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Iraq and Vietnam: contrasting protests

NEW YORK --America's current anti-war movement is resourceful and persistent, but often seems to lack the vibrancy of its counterpart in the Vietnam era when protesters burned draft cards, occupied buildings and even tried to levitate the Pentagon.

The biggest difference, say activists and historians, is the lack of a draft.

Today's college-age youth face no threat of conscription to fight in Iraq, and campuses are more tranquil than during Vietnam.

"We're not as unified, not as hard-core, not as big," said Frida Berrigan, 32, a board member of the War Resisters League and daughter of the late peace activist Philip Berrigan. "There's a reason there's not a draft."

Since Saturday, protests marking the fourth anniversary of the Iraq war have been held in hundreds of communities nationwide, ranging from small-town vigils in Maine to a "die-in" in San Francisco. Passions sometimes ran high and more than 100 protesters were arrested. But attendance in many cities was modest, no national turnout figure was announced, and at no point did the events come close to dominating the national agenda.

"There is tremendous anti-war sentiment in the country that has not all found its way into activism," said Leslie Cagan, a student protest organizer during the Vietnam War and now national coordinator of the anti-war coalition United for Peace and Justice.

"Our challenge is to tap into that sentiment and help people see legitimate, productive ways to express themselves," Cagan said. "Part of what we're up against is an attitude that you can't fight the powers that be."

With both Iraq and Vietnam, public opinion gradually shifted over the years until polls showed more opponents than supporters. In each era, protesters railed against White House determination to pursue the war regardless of widespread doubts.

But there are several key differences now: far lower U.S. casualties -- roughly 3,200 vs. about 58,000 then; less of the generational conflict that added fuel to the Vietnam protests; and, a desire by many anti-war leaders not to demonize the military.

"There's a lot of caution now," said David Schmitz, a history professor at Whitman College in Walla Walla, Wash. "Many people who oppose the war in Iraq are very concerned that they not be seen as being against the troops."

James Carafano, an Army veteran and defense policy expert at the conservative Heritage Foundation, said the contrast in attitudes toward the military is stark.

"During Vietnam, the perception was that atrocities were everywhere -- the military was looked down on," he said. "There is a serious effort now not to stigmatize the military -- a conscious effort to say, 'This is not a bunch of baby-killers.'"

For Vietnam protesters, the military served as a prime foil. Students demanded the ouster of ROTC programs from their campuses and protested at draft centers, chanting "Hell No, We Won't Go." Four days of demonstrations at Kent State University -- that included the burning of an ROTC building -- ended disastrously when National Guard gunfire killed four students in 1970.

Now campuses are quieter, and some liberal baby-boomer professors grumble that students are too detached. But 24-year-old Miranda Wilson, national campus coordinator for Peace Action, says such stereotyping is wrong and contends there is broad, though often low-key, opposition to the war.

"During Vietnam, people were questioning the government itself -- it got a lot more coverage," she said. "What's happening now isn't so dramatically visible from the outside."

Democratic Sen. John Kerry, who returned from Vietnam combat duty to join the anti-war movement, said the lack of a draft "has greatly affected the level of activism and the intensity" of today's protest campaign.

"Right now, it's not changing a lot of minds," he said in a telephone interview Tuesday. But the anti-war movement is "putting some pressure on people as they run for public office. It will help change the makeup of Congress -- it already has."

The Vietnam era featured larger-than-life figures -- Martin Luther King Jr., John Lennon, Muhammad Ali -- and colorful provocateurs such as Abbie Hoffman and Jerry Rubin. Hoffman masterminded the attempt to levitate the Pentagon in 1967; both were at the center of protests that sparked clashes with police at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago.

For all their intensity, however, the Vietnam protests failed to produce quick results, with U.S. troops pulling out six years after the first huge anti-war rallies in 1967. The effectiveness of the current movement remains to be judged; even some of its leaders sound unsure.

"The so-called normalcy of life allows people to go about their business, even if they're against the war," said Kevin Martin, executive director of Peace Action. "Meanwhile, Bush and Cheney don't care how low their popularity is -- they're going to keep doing what they're doing until someone stops them."

Barry Romo, who served with the Army in Vietnam, became an anti-war activist after his return home and remains a national leader of Vietnam Veterans Against the War.

While proud of the Vietnam protest movement, he says the Iraq anti-war campaign is even more impressive under the circumstances.

"It cuts across class lines," he said. "You see black churches and trade unions involved. When I go to demonstrations, it really is a rainbow."

Comparing the two movements, Frida Berrigan suggested today's protesters perhaps have a broader sense of compassion and global awareness.

"A lot of the opposition to Vietnam was motivated by people's fear of going to war -- maybe it was pretty self-centered," she said. "With this movement, maybe it's not as big, but it comes from a deeper place than 'Hell No, We Won't Go.'"