Old Hands Against War
IRAQ HAS become more savage (a rising tide of Iraqi blood, an air war escalating -- along with rates of American mortality); increasing numbers of US citizens have moved from dismay to action. (Only a few weeks ago, more than 300,000 people rallied in New York City, saying no.) On campuses, peace demonstrations have become more common, and when Bush administration figures have appeared at graduations recently, protests have been lodged.
But these manifestations have overwhelmingly been mounted by older people, with gray heads dominating the antiwar crowds. Faculty members have done more than students to spark university protests. Aging activists have taken the lead in ad hoc peace vigils, as well as on the Internet. Some younger people have emerged as charismatic leaders of the new movement (one thinks of fortysomething Amy Goodman, anchor of ''Democracy Now," or of thirtysomething Frida Berrigan, daughter of Philip Berrigan), but the generation of those who are actually at war has mostly kept its distance from the public questioning. Why is that?
Ready answers are offered: There is no draft, and so young people, feeling no personal jeopardy, feel no pressure to confront the issue. An uncertain economy makes its newcomers risk averse. They are harried by pressures to achieve or their concerns are trumped by entertainment culture or they just don't care.
But explanations like these, in addition to smacking of intergenerational condescension, seem off. For one thing, as high school and college records show, today's young people are given to unprecedented levels of community service. They volunteer as tutors, raise money for charities, embrace programs like AmeriCorps, City Year, and Habitat for Humanity. Their teachers consistently testify to a marked seriousness of purpose. There is no reason to regard the new breed as less idealistic, or less courageous, than those who have gone before. What then?
Perhaps the question is not what makes young people different, but what makes so many of their elders as they are? In the 1950s, Americans learned to live with a vivid sense of imminent disaster. Children glimpsed it under their desks, during ''duck and cover" drills. What was at issue, in that fresh era of nuclear anguish, was nothing less than the end of the world. That is why, through the 1960s dramas of Berlin, Cuba, and Vietnam, the watchword became ''Apocalypse Now!" Western civilization had long taken its narrative paradigm, the literary theorist Paul Ricoeur suggests, from a biblical framework that begins with Genesis and concludes with Apocalypse, but suddenly that scheme had entered history. You did not have to be a nut case to feel the wind blowing in from the Endtime.
It was not the draft that sparked the peace movement of that era or ''youthful idealism," but this awareness of nuclear threat. ''Ours [is] the first generation to live with the possibility of worldwide cataclysm," declared the foundational Port Huron Statement in 1962. That generation, with reason, saw the cataclysm coming. Unbridled fear for -- and of -- the near future is what drove so many of them into the streets, at first during the Vietnam protests of their youth and then, as they approached middle age, for the Nuclear Freeze movement (nearly a million demonstrators in New York in 1982).
The conclusion of the Cold War was foolishly designated ''the end of history" by some, yet there was a definite termination of the pervasive dread that had shaped consciousness. In America, it served the purposes of the national security establishment, and of the economic and political interests that depended on it, to encourage citizens to believe that nuclear Armageddon no longer threatened. With that pressure off, worries about war, even as the United States promptly went to war in Panama and Iraq, seemed passe. The catastrophe of 9/11 fell upon the national mind like an instance of the Apocalypse, as if the clouds rising up over New York were mushroom-shaped after all, but when that emergency passed, transcendent fear was sublimated -- domesticated -- under the numbing label ''terrorism."
It takes a habit of the heart to feel antiwar anguish now, and that is what has driven so many gray-haired ones into the streets. Not that the young care less, nor that they are more readily anesthetized. Older people, for better and worse, are grooved thinkers. It is not to our credit that we've been here, done this. We still recognize a worldwide cataclysm when it threatens, especially when mainly from Washington. And no, as it turns out, we never got over it.
© 2006 The Boston Globe