In the last major war involving Americans — Vietnam — the television news seemed to show us as much about antiwar protests as it did the war itself. Estimates suggest that as many as 5 million Americans participated in protests back then when students took their antiwar passions to the streets.
While America prepares for war in Iraq, the streets and campuses have been relatively quiet. Does this mean that Americans are united behind a war effort? Hardly. Polls indicate that at least one-third of Americans oppose a war, and even more if you count those who believe we should not fight without United Nations support or broader international consensus.
So where are this generation’s antiwar protesters? Is the passion gone? Are students too busy? Will the war be fought and won before large-scale protests are even organized?
The truth is that an antiwar movement is developing, but in much different ways than we saw in the 1960s. The crowds are smaller and not necessarily student-led. Recent protests in Washington and San Francisco, for example, drew peaceful crowds that were no more than half college students. On campuses, students are more interested in learning about the war issues through teach-ins than protesting through sit-ins. And much of the action is taking place out of sight, on the Internet.
This is a different generation facing a different kind of war from the one their parents fought and protested in Vietnam.
Unlike Vietnam, this war is not personal. With the military draft, and the draft lottery, the prospect of going to war was very real and personal to students of the 1960s. Practically everyone knew a classmate from high school or college who had gone to war and come home to a hospital or a cemetery. Professional armed services lower the risk for today’s college students and keep their passions below the boiling point. Don’t forget that the only war today’s students have experienced — the Gulf War when they were around 10 years old — was largely a technological battle and was over in a matter of days.
Surveys of college freshmen have shown a major decrease in political activism among college students from the 1960s to the present. Their idea of civic engagement is much more oriented around community service than antiwar protest. Many students ask, “What good would an antiwar protest do, anyway?” They feel helpless to influence American military and foreign policy.
In the end, there is no student consensus against a war on Iraq compared with widespread student dissent about the Vietnam war. Most college students agree that something needs to be done about Saddam Hussein, though there is disagreement about precisely what American policy should be. Unlike Presidents Johnson and Nixon, President Bush enjoys about as much support among students as he does the nation as a whole. There is no student counterculture to fuel antiwar protests.
Whatever antiwar movement there is this time also uses different tools. The ubiquitous Internet is at the heart of things, collecting signatures, organizing groups and disseminating information. While protesting on the technology superhighway is less dramatic than taking it to the streets, such an approach better fits this generation, which is both less confrontation in style and less political in nature. Don’t look for this generation to develop a counterculture and protest approach.