66% of Americans currently oppose the war in Iraq, yet there is little of the public outrage that spilled into the streets during the Vietnam era. As discussed in a previous post, one explanation lies in questionable media coverage of the conflict. Another factor is the lack of a Selective Service draft. The draft was activated for the Vietnam conflict in December of 1969 with a birth-date lottery for men 19-25 years of age. A protest movement that had been forceful and wide-ranging grew even more powerful as anti-draft demonstrations began in 1967.
Today’s American Military is an all volunteer force. Soldiers, sailors, and marines come from all areas of the country and, for the most part, all strata of society (although the very rich and very poor are under-represented). Most Americans know someone who has served in the conflict. However, a draft increases the scope of war beyond that of volunteers to the families of all American men between the ages of 18 and 25.
If one is eligible for conscription or has a son, nephew, or cousin who is draft-able, perceptions of and responses to war are likely to change. The conflict then becomes an active, harsh reality. The engagement is suddenly tactile and palpable. Simply, a draft brings the war into more American households. At that point, “Whatever” or “That’s a shame” can easily turn into, “Hell, no.” Self interest is a powerful motivator.
In Farenheit 9/11, Michael Moore questioned members of the 2003 Congress and found: “Out of the 535 members of Congress, only one had an enlisted son in Iraq.” (Give Democrat Sen. Tim Johnson and his son credit here, as well as John McCain, whose son is also serving in Iraq. At least he practices what he preaches.) Common sense suggests “leaders” would be more wary of commiting troops if their sons and daughters were eligible to face fire. Average citizens who oppose the war might be more inclined to take to the streets in protest if someone in their family was ticketed for Iraq via a draft. And one can question if those in favor of the war would continue to be so if their children might be sent to fight. The all-volunteer force allows a luxury of distance for those those not directly connected to a volunteer serviceman or servicewoman.
That distance did not exist in the Vietnam era. One-third of those serving there were drafted. But another important consideration is the size and nature of the respective conflicts. Vietnam’s reverberations through American society were much greater than we are experiencing with the Iraq war. In 1969, troop levels In Vietnam peaked at 543, 000, over three times the highest levels in Iraq (170,000). Over 50, 000 Americans were killed in Vietnam, with over 300, 000 were wounded. In Iraq, the numbers are considerably less, with just over 4000 dead and 29, 000 wounded to date. The war in Vietnam touched more American families in negative ways. Publicly displayed opposition to that conflict corresponds proportionately in size and scope to that of Iraq.
Protests against Vietnam were widespread and often large. April 15, 1967, 500,00 gathered in New York’s Central Park and marched to the UN to rail against Vietnam. In April of 1969, 250, 000 marched to protest the Vietnam war in New York. In November of 1969, 250, 000 demonstrators gathered in Washington, DC. An April 24, 1970, another 200,000 protested in Washington, while 156, 000 marched in San Francisco. 2005 and 2007 protests against Iraq drew more than 150, 000 in Washington. But the ferocity, volume, and effectiveness of protest in the Vietanm era was much greater than found today. Just a glance at the archive of the UCal Berkely Libraary Media Resource Center (the source of the above statistics) will confirm that.
One fact remains clear: The impact of the war in Iraq on the home front today is considerably less than Vietnam’s was in the ’60’s and early ’70’s. This is reflected by a lack of publicly expressed outrage and civil disobedience. Troop levels, the number of killed and wounded, the Selective Service draft, and media coverage all contribute to the difference. There is less protest today, and the protest which has occurred has been ineffective. The 2006 midterm elections, which were considered a referendum on the war and resulted in a stronger Deomcratic voice in Congress (gaining six senate and 29 house seats), has done nothing to slow down American involvement in Iraq. In fact, the current “surge” strategy escalated our presence there.
The American people have a voice. But Iraq protests and demonstrations have been few and ineffective. The citizenry spoke in the 2006 midterms and it proved to be a whisper. The upcoming Presidential election will give Americans another chance to express their opposition through action, with clear choices cut along Democratic and Republican lines. It may be the public’s last chance to effect Iraq war policy. At the conflict’s current level with an all volunteer force, the Iraq war just does not generate the amount of outrage needed to fuel political change.