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Where's the protest?

The war in Iraq is as unpopular today as the Vietnam War was at its height -- yet there are no mass demonstrations on America's streets. Can an antiwar movement confined largely to the Internet and the voting booth change the course of a war?

ON MARCH 22, 2003, two days after the start of the bombing campaign that began the US-led invasion of Iraq, more than 100,000 people took to the streets of New York City in protest. At a rally there the month before, organizers had claimed that a crowd of 350,000 had shown up, and twice in the previous six months tens of thousands of antiwar protesters had rallied on the National Mall in Washington against what already seemed an inevitable war. In mid-February, one million antiwar protesters had marched in London and another million in Rome. And in the invasion's opening weeks, American antiwar activists promised to continue their own fight with a campaign of civil disobedience: In San Francisco, Chicago, and Boston, traffic slowed to a halt as protesters blocked major intersections, waiting to be hauled away by police.

At the time, the war's opponents may have still been a minority among Americans, but they were making themselves seen and heard. The day after the March 22 demonstration in New York, the Columbia University sociologist Todd Gitlin, who as an undergraduate had helped lead protests against the Vietnam War as president of Students for a Democratic Society, wrote in an opinion piece in The Los Angeles Times that the anti-Iraq war movement had "mushroomed into a global force unprecedented in speed and scale."

That the bombs were falling in the first place showed the limits of that force, but there was nevertheless a sense of momentum. During the Vietnam War, by comparison, the country didn't see major demonstrations until the US intervention was several years old and deeply unpopular. If millions worldwide were mobilizing at a time when polls showed 70 percent of Americans supported the invasion of Iraq, one would only expect the demonstrations to grow if the public mood shifted.

Today, of course, public anger and frustration over Iraq is the dominant issue as the country heads into Tuesday's midterm congressional elections, in which Democrats are expected to make significant gains. A USA Today/Gallup Poll released late last month showed that 58 percent of Americans now think invading Iraq was a "mistake" -- the same level of antiwar sentiment that polls found in 1968, when the country was convulsed by some of the largest antiwar demonstrations in its history.

And yet since the start of the Iraq war -- and the loss of more than 2,700 American, and untold Iraqi, lives -- the country hasn't witnessed anything analogous to the mass demonstrations of the Vietnam era. There have been rallies and marches -- including one last year in Washington that drew an estimated 100,000but nothing that captured the public attention like the march on the Pentagon, the demonstrations at the 1968 Democratic National Convention, and the nationwide Moratorium of 1969, or the massive protests triggered by President Nixon's decision to expand the Vietnam War into Cambodia.

In 1969, as George Herring, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Kentucky and a leading authority on the Vietnam War, points out, "there were big demonstrations not only in San Francisco and Boston, but in cities like Lexington." And when the bombing of Cambodia began, "there were protests all over, campuses closed down all over the country, even in its most conservative areas."

Why is it, then, that at a time when the Iraq war has grown as unpopular as Vietnam was in the late 1960s, we don't see the same sort of antiwar movement? Historians, political scientists, and activists offer a mix of answers: There's no draft; Iraq is a thornier problem than Vietnam; the '60s, politically and socially, were an anomaly.

Activists respond that they have simply changed tactics, working within the political system rather than trying to radically change it, campaigning and fund-raising online rather than taking to the streets. "This is 2006," says Michael McPhearson, executive director of Veterans for Peace, "and that was the 1960s and early '70s. You do see protests, you do see resistance, you just see it in a different context."

Some observers, however, wonder whether today's antiwar protesters, with their pragmatism and technological sophistication, have broadened their reach -- bringing the movement into the voting booth -- or have rendered themselves largely invisible to the country at large, merely inventing better ways of talking to people who already agree with them.

. . .

The most commonly heard reason for the lack of large-scale domestic protests against the Iraq war is the absence of a draft. During Vietnam, the draft transformed a war that otherwise would have had little effect on the everyday lives of most Americans into a matter of life or death for the nation's young men. "The draft was a huge magnifier," Gitlin says. "It convinced people that they had a stake even if they didn't necessarily have a position."

"The idea that you're going to get drafted, or your kids sent off, created all this energy in the middle class," says Michael Lind, a fellow at the New America Foundation and the author of the 1999 book "Vietnam: The Necessary War."

But according to John Mueller, a political science professor at Ohio State who has written on foreign policy and public opinion, even a draft and an unpopular war don't necessarily make for a protest movement. As he points out, a majority of Americans also disapproved of the Korean War, at a time when the draft was in effect and the casualty lists were long. And while Korea cost President Harry Truman politically, nothing like the anti-Vietnam War movement emerged.

