Sunday, March 15, 2009

Anti-War Arguments: Vietnam v. Iraq


For the last week of the "Law and Politics" course I teach, students attended a screening of "Weather Underground," a 2002 documentary by Sam Green that Obama's presidential campaign made relevant again for its interviews with Bill Ayers. (Ayers, a former key player in the Weather Underground and now a professor at Northwestern University Law School, was the guy whose acquaintanceship with Obama demonstrated the latter's inclinations to terrorism.)

One of the bits of the film that always strikes me is that the Students for a Democratic Society as well as the Weather Underground offshoot objected to the war largely because it was killing and maiming Vietnamese villagers by the dozens, hundreds, thousands, tens of thousands, and eventually millions.

Like Henry David Thoreau, and unlike the contemporary left rhetoric against U.S. occupations in Iraq and Afghanistan, the protesters in the 1960s objected to a war of aggression because they did not want to be cogs in a machine that was systematically crushing an innocent population, not because they were worried about the deaths of U.S. soldiers.

Here's what Thoreau wrote, in the essay now published as "On the Duty of Civil Disobedience" and originally titled "Resistance to Civil Government" (1849), an inspiration for Gandhi as well as Martin Luther King, Jr.--the reading is paired with their watching "The Weather Underground":
"Law never made men a whit more just; and, by means of their respect for it, even the well-disposed are daily made the agents on injustice. A common and natural result of an undue respect for the law is, that you may see a file of soldiers, colonel, captain, corporal, privates, powder-monkeys, and all, marching in admirable order over hill and dale to the wars, against their wills, ay, against their common sense and consciences, which makes it very steep marching indeed, and produces a palpitation of the heart."
The injustice Thoreau had in mind was the war on Mexico and Mexicans on behalf of filibuster terrorists (mostly U.S. citizens) trying to establish slavery in northern Mexico in violation of its Constitution. He could not imagine U.S. citizens could rationally support this war and yet despite their objections, he noted that they still served in the army carrying it out. )

Thoreau and other writers never imagined that the government could attract this lemming-like support for imperialism and mass killing without a draft. Nor, one thinks, would they imagine that pacifists would support soldiers for their patriotic service. I know this is not fashionable but I have no patience for sympathy extended by commentators on the Left to "our soldiers" IN A VOLUNTEER ARMY when little is said about the people in the countries who did not choose to be invaded. And yet in their stress on the harms the wars are causing U.S. soldiers and their silence on the civilians killed by U.S. drones attacking homes in Pakistan and Afghanistan, the Left has capitulated to a cheap provincialism. Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann are indistinguishable from Rush Limbaugh in mouthing platitudes about people who have agreed to kill because they are either mercenaries or zealots, neither of which are motives worthy of respect from progressives.

A few days ago I asked students in my class at the University of California at Santa Barbara to discuss the difference between the anti-war arguments in the film and those by the Left today. The response paraphrased:
'The Vietnamese were Communists and this war is fought against terrorists. People in the United States in the 1960s were more open to Communism than they are today to terrorism.'
The course I teach is about theories of sovereignty and offered no information about the Vietnam War; my question was to provoke them to think about why there might be this disparity. The response, both illogical and inconsistent with historical facts, was fascinating to me. The only way that they could imagine an anti-war movement would stress the harms war caused non-U.S. populations was to impute to the U.S. public in the 1960s a sympathy to Communism! (They explained that the Left didn't need to worry about a Right that would attack them for these arguments because the U.S. public was open to Communism, unlike the contemporary U.S. public which is terrified of terrorism, so to speak, and will allow harms against anyone, except U.S. soldiers, apparently, to thwart this.)

But really the weird answer is because of a misleading premise in my question. There is no anti-war movement today. Although the anti-war movement in the 1960s and 1970s spoke on behalf of the Vietnamese under siege by the U.S. government, the fact that there was a draft perhaps made war politically salient to a student population (and their parents) that today finds it a remote sideshow.

According to the Revolutionary Association of Afghan Women, the source of the image above of graves being prepared for Masmo villagers killed by the U.S., Obama has been worse for Afghan civilians than Bush: In January they estimate between 78-83 civilians were killed by the drones he ordered into Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Perhaps the only way the U.S. public might care about the people the U.S. government invades is to make sure that our youth are also targeted as potential invaders. Hard to know if we would have had more war if our Presidents could call up millions at short notice (the worry of the U.S. Congress that ended the draft in 1973), or fewer, for the same reason.

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