Speak While Speech Still Counts

I WENT to my first anti-war protest two weeks ago in Boston. I didn't go intending to participate; I just happened to be in Boston near the Common, and I was curious to see who was making all the noise. Although I initially looked at the protest with an critical and skeptical eye, I quickly became impressed by the size and enthusiasm of the crowd, a group of people intent on revitalizing the activism of the 1960s.

A few days ago, I went to my second protest, this time in Harvard Yard. Just like the first time, I came upon it by chance, hearing the speeches reverberate through my Sever Hall classroom. I hadn't paid much attention to the posters publicizing the protest, even though I had decided that I oppose using war as an instrument of our Gulf policy; it was the end of the semester, and I was distracted.

Still, I chose to stay around for a while and lend support. I heard a couple of speeches and a smattering of applause, but no real commitment from the crowd. Even the hawkish pro-intervention demonstrators in the background seemed to lack real conviction.

Just a few months ago the Lampoon staged a rally in the same place to celebrate Harvard's first-place finish in the annual U.S. News ranking of universities. The turnout at their rally was one of the largest in recent memory. It was disturbing that the crowds could get more excited about screaming "Hurray for Harvard" than about yelling "Peace now!" (or "Love it or leave it," for that matter).

I did not stay at the anti-war protest very long. The air of apathy bothered me and, in all honesty, I felt drawn to do all those errands that I was supposedly required to do as a Harvard student--class, a fellowship application, homework. Excuses.


RIGHT now, we Harvard students have the luxury of not having to make a choice about the impending war. For most of us, the military build-up in the Gulf simply does not directly affect our daily lives, so many of us do not feel compelled to take a side. We can run about buying Secret Santa gifts and writing term papers and not realize how close we are to war. But the deadline approaches rapidly.

No one knows what the next 30 days will bring. One hopes they will bring a peaceful settlement to the crisis. But here is another, more likely scenario:

January 15: Peace talks between Saddam Hussein and U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker and go nowhere. Bush invades Kuwait before Congress gets around to stopping him. In the next few days, peace protests on campus multiply--larger and more urgent than those we see now, but still accompanied by small counter-demonstrations and lacking any significant following.

February 15: War still rages in the desert. Casualties mount. The hostilities make it impossible for the armed forces to recruit. The promise of job training doesn't help anymore, and not even appeals to patriotism are enough to fill the ranks. Bush reinstates the draft. In keeping with the spirit of the Selective Service Act, there are no exemptions for students.

Within hours, Harvard Yard is crowded with peace protesters. Within a few days, students storm University Hall and shut down the College. Police and National Guard units finally restore order, at least until the first draft notices appear at doorsteps.

SOUND unrealistic? Hardly. The example of Vietnam War protests is similar. At Harvard and elsewhere across the nation, anti-war protests became really serious only when students became threatened with induction into the military. They virtually disappeared when the draft ended in 1973--well before the hostilities in Southeast Asia ended in 1975.

The simple, sad fact is that very few of us at Harvard will put ourselves out on the line unless we realize that our plans for med school or law school are going to be interrupted. We can talk disinterestedly about the merits or follies of Bush's gulf policy as long as we do not have to go to war. Bush undoubtedly realizes that putting middle-class lives on the line is the surest way to provoke a political backlash against his Gulf policy; that's why, realistically, the draft is unlikely.

We can send the volunteer armed forces overseas as our mercenary army and not really feel threatened. It is so much easier when these poor, unemployed, under-educated, minority "volunteers" fight for us. We can hire them to fight in our place, and as the ruling class and not the warrior class, we never have to deal directly with the consequences of our decisions.

The time has come for us all to put ourselves on the line morally. If you favor using war to oust the Iraqis, fine; the nice people at the armed forces recruitment station will be happy to take your enlistment papers. If you're willing to sacrifice someone else's life, you should be willing to make the same sacrifice.

If you oppose this war on moral grounds, come out and say so now. January 15--and certainly February 15--will be too late. If you come out against war only after a war or a draft starts, you will merely be a hypocrite and an opportunist, as well as a coward.

Whatever you think about the crisis in the Gulf, it is time to stand up and be counted. War is as near as final exams.