We are groomed to celebrate, and be desensitized to, slaughter.
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[Note for TomDispatch Readers: Think of today's dispatch as part two of my summer memoirs. In a way, it tells the tale of how I came to write my idiosyncratic history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. Note that for a contribution of $100, you can get a personalized, signed copy of that book from me and in the process help support this website. Check out our donation page for the details and while you're there note what a range of signed books are available for donations, including Susan Southard's powerful new account of how this world entered the atomic age, Nagasaki: Life After Nuclear War. Tom]
Where Did the Antiwar Movement Go?
War, Sunny Side Up, and the Summer of Slaughter (Vietnam and Today)
By Tom Engelhardt
Let me tell you a story about a moment in my life I'm not likely to forget even if, with the passage of years, so much around it has grown fuzzy. It involves a broken-down TV, movies from my childhood, and a war that only seemed to come closer as time passed.
My best guess: it was the summer of 1969. I had dropped out of graduate school where I had been studying to become a China scholar and was then working as a "movement" printer -- that is, in a print shop that produced radical literature, strike posters, and other materials for activists. It was, of course, "the Sixties," though I didn't know it then. Still, I had somehow been swept into a new world remarkably unrelated to my expected life trajectory -- and a large part of the reason for that was the Vietnam War.
Don't get me wrong. I wasn't particularly early to protest it. I think I signed my first antiwar petition in 1965 while still in college, but as late as 1968 -- people forget the confusion of that era -- while I had become firmly antiwar, I still wanted to serve my country abroad. Being a diplomat had been a dream of mine, the kind of citizenly duty I had been taught to admire, and the urge to act in such a fashion, to be of service, was deeply embedded in me. (That I was already doing so in protesting the grim war my government was prosecuting in Southeast Asia didn't cross my mind.) I actually applied to the State Department, but it turned out to have no dreams of Tom Engelhardt. On the other hand, the U.S. Information Agency, a propaganda outfit, couldn't have been more interested.
Only one problem: they weren't about to guarantee that they wouldn't send a guy who had studied Chinese, knew something of Asia, and could read French to Saigon. However, by the time they had vetted me -- it took government-issue months and months to do so -- I had grown far angrier about the war, so when they offered me a job, I didn't think twice about saying no.
Somewhere in that same year, 1968, I joined a group called the Resistance and in an elaborate public ceremony turned in my draft card to protest the war. For several years, I had been increasingly involved in antiwar activism, had marched on the Pentagon in the giant 1967 processional that Norman Mailer so famously recorded in Armies of the Night, and returned again a year or two later when, for the first time in my life, I got tear-gassed.
For a while, I had also been working as a draft counselor with a group whose initials, BDRG, I remember. A quick check of Google tells me that the acronym stood for the Boston Draft Resistance Group. Somewhere in that period, I helped set up an organization whose initials I also recall well: the CCAS. Though hardly an inspired moniker, it stood for the Committee of Concerned Asian Scholars. (That "concern" -- in case it's not clear so many years later -- involved the same war that wouldn't end.) With a friend, I designed and produced its bulletin. As one of those "concerned scholars," I also helped write a group antiwar book, The Indochina Story, which would be put out by a mainstream publishing house.
Of course, there's much that I've forgotten and I can't claim that all of the above is in perfect order. Even at the time, life was a blur of activism. Nearly half a century later, I'm a failing archive of my own life and so much seems irretrievable.
My intention here, however, is simply to offer a sense of how so many lives came, in part or in whole, to revolve around that war, while other things went by the wayside. It's true that our government hadn't mobilized us, but we had mobilized ourselves. Though much has been written about "dropping out" in the 1960s, this antiwar form of it has been far less attended to.
Images of War
So much of what I'm describing must seem utterly alien today. At a time when America's endless wars might as well be millions of miles from our shores (and the national security state desperately needs a few "lone-wolf" Islamic terror types to drive home how crucial it is to our protection), it's hard to remember how large the Vietnam War once loomed in our national life. In this age in which Americans have been demobilized from the wars fought in our name, who recalls how many people took to the streets how repeatedly in those Vietnam years, or how much the actions of our government were passionately debated from Congress to kitchens, or how deeply plagued and unnerved two American presidents were by the uproar and fuss? Who remembers how little the antiwar movement of that moment was a weekend operation and how central throwing some kind of monkey wrench into that war became to so many lives?
Much of the tenacious antiwar opposition of that era, when thought about now, is automatically attributed to the draft, to the fact that young men like me were subject to being called up and sent thousands of miles from home to fight in a conflict that looked more brutal, despicable, and even criminal by the second. And there is, of course, some truth to that explanation, but it's a very partial, dismissive truth, one that, for instance, doesn't explain the vast number of young women who mobilized against the war in those years.
While the draft was a factor in the growth of war consciousness, it was hardly the only one. It's easy to forget that a generation raised in the Golden Fifties believed the American system would work for them and that, if it didn't, it was the obligation of the citizen to try to fix it. Those young people were convinced that, if you spoke up loudly enough and in large enough numbers, presidents would listen. They also believed that you, as an American, had an obligation to step forward, to represent the best in your country, to serve. Hence my urge to join the State Department. In other words, I came from a generation primed -- in part by the successes of the Civil Rights Movement (when it seemed that presidents were listening) -- to believe that, in a democratic country, protest worked.
Of course, by the time the antiwar movement took off, it was hardly stylish to admit to such sentiments of service, but that didn't make them less real. They were crucial to a passionate protest that began mainly with students but grew to include everyone from clergy to businessmen, and that, in its later years, would be led by disillusioned military veterans home from the country's Southeast Asian battlefields.