I am participating in a panel discussion on Friday as part of the 40th reunion of my class at the University of Chicago. I will be the token conservative pitted against three “progressives” who participated in the various building occupations, teach-ins, and demonstrations that took place in 1967-8, mostly directed against the war in Vietnam. To help prepare, I have been reviewing a number of the samizdat documents that were produced at that time featuring personal commentaries by many of the participants in the struggle against selective service.
Many of the pieces are quite eloquent in their denunciations of war, but what has surprised me most is, first of all, the almost complete ignorance of what Vietnam specifically was all about, so much so that the war is almost viewed as an abstraction. Almost no one argues whether or not the United States might have had a genuine national interest in resisting the spread of communism. No one seemed to care. Second, I find that nearly all the personal accounts of conscientious objection, draft resistance, and flight to Canada come down to “I don’t want to fight.” This suggests that the failure of the peace movement these days, in spite of Iraq being a war less defensible based on national interest than was Vietnam, is due to the fact that very few Americans have a personal stake in it. If college students were getting drafted to fight it, the war would be over tomorrow. I know that this does not constitute a unique insight on my part, but it does confirm my personal view that leftists generally speaking are frequently driven by narrow and selfish concerns rather than by any genuine altruism. In that respect they are rather similar to many George Bush conservatives.