A succinct headline in the Washington Times summed it up nicely: “Anti-war protesters echo Vietnam.” The accent is on the word “echo”—as in “a distant, fainter, repetition.”
The anti-Iraq War demonstrations in DC over this weekend were self-consciously and purposefully designed to mimic the protests of yesteryear. But like all retro fashions, they didn’t quite resemble the originals.
Approximately forty years ago, on October 21, 1967, before Tet and before Nixon, the first mammoth Vietnam antiwar demonstration was held. Participation was estimated at 100,000 plus, and clashes with police resulted in 600 arrested.
I wasn’t at that one—and I wasn’t at Woodstock either, although most people my age claim they were. But I was there for the next big one, on the cold clear day of November 15, 1969, along with what are estimated to have been between 250,000 and 500,000 of my peers.
It was a group event all the way; I drove down from Boston with a carful of housemates and their boyfriends, including mine. I recall the sky in DC that day as being a deep and startlingly clear blue–almost as blue as the bluest sky I’ve ever seen, on a certain sad day in September almost thirty-two years later.
Back in DC in 1969, the crowd was very calm:
…the government had figured out how to handle the huge crowds, monitoring the demonstration with 3,000 police officers, 9,000 Army troops (who were kept out of sight in reserve), 200 lawyers and 75 clergymen. The New Mobe [the group organizing the event] had recruited thousands of its own armband-wearing “parade marshals” to help keep order.
By November of 1969 major US involvement in the Vietnam War had gone on for about five years and caused approximately 22,000 US deaths. The draft was still very much in operation, and it’s no coincidence that the demonstrators were mostly of college age; the immediacy of the draft fueled the size of the protests.
What did we expect as a result of our efforts? Demonstrations always have an element of self-indulgent theater, it’s true. But I believe many of us did think we’d actually make a difference. Our own template may have been the Martin Luther King Civil Rights march of 1963, which predated the passage of the historic Civil Rights legislation of the mid-60s, even though there was no simple one-on-one cause and effect involved.
I’ve already written at length about the 60s, Vietnam, and my own small participation in the antiwar effort, in the multi-part Section 4 (it starts here) of my “A mind is a difficult thing to change” series. So I’m not going to go into depth about that right now. Suffice to say I’ve rethought the entire era and come to different conclusions.
Some, of course, have not. And some have, but have moved in a different direction. An example is good old Ramsey Clark, who was at this weekend’s festivities, fresh from his failed attempt to save Saddam Hussein from the noose. It’s been almost forty years since that 1967 march, an event Clark feels was the turning point in rallying sentiment against the Vietnam War. Clark, of course, was on the other side of the barricades back then (literally) as Lyndon Johnson’s Attorney General, engaged in some of the administration’s preparations to deal with the march.
But it just ain’t like it used to be. You can’t go home again, according to Clark. “I can’t tell you that we have the depth of passion or breadth of commitment today that we had then,” he said (although the “we” back then to whom Clark refers remains a bit obscure, given his position at the time).
The numbers this past weekend? Estimated at between 10,000 and 20,000, with counterprotesters—many of them, interestingly enough, Vietnam vets—numbering “in the thousands,” as well. The Vietnam vets were on both sides of this demonstration, of course, as would be expected.
Differences are vast between these two wars. There is no draft now, for one thing. For another, the number of US casualties in this war is significantly less. I can’t speak for everyone, of course, but to us back in 1967-1969 a US win in Vietnam seemed (rightly or wrongly) to be of more marginal importance, the consequences of withdrawal less grave. And remember, we did not have the example of what happened in 1975 and afterwards in South Vietnam before our eyes; it hadn’t happened yet (see this and this for my more recent thoughts on the end of the Vietnam War and its aftermath).
This is not true of today’s protesters, who should at least be aware of that history, however they may interpret it. Some of them, such as 36-year-old Maggie Johnson, show an astounding inability to understand differences in scale when making historical comparisons. This quote from her referring to World War II is a good example:
We’ve been in Iraq longer than we were in World War II and we’ve accomplished a heck of a lot less. It’s time we wrap it up.
Does this woman understand how many men fought in World War II? How many died to achieve what was accomplished then? Would she for a single moment have stood for such numbers?
Here are the figures: the estimates are that between thirteen and sixteen million Americans fought in that war. About 311,000 were killed. Many millions more died all over the world; here are some figures to ponder. The numbers are staggering, and these are just the military deaths, although during WWII civilians in Europe and Asia suffered and died almost as readily.
Ms. Johnson is making some other errors of comparison. Because the length of World War II to which she refers was the length of the “hot” war, the one that in Iraq lasted a matter of mere weeks. World War II was followed by lengthy occupations and rebuildings of both Germany and Japan before it was over and its “accomplishments” solidified.
Apparently, people were more patient then. Here’s a quote on the subject from General Abizaid, due to retire soon as Centcom commander:
How do you win a “long war” against Islamic extremism if your country has a short attention span? That’s an overarching concern for Abizaid in a conflict where time — not troops, not tactics — is the true strategic resource. “The biggest problem we’ve got is lack of patience,” he says. “When we take upon ourselves the task of rebuilding shattered societies, we need not to be in a hurry. We need to be patient, but our patience is limited. That makes it difficult to accomplish our purposes.”
The protesters are nostalgic for the heady days of the 60s, when hundreds of thousands could be mobilized for the street theater of the time. They may forget that, when the draft ended, so did most of the protests. Or perhaps they don’t; maybe that’s what’s behind the call by some of them to resume the draft.
Ah, nostalgia; ain’t it wonderful? They’re nostalgic for the good old days of the mega-demonstrations. I’m nostalgic for the days when the American public had more patience for the fight against an evil that they seemed to see more clearly, and the endurance for the long hard slog of rebuilding a broken country afterwards.