War and Peaceniks

The Iraq war is as controversial as the Vietnam conflict, but this time antiwar demonstrators are a lonely bunch.

Illustration by Robert Brinkerhoff

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About 100 people tried to make peace on a warm September afternoon, with no more material than Tibetan prayer flags fluttering to the tattoo from a North African dumbek. Rhode Island’s International Day of Peace commemoration was mostly a quiet affair. Tucked into the shade cast by the Davey Lopes Recreation Center in Providence, organizers proffered free hugs and free water in recycled bottles amid mingling and face-painting. The temperature of the event rose only briefly when rapper Mr. Deeply Positive, a.k.a. James McBride, stirred the assembly to hold two fingers aloft and chant: “We Want P-E-A-C-E! We Want P-E-A-C-E!”

The heavy artillery was reserved for the last: a silent meditation walk through the neighborhood. A snake of saffron-robed monks and mostly gray-haired women wound its way around the Southside Community Land Trust gardens before breaking into its constituent parts and dispersing.

Martha Yager of the American Friends Service Committee helped lead the procession. This stroll was a far cry from the 1971 May Day antiwar protest in Washington, D.C., when she ran up Massachusetts Avenue fleeing the National Guard and clouds of tear gas.

“It felt like we were in a war,” Yager recalls. “I went back the next day and in the middle of Dupont Circle, there were five tanks facing outward, with soldiers boot-to-boot holding unsheathed bayonets. It really shook to the core my sense of my government being there to protect me.”

That was a different war and a different peace movement. Forty years ago, protest was a violent and angry reaction to America’s misadventures in Vietnam. Citizens immolated themselves on the streets; dinner tables became battlegrounds. In May 1970, after National Guardsmen killed four students at Kent State University, campuses nationwide erupted into waves of strikes, riots and demonstrations shutting down more than 530 colleges. Rock stars wrote anthems to it, the lyrics of which most Baby Boomers can still sing.
It’s difficult for them [politicians] to see the human cost of the war.
As the Iraq War lumbers through its fifth year, support has dwindled to about 30 percent. But the rage that fueled public protests in the 1960s and 70s barely simmers today. Some old hands in the peace movement chalk the complacency up to the all-volunteer military. 

“But it’s not the whole answer,” says Mark Stahl, an organizer for the Rhode Island Community Coalition for Peace. “A major factor in Vietnam was the fact that there were a lot of casualties. In Iraq, they have been trying to keep the casualty count down. In the Vietnam War everyone knew someone who had been killed or severely injured.”

Stahl, a conscientious objector during the Vietnam War, spent those years at the University of California’s Berkeley campus mounting demonstrations on the rail line out of Fort Ord. A group of fifty or so demonstrators would lie across the tracks at 4 a.m. to disrupt the troop trains.

“As the train was approaching, the engineer would be blowing his horn. The poor conductor. At that point, we got up and we had to drag people across the tracks. It was a dramatic stunt,” he says, “the type of thing that grabs people’s attention.”

Save for a February 2003 antiwar demonstration that drew millions worldwide, the peace movement has done little to grab the attention of Congress or the masses. Activist Cindy Sheehan’s Crawford, Texas, vigils and MoveOn’s General Petraeus/Betrayus ad in the New York Times have produced a few flashes of disapproval before sputtering out. In the ensuing four years, activists have had plenty of time to mull their own mistakes.

 - December, 2007

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