John Buell

On Wars and Reunions

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. Our generation ended its college days fixated on Vietnam. For most students today, 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 half a million men, whereas US troop strength in Iraq may reach only 170,000. These figures however, are deceiving. The US 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 one hundred billion a year, and with daily reports of substantial US casualties and no signs of "progress" -- except to the president -- comparisons with Vietnam-era politics are irresistible. Two years before my graduation, Amherst gained national notoriety when five graduating seniors publicly stood up and exited 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 recently 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 prevent pictures of caskets or body bags. The US media have always been cheerleaders for war, but today it is even harder for them to jump off the ship. By 1968, longtime 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. Inside gossip and personal style trump issues as subjects of media attention.

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 US 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 that 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.

This absence has several causes, including the rise of consumerism and a quarter century attack -- permeating all sectors and demographics -- on the very possibilities of politics. Foremost, however, 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 high-school teaching position won me a "national security" deferment from my local Detroit-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. Today college students need not fear a draft. Only those middle-class youth who are ardently committed to the war will choose to serve. The war is fought by professional soldiers who need active combat on their resumes and by the economically marginalized. The latter "choose" military service for its advertised -- and exaggerated -- economic opportunities.

A few on the political left seek restoration of the draft, both for the sake of equity and in the hopes of re-igniting a vigorous anti- war effort. In our political economy, however, any "universal" draft would probably contain even more loopholes than the Vietnam-era draft. Rather than seek restoration of the draft, which might also encourage further adventurism, or lecture fortunate middle class youth that they are not doing enough, my generation might remind ourselves of the benefits we received from an inequitable draft. A young inner-city Detroit black man may have died because I avoided service. I can't restore that life but guilt could take a productive turn. We can ask if there are other steps we might take to spur new activism and save the lives of today's youth both here and in Iraq.

We all need to consider whether and how to reinvigorate such older strategies as civil disobedience, campaigns to defeat pro war Democrats in primaries, letters to the editors of local papers etc. But in addition to such an approach, we might broaden our sense of political discourse. Politics occurs in our churches, over our back fences, in our dinner table conversations, in our e mails. When friends or acquaintances suggest that the occupation of Iraq is needed to prevent terrorists from invading our shores, we can reply that even most establishment opinion now challenges the president's certainties. CIA estimates suggest that the occupation has both motivated and become a training ground for "urban terrorism," just the sort most likely to affect our shores. More recently, the center/right British think tank, Chatham House, has concluded that Iraq has moved beyond a civil war to many civil wars. The surge is not curbing the high levels of violence. A political solution will require engagement with organizations possessing popular legitimacy and needs to be an Iraqi accommodation rather than a US imposed solution. In addition, $100 billion a year squandered in Iraq is money we do not have better to secure our ports, our chemical plants, our levees, and to build the forms of transit that might make us less dependent on a turbulent Middle East.

For the Democrats and the media who reiterate mantra-like the notion that the Constitution makes George W Bush Commander in Chief, we should remind them that the Constitution clearly gives Congress the right to defund even declared wars. As Alexander Hamilton points out in The Federalist Papers and even George Will agrees: The legislature of the United States will be OBLIGED, [by the constitutional provision that Congress has the power to raise and support armies] once at least in every two years, to deliberate upon the propriety of keeping a military force on foot; to come to a new resolution on the point; and to declare their sense of the matter, by a formal vote in the face of their constituents.

Politics also occurs in our churches and not just when religious leaders endorse causes or candidates. Every Sunday, my wife and some friends read the names of that week s war dead at her local Episcopalian church. Just seeing or hearing these names and ages make the deaths more real to me.

Like my reunion, it reminds me of a painful reality, but these names of men and women at the formative stage of their lives also evoke another thought.

We pass on to our children a given name and a surname and invest much creative psychic energy in this process. The human capacity to name is a fascinating and fortuitous aspect of social and biological evolution. For me, names evoke a sense of both continuity and change. They celebrate the potential capacity of each new arrival to sustain our communities-at least in part by enlivening and enriching them through their own creativity. The names of the war dead elicit in me a desire to build and sustain ways of life with as much space as possible for the growing and wondrous multiciplicity of life.

Let's find more daily acts to bring this war to a close.

John Buell (email is a columnist for the Bangor Daily News and the co-author (with Tom DeLuca) of Liars! Cheaters! Evil Doers!: Demonization and the End of Civil Debate in American Politics.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2007

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