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Antiwar speakers on campus are lecturers, not students, this time

Absence of a draft and lack of televised war carnage have limited students' protests, an academic says.

July 05, 2007|Richard C. Paddock | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — Dan Lowenstein passionately opposes the war in Iraq and recently helped stage an antiwar teach-in at UC San Francisco. "We must listen to our conscience and speak out," he told the hundreds of people who had gathered.

Lowenstein is no student organizer; he's a noted professor and vice chairman of the department of neurology at UCSF.

Four years into the war, student protests at campuses across the country have been rare, but a handful of academics have begun speaking out and conducting studies within their own disciplines to make the case against the conflict.

Lowenstein, who took part in protests against the Vietnam War as a high school and university student in Colorado, says the absence of a draft and the lack of televised images of battlefield body bags or coffins coming home have helped keep protests to a minimum. He calls the conflict in Iraq "the silent war."

At Harvard University, public policy professor Linda Bilmes has co-written a study that estimates the war will cost more than $1 trillion, far more than the Bush administration's projections. Bilmes also addressed the teach-in, which was attended mostly by doctors and medical students.

"Why is there no outrage?" asked Bilmes, who was an assistant secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration. "Why are the campuses not overflowing with students saying, 'What is going on here?' One answer is we are not seeing the true cost of the war."

The lack of protest can be attributed in part to a change in character: Today's students are more serious about getting a degree, entering the working world and making money. And, unlike the Vietnam War, the conflict in Iraq does not play out against a backdrop of civil rights protests and counterculture rebellion.

Furthermore, the Bush administration has been skillful in limiting the fallout at home by controlling visual images of the war dead and declining to release information on the number of Americans wounded or the number of Iraqi casualties. For example, in its count of the wounded, the Pentagon does not include soldiers who didn't require an airlift to a military hospital.

As a result, some student activists find other issues easier to embrace. In May, dozens went on a hunger strike and disrupted a meeting of the UC Board of Regents over the university's participation in the development of nuclear weapons. Eleven were arrested and hauled from the room.

In May, students at Stanford University staged a sit-in outside the president's office to protest the use of sweatshop labor in the manufacture of apparel with Stanford's logo. Outside, some students took off their clothes to draw attention to the issue. (A month earlier, students held a similar, but clothed, sit-in outside the president's office at USC.) Later, Stanford worked out an agreement to address the students' concerns.

Stanford student Daniel Shih, a leader of the protest, said he was certain that all of the sweatshop demonstrators opposed the war in Iraq. As a protest target, however, it seemed too distant, and ending it seemed unattainable.

"The war in Iraq is a huge issue, but it's disconnected," he said. "At this institution, we focus our influence on our administration's policies. With the sweatshop campaign, we feel we can make concrete change."

Mark Rudd, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society and the violent Weather Underground in the 1960s, said many of today's students oppose the war but lack organizing skills and the belief that they can make a difference.

"There are a lot of people on campus who are antiwar, but they don't know what to do," said Rudd, who taught math at a community college in New Mexico for 25 years before retiring in December. "There has been a loss of that feeling that individual actions can mean something. It was the opposite in the '60s."

But Rudd, who spent seven years underground in the 1970s, said he is optimistic that students will become more organized as the war continues; he noted that students on many campuses have begun forming new chapters of SDS.

Tom Hayden, a radical leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement who later served in the state Legislature, said the Bush administration has kept opposition to the war in check by minimizing its effect on the daily lives of Americans.

With today's volunteer Army and the administration policy of repeatedly deploying the same units to Iraq, he noted, a relatively small part of the population is directly affected by the war. Hayden said he recently taught a class on Iraq at Pitzer College, and only one of his 38 students had a relative stationed there.

In the 1960s, the possibility of being drafted at the age of 18 -- before they could even vote in those days -- compelled students to decide where they stood on Vietnam. Being summoned for a dehumanizing pre-induction physical brought home the reality of the war.

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