Dan Lowenstein passionately opposes the war in Iraq and recently helped stage an antiwar teach-in at UC San Francisco. “We must listen to our conscience and speak out,” he told the hundreds of people who had gathered.
Lowenstein is no student organizer; he’s a noted professor and vice chairman of the department of neurology at UCSF.
Four years into the war, student protests at campuses across the country have been rare, but a handful of academics have begun speaking out and conducting studies within their own disciplines to make the case against the conflict.
Lowenstein, who took part in protests against the Vietnam War as a high school and university student in Colorado, says the absence of a draft and the lack of televised images of battlefield body bags or coffins coming home have helped keep protests to a minimum. He calls the conflict in Iraq “the silent war.”
At Harvard University, public policy professor Linda Bilmes has co-written a study that estimates the war will cost more than $1 trillion, far more than the Bush administration’s projections. Bilmes also addressed the teach-in, which was attended mostly by doctors and medical students.
“Why is there no outrage?” asked Bilmes, who was an assistant secretary of Commerce in the Clinton administration. “Why are the campuses not overflowing with students saying, ‘What is going on here?’ One answer is we are not seeing the true cost of the war.”
The lack of protest can be attributed in part to a change in character: Today’s students are more serious about getting a degree, entering the working world and making money. And, unlike the Vietnam War, the conflict in Iraq does not play out against a backdrop of civil rights protests and counterculture rebellion.
Furthermore, the Bush administration has been skillful in limiting the fallout at home by controlling visual images of the war dead and declining to release information on the number of Americans wounded or the number of Iraqi casualties. For example, in its count of the wounded, the Pentagon does not include soldiers who didn’t require an airlift to a military hospital.
As a result, some student activists find other issues easier to embrace. In May, dozens went on a hunger strike and disrupted a meeting of the UC Board of Regents over the university’s participation in the development of nuclear weapons. Eleven were arrested and hauled from the room.
In May, students at Stanford University staged a sit-in outside the president’s office to protest the use of sweatshop labor in the manufacture of apparel with Stanford’s logo. Outside, some students took off their clothes to draw attention to the issue. (A month earlier, students held a similar, but clothed, sit-in outside the president’s office at USC.) Later, Stanford worked out an agreement to address the students’ concerns.
Stanford student Daniel Shih, a leader of the protest, said he was certain that all of the sweatshop demonstrators opposed the war in Iraq. As a protest target, however, it seemed too distant, and ending it seemed unattainable.
“The war in Iraq is a huge issue, but it’s disconnected,” he said. “At this institution, we focus our influence on our administration’s policies. With the sweatshop campaign, we feel we can make concrete change.”
Mark Rudd, a leader of Students for a Democratic Society and the violent Weather Underground in the 1960s, said many of today’s students oppose the war but lack organizing skills and the belief that they can make a difference.
“There are a lot of people on campus who are antiwar, but they don’t know what to do,” said Rudd, who taught math at a community college in New Mexico for 25 years before retiring in December. “There has been a loss of that feeling that individual actions can mean something. It was the opposite in the ‘60s.”
But Rudd, who spent seven years underground in the 1970s, said he is optimistic that students will become more organized as the war continues; he noted that students on many campuses have begun forming new chapters of SDS.
Tom Hayden, a radical leader of the anti-Vietnam War movement who later served in the state Legislature, said the Bush administration has kept opposition to the war in check by minimizing its effect on the daily lives of Americans.
With today’s volunteer Army and the administration policy of repeatedly deploying the same units to Iraq, he noted, a relatively small part of the population is directly affected by the war. Hayden said he recently taught a class on Iraq at Pitzer College, and only one of his 38 students had a relative stationed there.
In the 1960s, the possibility of being drafted at the age of 18 -- before they could even vote in those days -- compelled students to decide where they stood on Vietnam. Being summoned for a dehumanizing pre-induction physical brought home the reality of the war.
The primary reason for the lack of protest “is the absence of a draft. Period. Full stop,” said Hayden, who recently wrote a book, “Ending the War in Iraq.” “If they instituted a draft, there would be 1,000 riots the next week.”
The involvement of academics in antiwar activities was evident at the UCSF teach-in.
Bilmes, the Harvard professor, told the audience of her $1-trillion to $2-trillion estimate of the cost of the war.
She said her assessment, co-written with Nobel Prize-winning economist Joseph Stiglitz of Columbia University, goes beyond combat operations to include such things as the replacement of military equipment, decades of medical benefits for badly injured vets and the social cost of not investing war funds in the U.S. economy.
“We have to ask, if we had known not only the human cost but the economic cost of this war four years ago, whether we would have invaded Iraq in the first place,” she said.
As the war drags on, Bilmes said later, more scholars are concluding that they must speak out.
“The faculty is waking up in the morning, feeling physically ill reading the newspaper,” she said. “They’re asking, ‘What can I do in my discipline?’ ”
The San Francisco audience also heard from three UCSF professors. One of them told of the psychological damage to children in war zones, and the other two described the high percentage of brain injuries suffered by American soldiers.
“The signature injury of this war is mild traumatic brain injury,” said professor Charles Marmer, vice chairman of the school’s department of psychiatry.
Dr. Richard Garfield, a professor of nursing at Columbia, outlined epidemiological studies in Iraq by U.S. and Iraqi doctors in 2004 and 2006 that concluded the Iraqi death toll was far higher than previously believed.
The 2006 study, which surveyed 1,849 randomly selected households in 47 Iraqi communities, concluded that 655,000 Iraqis had died as a result of the war. The total was 13 times higher than the highest estimates at the time.
The peer-reviewed study was published in the Lancet, the prestigious British medical journal, but was criticized by President Bush for using a flawed methodology.
Lowenstein said it was no coincidence that he and other physicians are becoming outspoken critics of the war. The public may be insulated from the war, he said, but doctors see the damage acutely.
“It’s not bubbling up from the students,” he said. “Faculty and staff who know the Vietnam era are much more aware. The parallels seem pretty obvious as we listen to the administration talk about the war in Iraq.”