Perhaps it’s best to think of our historical opposition to war not as war protest but as draft protest.
I’ve been reading Jerome Marmorstein’s “War As a Disease Epidemic” lately with a student I teach over Skype. The article likens efforts at international peace to international public health initiatives and contains this passage:
One of the greatest human rights violations occurs when healthy young men are forced to “lill or be killed” by means of a military draft or conscription. Even during our Revolutionary and Civil Wars the military was primarily composed of volunteers as it has been in the last few decades. Military training during war and peace is a dehumanizing experience. Individual freedom and choice is replaced by being told when and what to eat; when to sleep and when to wake up; what clothes must be worn; where one must live and travel often causing long separations from spouse, family and children. Absolute unquestioning obedience to one’s superior officer results in the ultimate loss of individuality. It the military method would occur in civilian life, it would be immediately labeled as a human rights violation…
…Another undemocratic activity is that the decision to go to war has traditionally been the exclusive domain of the top national political leader, king, president or dictator. Even in democracies citizens usually have no voice in this life and death decision. Yet they are the ones who pay the price in terms of lives, disabilities and suffering.
Our forefathers recognized the unfairness of this power of leaving this life and death decision to just one individual. That is why our constitution provides that only the congressional representatives of our citizens have the right to vote for or against a declaration of war. However, since World War ll our presidents have gotten around this limitation by deploying military combatants around the world, as in Vietnam, and calling it a police action rather than a war. Once our troops are already in harm’s way, then the president will ask Congress to vote for war. By that time we are already involved.
I remember being in college when the U.S. invaded Iraq and not really caring too much. The few protesters at my campus bothered me far more than U.S. participation in yet another war. And let’s face it, we all saw it coming throughout the nineties. Saddam Hussein got what he deserved.
I wasn’t a callous monster by any means. I believed what Colin Powell said even though I was too young, inexperienced, and apathetic to really make that judgement, and most of the other students I knew felt the same way. In 2004, we voted accordingly.
We would have felt a lot different if our friends were coming home in body bags. For the most part, technology has allowed us to outsource war death along with everything else, and what little war death remains affects volunteers from income and education strata that rarely overlap with the contrarian intellectual ferment of university life. So there were no large-scale protests, even if cynicism is now widespread.
Reading the Marmorstein piece gave me an idea: perhaps the existence of a military draft is a necessary check on hasty participation in war. Our present lack of an egalitarian military – combined with political structures that favor war if only the Commander-in-Chief approves and a sufficient number of volunteers enlist (about half a percent of the total population currently serves in the military) – means we could go on bombing small poor country after small poor country for far long after even a democratic majority comes to oppose the activity.