Whither all the war protesters?

On a beach in US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's San Francisco district the other day, about 1,000 war protesters formed up to spell out the word "IMPEACH." The aerial photo quickly spread to China and Europe.

Still, there were no political harangues, no civil disobedience. The quiet turnout was mostly "old hippies, and even older hippies," jokes event organizer Brad Newsham.

In Boston, a peaceful rally to protest the planned "surge" in US troops drew no more than a few hundred people.

Nearly four years into US combat in Iraq, the antiwar movement has yet to generate the kind of mass protest seen during the Vietnam War. There's no shutting down universities or blocking traffic at military bases – no tense face-offs with police.

But with the new Congress, the Bush administration's surge strategy (which critics deem an "escalation" of the conflict), and increasingly negative public opinion polls on the war, this may be a critical moment for the antiwar movement.

Now, it is organizing and most active in cyberspace. And while that "public space" is not as visible as the town square and university grounds nearly four decades ago, it no doubt feeds the growing public opposition to the Iraq war. (Seventy percent of Americans oppose sending more troops to Iraq, according to an Associated Press-Ipsos poll last week.)

One key reason that opposition to the war has been less overt, organizers recognize, is the lack of a military draft. Also, the scale of the war is different. There were four times as many troops involved and 10 times as many American casualties over a comparable period in Vietnam.

Third, only a handful of Americans are directly affected by the war or asked to sacrifice for it.

For many, "it feels removed," says Tressa Jones of Needham, Mass., who joined the recent rally in Boston. "It's easy to forget because there hasn't been a draft. It's not wartime in the way we are living.... People aren't collecting scrap metal or growing victory gardens."

Yet scholars of recent controversial wars say that though the Iraq War is far different from Vietnam in many ways, opposition, in fact, developed much sooner.

"Protests against the Iraq war, throughout, have been at a far higher level than they were with regard to Vietnam at comparable stages of the invasions," says Noam Chomsky, the MIT linguist who was an early critic of US involvement in Southeast Asia and often opposes US foreign policy in general.

"It wasn't until late 1967, five years after [President John F. Kennedy's] outright invasion, that a substantial movement became visible – and even then, and in fact until the end, it was mostly focused on the bombing of the North," Dr. Chomsky said in an e-mail. "It's hard to know how to measure effects – we don't have internal records, as in the case of Vietnam – but they have at least kept it visible enough so that most of the population has been in favor of withdrawal."

The Web played an important part in defeating war supporters in Congress last November, which in turn led to the current Democratic majority there.

One significant development: Thanks to e-mail and the Internet being available to most troops in Iraq and their families back home, the war can be very immediate to many Americans. That keeps many fighting men and women more politically aware and engaged than in past wars.

As a result, more American troops now disapprove of President Bush's handling of the war than approve of it, according to a recent Military Times poll.

"When the military was feeling most optimistic about the war – in 2004 – 83 percent of poll respondents thought success in Iraq was likely," Military Times reports. Now, " that number has shrunk to 50 percent. Only 35 percent of the military members polled this year said they approve of the way Bush is handling the war, and 42 percent said they disapprove."

At the same time, according to the poll, the number of military respondents who identify with the Republican Party has dropped from 60 percent in 2004 to 46 percent today.

On Tuesday, two active duty servicemen – Navy Petty Officer Jonathan Hutto and Marine Corps Sergeant Liam Madden, who served in two tours in Iraq – presented to Congress more than 1,000 signatures from active duty and Reserve troops in support of "the prompt withdrawal of all American military forces and bases from Iraq." The day before, about a dozen of those troops held a press conference at a Unitarian Church in Norfolk, Va., to voice their opposition to the war.

Those are relatively small numbers compared with the 140,000 US troops currently in Iraq. But it's the kind of act that gets public and political notice. And it echoes 1969, when 1,366 active duty troops signed a full-page ad in The New York Times opposing the war in Vietnam.

Around the country next week, Veterans for Peace will launch an antiwar effort based on a constitutional argument. Organizers will target Democratic lawmakers – especially those in leadership positions like House Speaker Pelosi.

"The Constitution is being violated," says Vietnam veteran Lee Thorn of San Francisco, referring to allegations that the US has tortured prisoners as well as what he calls infringements of civil liberties. "It's our duty as those who've taken an oath to defend the Constitution to continue."

Later in the week, a large "mobilization" of antiwar groups is planned in Washington.

Staff writer Ben Arnoldy contributed to this report.

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