Indeed, it may be the case that the Vietnam War, and the cultural and political forces of the 1960s, were an anomaly. Many of the leaders of the anti-Vietnam movement had cut their teeth in the civil rights movement, and had a particular faith in the power of civil disobedience and mass demonstrations. In addition, according to Michael Kazin, a Georgetown historian and coauthor of "America Divided: The Civil War of the 1960s," the legacy of the Freedom Riders and the great civil rights marches had imparted a sense of "stark moral choices."

"Either you were on the side of moral equality, of treating everyone decently in the world," Kazin says, "or you were on the side of imperialism and racism."

Some historians suggest that it isn't simply the politics of the day that separate Vietnam and Iraq -- the wars themselves are vastly different, as are the stakes of success or failure. The fall of South Vietnam after the US withdrawal was bloody, but what emerged was a united and stable country. In Iraq, the all-out civil war that many fear would follow an American withdrawal -- as well as the fear that a collapsed Iraq could destabilize the Middle East and serve as an incubator for terrorism -- makes it harder for activists to rally behind a coherent position.

Today's activists bristle at the suggestion that, whatever the reason, their efforts fail to measure up to that of their forebears. They point to those demonstrations they have managed to hold in cities like New York and Washington since the start of the war. What's more, says Michael McPhearson of Veterans for Peace, "there are all sorts of ways to protest."

Bob Edgar, the general secretary of the National Council of Churches, an organization of mostly mainline Protestant denominations prominent in both the anti-Vietnam and anti-Iraq war movements, argues that much of the energy that formerly would have gone into demonstrating now finds its way online. On sites like DailyKos and MoveOn.org, petitions are circulated, blog posts read and responded to, and funds are raised for antiwar candidates like Connecticut Senate hopeful Ned Lamont. In general, Edgar says, there's "a hugely successful silent antiwar movement."

The difference in means, some of today's antiwar leaders argue, reflects a difference in ends as well. Many activists today are at pains to differentiate themselves from the self-proclaimed radicals who nurtured and led the anti-Vietnam War movement. For these earlier activists, protesting the war was part of a larger critique of Western capitalism and American hegemony, and of a two-party political system at home that didn't offer any meaningful choices -- after all, they argued, the Democrats had gotten the country into Vietnam in the first place.

Tom Andrews, national director of Win Without War, a coalition of antiwar organizations that includes MoveOn, the Sierra Club, the NAACP, and the National Council of Churches, contrasts the "high level of cynicism with politics in the 1960s" with today's antiwar movement, which has embraced electoral politics. "People go to the street when they think there's no alternative," he argues. "I think that people in the anti-Iraq war movement believe that our voices will be heard on Tuesday."

. . .

Still, some observers are skeptical that a virtual, and largely invisible, antiwar movement can stand in for the more old-fashioned kind. Richard Davis, a political scientist at Brigham Young University and author of the book "The Web of Politics: The Internet's Impact on the American Political System," argues that the reach of online organizing in particular is inherently limited, because "it's being done in places where the vast majority of Americans don't go."

"Most Americans," Davis says, "don't go to the blogosphere, they don't read websites by left-wing groups. So it's sort of ghettoized."

Rick Perlstein, author of "Before the Storm," a history of the rise of conservativism in the 1960s, argues that the ease of using the Web also lowers the stakes of protest. "Throwing up a blog on the Web," he suggests, is hardly the same "as young women sticking flowers in the barrels of national guardsmen's rifles, or young men taunting and daring the guardsman to shoot."

Andrews and other activists respond that their protest won't be merely virtual -- rather, in swaying elections, it has real-world effects. Nevertheless, he predicts, if the midterm elections don't go their way, or if Democrats take back Congress but fail to change the course of America's Iraq policy, "then you're going to see a lot more action on the street."

Interestingly, what that would accomplish is far from certain. To this day, one of the great debates among historians of the Vietnam War is whether the antiwar movement, for all its sound and fury, actually helped hasten the end of the war. At the antiwar movement's height, Kentucky's George Herring points out, public disapproval of the protesters was higher than public disapproval of the war itself. And today, as Ohio State's John Mueller notes, despite the lower profile of the protests against the Iraq war, the American public has turned against the war far more quickly, in terms of the cost in American lives, than it did in Vietnam -- it took a tenth as many casualties for the public to turn against the war in Iraq.

Why that is Mueller can only guess. But it does show one thing. "You don't need an antiwar movement for people to turn against a war," he says. "What you need is the war."

Drake Bennett is the staff writer for Ideas. E-mail drbennett@globe.com.

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