College campuses are a hotbed of ... pro-war fervor?
AUSTIN — On the steps of the Texas Capitol, dueling demonstrations were under way. One, organized in part by University of Texas students, filled the air with patriotic speeches and songs in support of America's campaign in Afghanistan.
At the other, UT antiwar protesters shouted, "Stop the bombing now. Give peace a chance" - an effort to drown out the competing rally.
But in the end, chants of "USA, USA, USA" carried the day, prevailing by virtue of the throng of young people who turned out on a mid-November day to laud the war effort.
Unlike their peacenik parents, today's college students are expressing a patriotism and a pro-war fervor not seen among young people since World War II. On campuses across America, support for President Bush and the war against terrorism is as high as 85 percent, some surveys say.
Indeed, the antiwar sentiment that tore campuses apart during the Vietnam War is simply not much in evidence - at least not yet.
"I think the majority of students on campus support what the government is doing," says UT senior Jessica Scott, pushing her cowboy hat from her face and surveying the scene outside the Capitol. "But we've grown up in luxury and prosperity and peace, so what do we know?"
The war, in fact, is proving to be something of a crash course in world affairs for today's college students. Unlike their parents, who went through the searing experience of Vietnam and the cold war, this generation has until now been focused mostly on the Internet revolution and the booming job market.
But on Sept. 11, the final destinations of four airplanes seem to have shaken the college set from its political malaise and introduced it to the world.
There are a number of reasons young people have rallied so strongly to the cause - the unprecedented nature of the attack, an unjaded willingness to trust government, and no experience with the horrors of war.
But perhaps a bigger factor is that none is at risk of being conscripted into the military against his or her will.
"The biggest difference [between the generations] is that these kids don't see themselves as draft bait," says Sheldon Steinbach of the American Council on Education in Washington, which represents 1,800 colleges nationwide.
Mr. Steinbach spent the Vietnam years in college avoiding the draft, and remembers clearly the tension on campus. "A significant portion of the student population looked at the Vietnam conflict through the prism of an impending draft notice, which tended to make it far more personal."
That was also a generation battling a wide array of social-justice issues, such as the civil rights movement, the free-speech movement, and women's liberation.
Today's college students have been raised on the fruits of those battles, and their efforts and attention, until now, have been directed elsewhere. Just last year, for example, only 28 percent of college freshmen said they followed politics, according to a survey by the Higher Education Research Institute in Los Angeles. By comparison, 60 percent did in 1966.
At the rally in Austin, UT senior Marc Levin agrees that Sept. 11 was a wake-up call for many of his generation, those who cared more about music than mujahideen. "This snapped us out of it, and now so many more students are focused on politics and the world around them."
Mr. Levin, who helped organize the rally, says the event was not about war-mongering: "It was a patriotic event that helped remember those who lost their lives in the attacks."
His mother, Ellen, drove from Houston to attend the rally, and she remembers how unthinkable it was to flag-wave when she was a student during the 1960s. "My generation was ashamed to be patriotic. It was considered corny," she says. "Things are different now."
So is this war. First and foremost, say students, the attack came on US soil. That gives this war a defined objective and an unquestionable purpose.
"It's about America's fight for freedom," says freshman Jennifer Burnett, handing out mini flags to demonstrators at the Rally for America.
Says fellow flag-pusher, Lizzy Ligou: "Our generation thought nothing like this would ever happen to us. We thought we were the luckiest generation, living through so much peace."
While the young women were raised on peace, they have no qualms about using force to resolve this situation.
"We've grown up watching the US play mediator," says Ms. Burnett. "But after what happened to us, we can't just sit back. We have to take action."
The two were among many students at the rally who acknowledged that they don't understand the situation well enough to judge what the US course of action should be. Thus, they are willing to trust the government implicitly.
Austin Dullnig, co-chairman of the Travis County Green Party and a UT senior, groans in disgust over that response. One of many protesting the rally, he says he is dismayed that innocent Afghans have been killed during US airstrikes.
"This generation has it better off than previous generations, and therefore has become complacent," he says. "They don't question authority."
Scholars agree the Vietnam War reshaped a generation. Sept. 11 will do so as well, they say. The question is: How?
Already, students are filling international-relations classes and teach-ins to bone up on the basics. They are genuinely willing to learn, says Robert Buzzanco, a history professor at the University of Houston and author of "Vietnam and the Transformation of American Life."
He has heard the words "myopic" and "selfish" attached to this generation, but is unwilling to go that far - especially after watching students in action after the terrorist attacks. "This generation just doesn't have those historical touchpoints that their parents' generation did, when bomb drills and World War II stories were a daily thing."
In fact, students today might be better prepared to handle this new kind of global war than previous generations were, he says. The classrooms are more diversely mixed, and the Internet is bringing cultures closer than ever.
But not knowing the horrors of war firsthand also has its drawbacks, says Dr. Buzzanco.
Vietnam brought America the draft, a steady stream of body bags, and war on prime time. Today's wars, such as the Gulf War and this one against terrorism, are largely sterile bombing raids with little ground-troop involvement.
Buzzanco says he heard from students immediately after Sept. 11 who said the images on the screen seemed like a movie. "Today's idea of war is very remote," he says. "I don't think they see it much differently than a movie or video game."
That attitude could change if American casualties begin to mount.
The antiwar protesters in Austin, relentless, are laid out on the ground near the Capitol to demonstrate the loss of life in Afghanistan. "They're taking it to an extreme," says UT senior Jackie Sharfin. "But if my brother gets drafted, I'm going to start acting differently."