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From his perch beneath the 17-foot American flag draped from University Hall, John Harvard might never have known that his country was again at war. On only one occasion this year were the statue’s thousands of daily passers-by confronted with the kind of protests common just 35 years ago, when violence escalated in Vietnam and calls for university reform remained unanswered. Although much has changed since students risked their college draft exemptions to stop war, this year’s unnerving quiet had little to do with distaste for protest.
Where Vietnam shook student confidence in their government, Sept. 11 taught them to distrust their own convictions. Many who might have protested war in Iraq before Sept. 11 became paralyzed by fear, haunted by the prospect that unnamed terrorist foes might find an armed ally in Baghdad. Students ignored their own misgivings until the first full day of the invasion, when 1,500 students, faculty and members of the community finally came together in the second-largest campus protest in Harvard history, larger than any during Vietnam. But that confident opposition was an exception. In the months before war, as sabers rattled in Washington and world respect for the U.S. plummeted, students were too ambivalent to act.
Divided and uncertain, most chose to discuss little and protest less. As a Crimson poll revealed this spring, Harvard students were twice as likely to oppose war as the American public, but as millions across the globe united in demonstrations on Feb. 15, the Yard lay cold and barren. The Harvard Initiative for Peace and Justice organized the only three campus protests that drew triple-digit student attendance, two of which were launched within a week of the invasion. No chants echoed in the Yard between October—when Congress granted Bush the full power to make war—and an “emergency rally” in March just days before the first major air strikes. Both noontime actions dissolved before dining halls stopped serving lunch, and neither drew significant media attention, even in local outlets.
Harvard students joined Congress in surrendering their relevance from October to March. The question of war might have disappeared entirely from the minds of some students were it not for a frustrated and vocal minority. Neighbors battled across the Yard with politically charged banners, peace symbols and the stars-and-stripes. One first-year’s call for “No War on Iraq” challenged a poster in the window directly above, which implored the U.S. to “Liberate Iraq.” War-related e-mails bloated student inboxes, sometimes a dozen in a day. Campus publications indulged the full spectrum of arguments for and against invasion, some subtle and others embittered, with all degrees of nuance and rhetorical flair in between.
But doubt reigned supreme even after invasion began. What was most remarkable about student opinion at Harvard on March 20, the first full day of bombing, was not that 56 percent opposed war—a far cry from the 94 percent of seniors who disapproved of U.S. policy in Vietnam in January 1968. More surprising, especially in the world’s most opinionated zip-code, was that only 41 percent took a strong stand either way, according to The Crimson’s poll. Apathy is a seductive explanation, but for the 37 percent of students who said they had close relatives or friends in the armed services who could be involved in combat, the war’s consequences were anything but abstract. In search of 11th-hour clarity, hundreds crammed into an Institute of Politics debate on the eve of invasion, only two days before spring break.
The bulk of the war passed while students were away, cementing the intellectual absence that for many had long preceded it. In some sense, the isolation students felt during spring break symbolized the futility and helplessness many experienced all year. War was long preached as an eventuality, and students only half-listened as rhetoric that first emphasized “regime change” shifted, only semantically, to a more benign emphasis on disarming Iraq and liberating its people. For those not silenced by challenges to their patriotism—less compelling on a Harvard campus that exiled ROTC almost 35 years ago—dissent was chilled by the possibility that Bush was not being deceitful, that Saddam did possess weapons of mass destruction and was cozy with al Qaeda.
Sept. 11 undermined traditional antiwar tenets while offering little to take their place. Weeks after the tragic attacks, a previously unimaginable 69 percent of students said they would support military action against the perpetrators. Terrorist hysteria quieted many who, before Sept. 11, would have rejected a pre-emptive war in Iraq that was based largely on exaggerated and unsubstantiated evidence. Party affiliation provided little guidance, as many who did not vote for Bush supported the invasion and others who gave Bush their votes came to question their decision.
Most students, unsure of how to react, did nothing. Traditional Harvard liberalism, activism and reasoned judgment each made their unceremonious retreats. All of this was invisible to John Harvard, of course, as he looked out on the small world of the Yard. Impervious to war and unrest alike, he sat silent and watchful, stilled by the American flag fluttering softly above his head.
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