There Is Silence in the Streets; Where Have All the Protesters Gone?
By ANDREW ROSENTHAL
It was almost painful the other night to hear Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young sing about a war whose purpose Americans never really understood, started by a president who didn’t tell the truth and then waged the war ineptly. And that was before they sang about Iraq.
The audience rose for Neil Young’s blast at George Bush, “Let’s Impeach the President,” and sang the words displayed on a huge TV screen, even the 20-something in front of us who had been text-messaging throughout the concert. That same screen also displayed thumbnail photos of slain soldiers while a counter ran up the most recent toll. It takes longer than you might think to count to 2,600.
It was a surprisingly political moment for a rock concert in 2006. But when those four men sang their protest songs four decades ago, their lyrics echoed and personified a powerful political movement sweeping America. Now they are entertainment, something to leave behind in the concert hall.
There were a few political booths outside the Theater at Madison Square Garden. But the concert-tour T-shirt salesmen were getting all the business. The most noticeable sound was the cellphones being restarted by those few who had bothered to turn them off during the concert.
This, perhaps, is the ultimate difference between the Vietnam generation and the Iraq generation: When you hear Young and Company sing of “four dead in Ohio,” their Kent State anthem, it’s hard to imagine anyone on today’s campuses willing to face armed troops. Is there anything they care about that much?
Student protesters helped drive Lyndon Johnson — in so many ways a powerful, progressive president — out of office because of his war. In 2004, George W. Bush — in so many ways a weak, regressive president — was re-elected despite his war. And the campuses were silent.
There was a brief burst of protest when America first invaded Iraq. But if there is a college movement against the war, it’s hiding pretty well. Vietnam never had the moral clarity that the 9/11 attacks provided to this generation’s war. But in Iraq that proved to be a false clarity, and a majority of Americans now say they oppose the war and no longer trust Mr. Bush’s leadership of it.
But because there is no draft — a fact that Graham Nash noted sardonically on Sunday night — no young person has to fear being conscripted into the fight. It is hard to escape the conclusion that Americans find it much easier to stay silent when there is no shared sacrifice.
This war is also largely hidden from American eyes. Unlike Vietnam, when journalists were free to witness and record combat operations, the Pentagon controls access to American troops in Iraq and the images that come with it. The Pentagon banned press coverage of the flag-draped coffins returning home from Iraq. The president refused to attend the funerals of soldiers. Even the cost of this war was tucked from the very start into “supplemental bills” that magically don’t count toward the budget deficit.
The pressure to be silent is great. This week, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld compared critics of Mr. Bush’s Iraq policy to those who appeased Adolf Hitler. And antiwar protesters are told they’re un-American, cowardly and lending aid and comfort to terrorists.
But in the 1960’s and 1970’s, antiwar protesters were told they were un-American, cowardly and lending aid and comfort to Communists. Then, the personal and national cost of war grew so great that public outrage drowned out this sort of propaganda. Now, people find protesters vaguely embarrassing and don’t want to make too much noise. Outside the concert hall, a soldier who served in Iraq and now opposes the war said he wished Neil Young could be more “subtle.”
Mr. Young’s call for impeachment is over the top, and it’s certainly not subtle. But the anti-Vietnam protesters were not exactly masters of subtlety either. Bloggers say there is an antiwar movement online. Perhaps, but it takes crowds to get America’s attention. Just look at the immigration debate.
The noisy, annoying, unsubtle leaders of the protest lent courage to the rest of us to cut school and march in a few rallies.