A Long Way From Baghdad: Young Adults Feel Removed From Iraq War

Dec. 21, 2005 — -- A generation ago, the country was aflame with activism. Young people rallied against the Vietnam War, staging sit-ins at their college campuses and declaring "Hell no, we won't go." But the war in Iraq, despite some similarities to the Vietnam conflict and growing discontent among the general population, appears not to have the same effect on people in their late teens and 20s.

"It seems like it's not in the forefront anymore. … Just a blip on the news," said Raeann Veneziale, 24, of Brook Park, Ohio. "It doesn't really affect day-to-day life."

Different Generations, Different Concerns

To be sure, there are some major differences between the Vietnam and Iraq wars. There is no draft and the electric atmosphere of 1960s activism is just a distant memory. Today's young adults grew up in a time of peace and prosperity, and are not sure what to make of the recent turmoil in the world.

It's a far cry from the late 1960s and early 1970s when opponents of the Vietnam War shut cities down. In 1968, anti-war protests outside the Democratic National Convention in Chicago resulted in 500 arrests and hundreds of injured police officers and protesters. About two years later, a campus protest turned into a national crisis when National Guard troops fired on protesting students at Kent State University in Ohio, killing four.

There have been several large-scale protests against the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, but none has matched the anger, urgency and frequency of the Vietnam War rallies.

Growing Discontent

A November poll conducted by ABC News and The Washington Post found that seven in 10 people called the level of U.S. casualties in Iraq unacceptable, and that 53 percent said the war was not worth fighting. In a 1968 Gallup poll, 54 percent of Americans said Vietnam was a mistake. By 1971, that number had risen to 61 percent.

But Cornell University government professor Elizabeth Sanders said the war had not taken enough of a toll to provoke a movement.

"We had 55,000 American deaths in Vietnam, and the war went on for over seven years," Sanders said. "Iraq casualties, for us, are still 'only' around 2,000, and the war is only 2 1/2 years old. If it goes on and on, and casualties continue to rise, we could begin to see Vietnam-style protest."

But most college students and recent graduates are going about their daily lives -- working hard and partying when they can.

"I haven't seen any activism. … There isn't on my campus," said Jonathan Reagan, a freshman at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell. "This war isn't going to go away any time soon, so why bother trying to protest it?"

For his part, 24-year-old Andrew Koop of Gainesville, Fla., tries to be active. He doesn't agree with the war and has started his own blog, "Throw Your Hatred Down," on the networking site Friendster.

"If you go out there and speak your mind, it can have a snowballing effect," he said

An Exciting Time

Reagan and Koop can rest assured that they probably will not be sent unwillingly to fight. Since the military draft ended in 1973, the United States has been protected by a volunteer military.

"The biggest of the factors [was] that there [was] no draft," said Cornell University government professor Ted Lowi, explaining the difference between today and Vietnam. In addition, he said "the [civil rights] movements created a national sense of shame we never had before."

Social consciousness, Lowi said, practically defined the baby-boomer generation -- almost to the point that it became a way of life.

"A lot of people got swept up in the fun of it, the excitement, and collectively being able to say 'no' to authority," said Walter Joly, a financial adviser who lives in Boston. He was a philosophy major at the University of Connecticut when President Johnson stepped up U.S. activity in Vietnam. One of his best friends fought with the Marines when both men were just 19.

Joly joined the anti-war movement partly for the "rock 'n' roll" aspect of it, partly because of his idealism, but mostly because he saw how it deeply affected his friend.

My friend "was shattered," Joly said. "The reason why people went to the wall in the '60s was … I think there were just a tremendous amount of people who were scared."

Retired teacher Phil Whitbeck remembers watching students march against the war on Boston's Commonwealth Avenue from his Boston University office. He took part in several peaceful demonstrations.

"I think the big thing was that the government wasn't telling us the truth," said Whitbeck, 64. "We were supporting corrupt regimes, and our government kept telling us that we were democratic and we didn't believe that for a minute. It just was ludicrous to me."

Whitbeck escaped the draft each year because he was a doctoral candidate and a father. One year, the deferment never came and he had to get the president of the college to write him a letter saying that he was vital to the institution.

Today, many young people -- especially the more affluent and college-educated -- do not know someone who has gone to war let alone have to face the possibility that they will be called to fight. Although some may not agree with it, few feel moved enough to truly make a stand against it.

"It's not that I don't want it to stop. I do want it to stop," said Reagan, a music major. "I think what we're doing there isn't really doing anything. Quite honestly, I don't really care. I could do stuff but I am in school, so it isn't like I have time to go in the streets and keep myself occupied by just protesting it."

Detachment Among the Young

If faced with a draft, Reagan said he might think differently. "I don't want to be anywhere near there," he said. "To have to kill a person? If the draft was reinstated, I would try some activism or something."

Katie Bonawandt is a veterinary student at Michigan State University where she said her academic pursuits consumed all her time.

"I would say most people don't spend any time doing anything about it or talking about it," said Bonawandt, 24. "Most people are not interested in discussing those matters."

She has no family or friends fighting in Iraq and said the war had not impacted her life one bit.

"I know that it is important and that people should be concerned about it," she said. "I just don't have the time so I assume that other people will voice their opinion for me because I am busy with graduate school."

Neil May's experience during the Vietnam War couldn't be more different.

"I was a long-haired hippy rock 'n' roller," said May, now a charismatic Catholic priest. He photographed the Kent State's Students for a Democratic Society -- a leading group in the anti-war movement -- and recalls violent demonstrations in front of the ROTC buildings. Sometimes, they were set on fire, he said.

"It was like a powder keg, building," said May, who stayed off campus the day of the shootings at the behest of his father, a police officer. "Kent -- it exploded."

Today, young adults are still trying to figure out how they should approach the war in Iraq. Should they care even if it doesn't directly affect them? What does it mean for their lives? Will the outcome change their future? These are real questions that trouble people like Andrew Koop.

"There seems to be a lot of unrest in people in general, but no clear voice," Koop said. "It's almost like [the war is] going on in the background. It's like the elephant in the room."

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