Still protesting

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(Host) After the recent anti-war rallies, commentator Allen Gilbert wonders if the way our leaders look at world politics has changed since the days of the Vietnam era protests.

(Gilbert) My 17-year-old son and I were at two different antiwar rallies the other weekend. But I felt that we were in the same place. My son got up at 4:00 a.m. to board a bus with fellow students for the rally in New York. I needed to be in Vermont, but arranged my Saturday schedule so that I could attend the Montpelier rally.

As the Montpelier rally opened, I suddenly felt as though I were 17 again. I was at a protest rally against another war, the Vietnam War. A war that policy-makers couldn’t justify but yet insisted on sending young men off to fight and die in. If the draft were reinstated, my son would shortly face the same prospect I faced – of being asked to fight a war that can’t be justified.

I want to admit that a part of me feels uncomfortable at antiwar rallies. I value the solidarity that they provide. But I’m uncomfortable with the sense of black and white that they engender. Lines are drawn. There are no shades of gray. Either side – the protesters in the streets or the policy-makers in their offices – can say, “You’re with us or against us.” It becomes that simple.

Yet how we deal with others in the world isn’t that simple. Foreign policy has many facets. And William Sloan Coffin reminded the Montpelier rally of the difficulty of waging peace. He quoted the Thomas Mann observation that “War is the coward’s solution to the complex problem of peace.”

A major failing of U.S. policy-makers during the Vietnam War was that they refused to accept the complexity of the Southeast Asian situation. Former Defense Secretary Robert McNamara has admitted that both the Kennedy and the Johnson administrations horribly misjudged U.S. involvement in Vietnam. The release of the Pentagon Papers by Daniel Ellsberg provided documentation of what U.S. policy-makers didn’t want the rest of America to know at the time – that we were caught in an unwinnable situation in Vietnam.

I fear that current U.S. policy-makers may be making similar misjudgments about Iraq. They are already hiding behind spurious information. The other week at the U.N. Colin Powell cited “new information” – important intelligence from the British, he said – that showed Iraq’s “infrastructure of concealment, deception, and intimidation.” It turns out that this “intelligence” had been lifted from three previously published articles, one of them by a California postgraduate student. Whole sections were taken verbatim from the student’s paper. No attribution was given, the source wasn’t cited. Britain’s Channel 4 News broke the story of this amateurish plagiarism. Details can be found on the network’s web site.

It’s hard to trust the judgment of our leaders when they plagiarize the work of university students for rhetorical purposes. It’s the sort of over-reaching to justify the use of force that we saw during the Vietnam era. We paid a terrible price for that shortsightedness.

I’m proud that my son is opposing war with Iraq, and I was glad that I went to the antiwar rally in Montpelier. But I’m profoundly sad that nothing seems to have changed in 35 years.

This is Allen Gilbert.

Britain’s Channel 4 News is referenced in this commentary.

Allen Gilbert of Worcester is a writer and parent who is active in education issues.

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