I recently attended my Amherst College ('67) reunion. It was an occasion to catch up with old friends, but I was also saddened by a recitation of the names of too many classmates who had passed away before their time. This reunion, however, was notable for its distinctly political focus on the many other men and women who are being killed well before their time. The organizers had scheduled a symposium on the political evolution of our generation, which graduated from college with eyes fixed on Vietnam. For most students today, however, Iraq seems at most a distant distraction. These generational differences constitute a special challenge to those of us whose early political commitments were so heavily shaped by Vietnam.
Commentators remind us that military strength in Vietnam peaked at about a half-million men, whereas U.S. troop strength in Iraq may reach only 170,000. These figures, however, are deceiving. The U.S. presence in Iraq now also includes approximately 125,000 employees of private contractors, most of whom are performing functions once carried out by active duty military personnel.
With nearly two-thirds of the highest Vietnam era military presence in Iraq, with occupation expenditures topping $100 billion a year, and with daily reports of substantial U.S. casualties, comparisons with Vietnam era politics are irresistible. Two years before my graduation, Amherst gained national notoriety when five graduating seniors publicly walked out on Defense Secretary Robert McNamara's commencement address. By the time of my graduation, President Johnson faced the prospect of an anti-war challenge to his own re-nomination. Months later, he stepped aside.
President Bush has been granted funding to continue a war that many of the Democratic majority pledged to end. Why is there no political movement that might give the Democrats the spine to provide more than a temporary inconvenience to the president?
The increasingly incestuous relationship between mainstream media and the administration is one factor. The Bush administration was clever enough to embed reporters during field operations and forbid pictures of caskets. The U.S. media have always been cheerleaders for war, but today it is even harder for them to jump off the ship. By 1968, long time CBS Evening News anchorman Walter Cronkite had become disabused of his government's portrayal of the war and presented footage that challenged prevailing Pentagon reports.
Today star media players, like Dan Rather, seem able to express dissent — if ever — only on leaving their positions. Media as institutions are just as embedded as their correspondents. TV networks are part of vast conglomerates and depend on administration approval for new mergers and acquisitions. They also rely on direct government subsidy, license renewals, and trade treaties — all of which exert a huge impact on the bottom line. The very definition of journalism has become altered, with journalists viewing success in terms of access to high administration officials.
For their part, Democrats have allowed the media to define the boundaries of the possible. Most are shameless triangulators. Since most Americans still get the bulk of their political information from television, media labels count for a lot. The trick is to appeal to their base while finding subtle ways to reassure the media as to one's safety and thus avoid the most damaging labels in U.S. politics, "radical" or "unelectable." Thus many Democrats today suggest they oppose the current course of the war, but "support the troops" and defer management of the war to the president.
But perhaps the largest reason Bush rests easy on the throne is the absence of a full-blown student movement. Though many college students are involved in anti-war protests, their efforts lack the numbers and the intensity of an earlier generation.
Foremost in framing a '60s student movement was the draft. Facing the strong possibility of being drafted in 1967, most of my classmates and I spent endless hours calculating how a choice of jobs, graduate schools, ROTC, etc., might allow us to avoid being drafted into a war most of my friends and I did not support. A teaching position won me a "national security" deferment from my local Detroit, Mich., area draft board.
Although virtually none of my friends served in Vietnam, the war was continually part of our consciousness — if only because the inequities of the draft did require some skill to navigate and the steps taken to avoid the war forced dramatic shifts in life plans. Should we conclude from this, as some on the left have, that one way to ramp up opposition to the occupation of Iraq is to restore the draft? I will explore this step and some alternatives in my next column.