Return of college peaceniks

Students join antiwar protests, but many are skeptical their action will alter US policy on Iraq.

It's a sun-drenched morning amid the red bricks and ivy of Harvard Square – and the signs of student protest against US policy on Iraq are sprouting fast.

"Drop Bush, not bombs," reads one placard. "Are we prepared to build Iraq after bombing?" says another – this one dangling around the neck of Harvard Divinity School student Brian Nichols.

He has just rolled out of bed and grabbed a granola bar, and is now taking a stand against President Bush's plans to attack Iraq, mostly, he says, over oil and "to distract from domestic issues."

And so it goes in the quadrangles, classes, and dorm rooms of this famously peace-loving enclave. It's a far cry from the massive draft-card-burning protests of the '70s, but debate about Iraq on America's college campuses is revving up fast.

And now the student protests are growing – including marches yesterday at Harvard University, New York University, Boston College, and several other schools. Suddenly the antiwar culture, with its teach-ins and talk of peace, draft dodging, and "American imperialists" is spreading across the nation's campuses – albeit with 21st-century twists.

• Peace petitions, for instance, are now posted on the Internet. One such document has some 19,000 student and faculty signatures – and receives a new one, on average, every 30 seconds.

• Some students are already talking about whether they would dodge a draft – and how. At Harvard, one junior jokingly wonders if the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy means he wouldn't be drafted if he claimed he was gay.

• Teach-ins have sprouted on campuses from Berkeley to Yale. Organizers of a recent session at Drury University in Springfield, Mo., expected 100 people – but 250 came and sat in the hot sun for three hours.

Clearly, without US troops being killed or hurt – or the serious prospect of a draft – the issue isn't fully consuming America's academic hubs. In fact, today's dorm-room discussions "are probably pretty much like those of 1964" – before President Johnson dramatically escalated the American presence in Vietnam, says Maurice Isserman, author of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s."

But more than just the Birkenstock-wearing neo-hippies are doing the protesting.

Take Nat Myers, a Harvard junior, who was at yesterday's protest. This sandy-haired son of diplomats grew up in embassies everywhere from Indonesia to India. He's more genial soccer player than tie-dyed Jimi Hendrix disciple. And his opinions fall somewhere in the middle of the campus mainstream.

He's pretty convinced Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein needs to be dealt with – somehow. "This is a conflict that probably should be fought ... probably," he says, still clearly wrestling with the idea.

Like many on campus, he's most uncomfortable with the approach President Bush is taking to the issue. "If this war was going to be fought by the United Nations – rather than having the UN bullied into it" by the US, it might be OK, he says.

He and others are skeptical of this administration – and worry that Iraq could be just the first target of Mr. Bush's new strike-first doctrine. He also has little faith in the America's commitment to nurturing stable governments after the fighting stops. "The US just has such a short attention span," he says, citing its meager nation-building in Afghanistan.

This hardy skepticism of government is actually a subtle – but significant – difference between today's students and those in the early days of the Vietnam era, observers say. In the early 1960s, the US government had a strong history of recent success – in World War II and the cold war, "So, it took a long time for students to think it was OK to oppose American foreign policy," says Professor Isserman, who teaches history at Hamilton College in Clinton, N.Y. But these days, students are quick to voice skepticism, partly because "Vietnam and Watergate have created a healthy distrust of authority."

Many students will likely be at big antiwar rallies planned for Oct. 26 in Washington, D.C. and San Francisco. Many already joined the so-called "Not in Our Name" protests that took place this weekend in New York, Los Angeles, and San Francisco.

But there's another key difference between the two generations – and it shows in Mr. Myers's attitude about the rallies. He says war with Iraq is probably "inevitable" – and that no amount of marching or chanting or drum-beating will likely change that.

Indeed, in this era of low voter turnout and the Supreme Court arbitrating the 2000 election, there's less '60s-style, make-love-not-war idealism, observers say. Many students "feel a great deal of alienation from the political process," says Jeffrey Murer, a political scientist at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania. The marginalization of such protests as the Million Mom March for gun control only furthers this cynicism, he says.

But just like their Vietnam-era counterparts, today's students are talking about the draft. One Harvard junior, who asked to remain anonymous, has already discussed it with his mom, who's a medical doctor. "If there's a draft, she's going to cut off my pinkie toe so I won't be eligible," he says resolutely. And he's not alone. A poll by Luntz Research found that 37 percent of college students would try to evade a draft – and another 19 percent would serve only if they were stationed inside the US.

Yet not everyone is opposed to military action in Iraq, preemptive or otherwise. "I would send in Delta Force snipers to get Saddam," says Ryan Nelson, a burly junior at Harvard and ex-ROTC member. "You know – one guy, one bullet, case closed."

Many students are more nuanced, evaluating issues beyond one ruler and one bullet. "I'm trying to figure out how we can stand responsibly as young people – and use the power of our superpower in a good way," says Jonathan Colon, an art major at the University of Massachusetts at Boston. "I mean, the identity of America is at stake here."

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