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Go to: spiked-central spiked-politicsColumnJennie Bristow

Column
2 April 2003Printer-friendly versionEmail a friend

The Sixties, and the cynics
Today's peace movement has nothing in common with the protests against the Vietnam War.


'It's not yesterday's peace movement', claimed a perceptive article published on the online magazine Alternet.org in January. (1) From the moment the US/UK coalition geared up for Gulf War II, comparisons with Vietnam have been flying around like desert sand.

For the US establishment, every minor military mistake raises the spectre of the 'Vietnam Syndrome' - the great national humiliation, in which mighty America waged a brutal nine-year war in the jungle of South-East Asia, and lost. Meanwhile, everything from the size of the recent anti-war protests to the apparent internationalism of the movement to the numbers of young people attending them has drawn excited comparisons with the mass demonstrations against the Vietnam War in the late 1960s.

But there is little comparison between the Vietnam War and Gulf War II, and even less between the Sixties anti-war movement and today's 'Not in my name' campaign. Attempts to draw such parallels indicate just how far the radicalism associated with the Sixties has degenerated.

America's Vietnam War lasted from 1964 to 1973. The USA intervened in this conflict to prop up the stooge government of South Vietnam, against the communist North. It dropped seven million tons of bombs on Vietnam - approximately one 500lb bomb for every man, woman and child in the country - and employed a form of chemical warfare that devastated the country.

Out of a population of around 18million people, at least two million were killed. As the US campaign struggled, it extended the conflict to other countries, with the illegal bombing of Cambodia. The strength of Vietnam's national liberation movement, supported by the Soviet Union and China, resulted in a 58,000 US military fatalities, caused America's eventual withdrawal, and brought victory to the North in 1975.

The way the Vietnam War is now presented, it seems only logical that this barbaric and hopeless war should have sparked mass outrage and revulsion in the USA. But opposition to the war emerged very slowly. It only reached a mass scale after the USA had experienced major military setbacks, and the body bags started coming home.

By the Tet offensive of 1968, where the liberation movement staged uprisings in the major cities, US fatalities had already passed 40,000, and more than 250,000 had been wounded in action. From this point, influential voices in the American establishment began questioning the wisdom of pursuing this war; by 1970, mass anti-war protests reached their peak.

It is now often assumed that the anti-war movement caused the end of America's involvement in the war, three years later. In fact, the relative strength of the Vietnamese liberation movement, coupled with the growing disquiet within the US establishment about its own ability to finish what it had started, played a far more pivotal role in causing the USA's withdrawal from Vietnam. Yet the significance of the Sixties anti-war movement was broader than the war.

The counterculture messages gave the Sixties movement its edge
From civil rights to women's equality, this was part of a radical movement for political change, motivated by deep disillusionment with the status quo. Dominated by privileged young people within the elite universities, it represented a deep distaste for the best that US society had to offer among the elite-in-waiting: an opting-out of America's values and institutions by the very people to whom the US establishment would look to carry on those values, and lead those institutions.

The swathe of draft-dodgers refusing to fight for their country was the starkest illustration of this. Those young middle-class men who previously would have been charged with leading the troops into battle simply refused to fight for their country, as the draft-dodgers' cry ('Hell, no! We won't go!) reverberated through what would once have been the officers' class. The USA, and other Western elites, were witnessing not a revolution from below, so much as a revolt from within. 'We have lost our children', as one grandee famously observed.

This was what accounted for the impact that the Sixties anti-war movement had upon the elite - but it was also the movement's weakness. While it was deeply critical of Western values and culture, the movement's partial, individualist character meant that it could not consolidate a more profound movement for social change.

The positive radicalism of civil rights and anti-militarism did not translate into a far-reaching political programme - at best, it effected particular political and cultural reforms; at worst, it formed the basis for divisive identity politics and a celebration of alienation. From feminist separatists to hippy dropouts and self-indulgent hedonists, the movement soon fragmented. But the abiding sense of disaffection with the traditional values associated with the West, the underlying loss of faith in the system, lived on: through a generation of intellectuals, politicians, educators and commentators, whose view of the world was forged in disenchantment.

How does this relate to now? The young people amassing in Western capital cities, bedecked with peace-symbol face-paint and frolicking in the spring sunshine, might have looked like a modern caricature of the Summer of Love. The self-conscious diversity of the crowd may have breathed the spirit of anti-conformity; the thoroughly middle-class respectability of the protesters shows that this is not a revolution from below, but a collective complaint from the higher echelons of society.

But the superficial comparisons with the Sixties disguise the major difference: the absence of anything positive.

'Unlike the 1960s, today's movement is more diverse, with a clearer political agenda unblurred by counterculture messages', writes Rene Ciria-Cruz, explaining why 'It's not yesterday's peace movement' (2). In fact, it was these counterculture messages that gave the Sixties movement its edge. The protests were against war, for civil rights, for women's equality, for free love - for whatever you like, but they were for something.

Yesterday's peace movement may have balked at social revolution, but it certainly embraced radical change, at the level of overthrowing existing values and traditions. And they had every intention of taking responsibility for that change.

They could at least imagine a better world
Today's movement, by contrast, is for absolutely nothing. What Ciria-Cruz mistakes for a 'clearer political message' is the fact that those on the protests have nothing to say except 'No War (without the backing of the United Nations)'. Ciria-Cruz heralds the replacement of the slogan 'Make love, not war' with 'a politically prim makeover: "Make peace, not war"'. In fact, most such slogans on display in the UK seem to read 'Make tea, not war' - which amounts to the same kind of dull inanity. A collection of individuals agreeing only on the fact that war is nasty bears no comparison to the countercultural force of three decades ago.

As for leadership and responsibility - the definining slogan of today's anti-war movement is 'Not in my name'. 'Hell, no! We won't go!' showed the refusal of the Sixties draft-dodgers to put their lives at risk for a value-system with which they disagreed. 'Not in my name' is about refusing even to spectate.

The notion seems to be that, if something is wrong, you simply disengage - shut your eyes and refuse to be a party to the unpleasantness. It's more akin to the suburban slogan of the Nineties, 'Not in my back yard', under which rallying cry roads can be built, asylum seekers housed and landfill sites created, so long as they do not directly affect you the individual. Today's anti-war movement is not against war because it wants to change things for the better. It is against this war because it fears that all will be for the worse, and does not want to imagine itself as part of that change.

Protest, in the Sixties, was a young person's game. The movement was naive, inexperienced and in many ways superficial - but it was also energetic, idealistic, and resonated with a love of life and a desire to make it better. The Sixties students saw themselves as the future, and fought for a future shaped by themselves, their own values and their own beliefs. They could at least imagine a better world, however utopian.

Today, it seems, protest is a children's crusade. The anti-war movement, cynical and disenchanted, waits for school students to take the centre stage, then applauds their energy and lack of ideas. The children, it is said, are the future - but only in the sense that they will be the victims in the mess of war. There is no energy behind a movement that slouches in the wake of exuberant teenagers, and there is no idealism behind a movement whose rallying cry is a negative, alienated 'Not in my name'. Fearing the future, they imagine nothing progressive.

If the Sixties anti-war protests were fuelled by disenchantment, the current movement is fired by despondency. John Lennon would turn in his grave.

Read on:

spiked-issue: War on Iraq

(1) It's Not Yesterday's Peace Movement, Alternet.org, 2 January 2003

(2) It's Not Yesterday's Peace Movement, Alternet.org, 2 January 2003

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