college freshmen in 1970 said that «developing a meaningful philosophy of life» was among their goals, whereas only 36 percent said becoming wealthy was a high priority. By contrast, in 2005, 75 percent of incoming students listed «being very well off financially» among their chief aims.

Some of my students suggested that they might not even be capable of experiencing the kind of indignation and disillusionment that spurred many baby boomers toward activism. In the Vietnam era, the shameful dissembling of American politicians provoked outrage. But living in the shadow of Vietnam and Watergate, and weaned on «The Simpsons» and «The Daily Show,» today’s youth greet the Bush administration’s spin and ever-evolving rationale for war with ironic world-weariness and bemused laughter. «The Iraq war turned out to be a hoax from the beginning? Figures!»

The students who took my seminar were a particularly serious-minded and delightful bunch. Most of them came to admire the pluck and panache of the New Leftists we studied, and they were quick to recognize how frequently the concerns of Vietnam-era protesters dovetailed with their own complaints against the Iraq war. Some even wistfully remarked that they would like to be part of a generational rebellion.

But they doubt that this is likely to happen. «Just like [in] the 1960s, we have an unjust war, a lying president, and dead American soldiers sent home everyday,» one student wrote me in an e-mail. «But rather than fight the administration or demand a forum to express our unhappiness, we accept the status quo and focus on our own problems.»