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ISSUE 121 VOL 6 PUBLISHED 11/2/2007

Iraq war lacks cultural impact

By Cody Venzke
Variety Editor

Friday, November 2, 2007

As debate over the Iraq War intensifies, comparing Iraq and Vietnam has become more and more common. Comparing the two wars is perhaps a favorite pastime for politicians and pundits alike.

Opponents of the Iraq War have stressed the similarities between the two wars, arguing that Iraq has developed into a quagmire with the United States hopelessly embroiled in a guerilla war that it will never win. The same was true in Vietnam.

Supporters of the war have also made Iraq-Vietnam comparisons. On August 22, President Bush gave a speech underscoring that Iraq is indeed like Vietnam - and if we leave, the results will be the same. "One unmistakable legacy of Vietnam is that the price of America's withdrawal was paid by millions of innocent citizens," Bush said during the speech.

Although you might not know it from the current political atmosphere, Vietnam and Iraq are two very different countries. Vietnam has a population of 85 million people and is located in Southeast Asia. Iraq has a population of 27 million people and is located in the Middle East. Vietnam is dominated by tropical jungle; Iraq is almost entirely covered by desert. Vietnam is a communist state; Iraq is – at least in theory – an Islamic republic.

And just as Iraq is not Vietnam, the war in Iraq has not been an exact replay of the Vietnam War. Over the course of 11 years (1964-1975), more than 3,400 million soldiers were deployed in Southeast Asia. More than 50,000 American soldiers died during the same period.

Since 2003, 165,000 soldiers have been deployed in Iraq; 3,841 military personnel have died. A third of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam were draftees; the army fighting in Iraq is entirely composed of volunteers. Iraq is not Vietnam, at least not yet.

Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, the Vietnam War set off massive public response, much of which centered on college campuses across the country. Although some favored the war and the ideals behind it, others reacted passionately against the reality of the struggle. Students staged demonstrations at universities and colleges around the United States to protest the draft, the war's expansion and the escalating number of civilian deaths. Professors and students alike were involved in the protest of the war.

Things are a bit quieter today, however. Although colleges such as St. Olaf do have politically active student organizations, the nature of student activism is very different than it was 30 years ago.

Concerns about Iraq have not gripped the students the way they did during the Vietnam War two generations ago. At the height of the war, students protested on college lawns by the thousands, publicly burning draft cards and marching on the Lincoln Memorial. None of that happens today, at least not in the same manner. Iraq is not Vietnam, and the students of 2007 are not those of 1968.

However, the difference is not limited to college campuses, and the media is no exception. During Vietnam, photographers captured war in a way that had never before been seen. The era produced scads of disturbing photographs.

Perhaps nothing stripped the war of its initial romanticism more than the image of a naked, nine-year-old girl running to escape from an air strike on her village or the picture of monks burning themselves in protest of the war. Perhaps nothing fueled dissent more than the horror of the Kent State shootings or the bloody My Lai massacre.

The spirit of the generation was in its music as well as its journalism. Anybody who has seen "Forrest Gump" or "Apocalypse Now" knows a few of the anti-war anthems that dominated the airwaves during the 1960s and 1970s. Songs like "Aquarius/Let the Sunshine In" by The Fifth Dimension, "War!" by Edwin Starr or "The End" by The Doors all reflected and reinforced the popular sentiment of the age. The anti-war protest was not only a student movement but a cultural one as well.

Today, however, things are much different. Media coverage of Iraq comes from journalists embedded within army battalions. Images of the war have not occupied a place in the American consciousness as they did during Vietnam. Even photography from the Abu Ghraib prison scandal and other abuses failed to provoke public response to the degree that photography did during Vietnam.

Musically, our generation's response has not been as strong as it was 30 years ago. Although some artists such as Bright Eyes and System of a Down have produced anti-war material, mainstream musicians have remained largely silent.

It would be sad if Green Day's "American Idiot" is our generation's best response to a war it supposedly doesn't support.

So why the difference? How can two generations face similar situations and respond so differently? The answer may lay in the wars themselves. As mentioned earlier, Iraq is not Vietnam. Iraq has not taxed our resources or our national will in the way that Vietnam did. Far removed from our national consciousness, we have had to take ownership of the war nor face it in our daily lives. There has been little reason for the peace movement to become a cultural one.

Without a doubt, Iraq is not Vietnam – we have not paid the price in Iraq that we paid in Vietnam. But we should not let this justify apathy. War is not a sterile thing, even if the media or the military might like to present it as such. Though Iraq has come at a cheaper cost than most wars, the price has still been steep.

Nearly 4,000 men and women have given their lives for this war and whatever ideals we can still find behind it.

As election season draws near and Congress deliberates over the fate of a war so far from home, now is the time for anything but apathy.

Should we sit silently, neither caring nor knowing what war is being waged half a world away?

If you believe that this war may still be worth something – democracy, freedom, stability – let it be known so the necessary means may be given. If you feel that it is time for peace, say so.

It is hard to determine which route is best for the United States in Iraq. Apathy, however, is the surest path to failure. Unless we have something to say and push the national dialogue towards a unified agenda for Iraq, wasted lives and a failed caused are all that we'll get.

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