Antiwar sentiment gets champion
Cindy Sheehan's vigil outside Bush's Texas ranch brings focus to a protest movement that's been largely unseen and ineffective.
ASHLAND, ORE., AND CRAWFORD, TEXAS
In her high-profile vigil outside President Bush's Texas ranch, Cindy Sheehan has brought the face and the heart of the antiwar movement to the world.Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
The plain-spoken words and image of a mother carrying a wooden cross to commemorate the son she lost in Iraq have suddenly brought focus to what has been largely an unseen and ineffective protest movement in the US.
To be sure, this is still not Kent State in 1970. For a variety of political and practical reasons, today's antiwar movement may never approach the ardor of a generation ago. Moreover, many conservatives criticize Ms. Sheehan for being co-opted by the broader political left - itself a reflection of the crosscurrents of the time.
Yet the mother, hoisting her plaintive signs and vowing to stay in Crawford until she gets a one-on-one meeting with Mr. Bush, has become a potent personal symbol of opposition to a war now stretching into its third year. More important, her crusade comes at a time when doubts about US engagement there are clearly growing.
"One keeps hearing that the number of queries coming into conscientious objector advisory groups are on the upswing," says retired US Army Colonel Dan Smith, a Vietnam veteran now working for the Friends Committee on National Legislation, a Quaker lobbying group. "College campuses are stirring. Facts suggest a rising antiwar sentiment is in the making."
The depth of America's ambivalence is reflected in the polls. A CNN/Gallup/USA Today poll this month, echoing other surveys, shows that Americans by a 55-44 majority now believe the US "made a mistake in sending troops to Iraq." Some 56 percent say some or all US troops should be withdrawn now.
The hardening sentiment hasn't gone unnoticed in Washington. Many Democrats have become more vocal about the need for a definitive timetable for the withdrawal of troops, and they have been joined of late by some Republicans. The recent special congressional election in Ohio - where the Democrat was an Iraq war vet who nearly won in a heavily Republican district - has added to concerns about the war in some GOP circles.
Within the military, some senior commanders have talked about a timeframe for starting to bring home troops. But late last week, Bush tamped down any expectations of a quick withdrawal, saying it was too soon to say when the number of troops might be reduced.
Still, for all the concern about Iraq, the antiwar movement today isn't likely to reach the levels of Vietnam. For one thing, there are fundamental reasons why this war is distinctly different: the lack of military conscription, a relatively low level of American casualties (at least compared to Vietnam, where more than 30 times as many US soldiers were killed), and the absence of a self-conscious youth culture.
"What made the antiwar movement so powerful during the Vietnam War was its close connection to the movement of millions of baby-boomers through college," says national security analyst Loren Thompson of the Lexington Institute in Arlington, Va. "Away from home for the first time and insulated from military service by student deferments, many of these adolescents were acutely aware of their susceptibility to the draft once they completed college. Opposition to the war became part of a generational identity, particularly among middle-class students in universities."
Today, some of the not-so-silent minority worried about the war includes military veterans and their families. Jan Barry, a founder of Vietnam Veterans Against the War, says that when his group posted a statement of opposition to the Iraq war on a website shortly before the conflict started, it was signed by some 4,000 vets and family members, many of whom were retired. What surprised him, though, was the number of second and third generation military who signed up - including many World War II vets.