Superstitious me; I’m knocking wood as I write this, but: I feel the distinct rumble of a cultural shift gaining momentum.
Consider, for example, the notable news that all 8 of the Democratic Senators voting in the Judiciary Committee on Wednesday opposed Alberto Gonzales’ confirmation as U.S. Attorney General. The 13 members of Congress who voted against Condoleezza Rice’s confirmation constituted the largest congressional dissent from a secretary of state appointment since 1825. To state the obvious, you don’t need a Congressman to know which way the wind blows. Indeed, by the time many of our elected representatives summon the courage to stand up for the right thing, you can be sure legions are standing behind them.
It takes time for opposition to an ill-conceived war to coalesce. The first American soldier died in Vietnam in 1959; the Gulf of Tonkin resolution passed Congress in 1964, authorizing LBJ to “take all necessary measures to repel any armed attack against forces of the United States and to prevent further aggression;” the first campus “teach-in” was in 1965; activism built through the huge protests of Vietnam Summer and the founding of Vietnam Veterans Against the War (both in1967), President Johnson’s 1968 announcement that he would not run for re-election and Vietnam Moratorium Day (1969). In the end, with almost no popular support left for the war, a peace treaty was signed in 1973, and the last American troops were withdrawn in 1975.
Things happen faster now. Presidents prefer quick, efficient, photogenic mini-wars like Grenada in 1983 and one of our earlier engagements in Iraq, “Operation Desert Storm” in 1991. President Bush allowed his desire for brevity and glory to prevail over the evidence when he declared “mission accomplished” on May 1, 2003, just a month or so into the current war. Now, nearly 1,400 American and countless Iraqi casualties later, the war grinds on. But less than two years following its start (far less time than it took vets to coalesce against the Vietnam War), Iraq Veterans Against the War and similar groups are active and visible. (See \Mother Jones\ Web site for a partial list.) In my last dispatch, I quoted a Times/CBS poll showing burgeoning public doubts, regrets and disapprovals for Bush administration policies, including the Iraq war.
A vast anti-war movement in 2005 could not resemble its 1965 predecessor in every particular. Conditions are very different today than during the Vietnam era. The fact that every 18 year-old male was then subject to the draft had a galvanizing effect on antiwar thinking; as Samuel Johnson put it more than 300 years ago, “Depend upon it, Sir, when a man knows he is to be hanged in a fortnight, it concentrates his mind wonderfully.” Many Americans now understand U.S. policy as driven by economic and geopolitical considerations, expecting our government to make friends of convenient dictators and enemies of inconvenient freedom-fighters. (As Lily Tomlin has said, “No matter how cynical you get, you can’t keep up.”) But we were more innocent 40-odd years ago. The Vietnam War was widely perceived as a stark contrast with notable U.S. interventions on the side of right, as in “the good war,” World War II. Many patriots wanted the U.S. out of Vietnam as a step toward restoring national honor by ending the hypocrisy of crying peace while waging aggressive war. Organizing in the Vietnam era was slow by current cyber-standards; communication was cumbersome and time-consuming, attenuating the process of mobilizing people, whereas now we can all be reading the same page in an instant.
But none of these differences would be significant in the face of a great awakening of conscience whose time had come.
Predicting the future, as I never tire of reminding myself, is impossible. But right now, in the present, I sense signs of a sea-change. This is what it felt like in the mid-sixties: beleaguered and discouraged at trying to awaken people to the dangers of entrenched power, not knowing that a critical mass of opposition to the war was about to take shape. So here is what I am asking myself today: what if? What if Bush’s triumphalism is beginning to sound as hollow to others as it does to me? What if in prosecuting this pointless and bloody war, in attempting to dismantle the social goods for which our foreparents fought so long and hard, in advocating what Jack Lang characterized as the “freedom of the fox in the henhouse,” Bush is unknowingly awakening the voice of conscience that will shortly transform public discourse? What if History works in mysterious ways?