On May 20, 1969, several thousand students and faculty gathered on the steps of Sproul Hall at the University of California at Berkeley, to protest the death of a classmate, James Rector, and the United States’ involvement in the War in Vietnam.
When the gathered crowd attempted to leave the campus, they were blocked in by National Guardsmen. Following altercations with police and guardsmen, an announcement was made that “chemical agents were about to be dropped.” As people realized they were trapped by the guardsmen and the police that encircled the campus, an Army helicopter made a pass over the area at an altitude of 200 feet, releasing CS tear gas (a chemical agent, developed by the army, for use in Vietnam and outlawed for war-time use by the Geneva Convention). The gas sent students to the ground, vomiting, retching, and panicking. Gas fumes spread into the community, to children playing in the recreation area on campus, to patients in the campus hospital, and to students in several elementary and secondary schools near the area, all of whom suffered the lasting effects of the CS tear gas.
Although such a scenario sounds distant and unlikely, it emerged out of conflict between student activism, university administrative politics, and government involvement in a war that many Americans deemed unnecessary.
Many of these ingredients exist today. Students have begun to assemble on campus, in demonstrations against military action in Iraq. Last week several students held an anti-war protest outside the Rathskeller.
The administration of the University of Miami has not declared an explicit stance against military action in Iraq. Although it may not seem necessary for the administration to do so, refusing to have a public position connotes agreement with a government position on military action that many students disagree with.
Colin Powell may have presented what his administration believes is credible evidence that Iraq is hiding and maintaining banned weapons, and may have convinced skeptical Europeans and Americans, but has he convinced the American student? The average student was still losing his baby teeth the last time America was involved in war, and lives a life that is historically far distanced from wartime society.
Obviously, a major difference between Vietnam-era activism and modern activism is the absence of a military draft. Although a proposal to reinstate the draft has been presented to Congress, it is highly unlikely that it will pass. Without a draft, it is the lower echelons of society who face the brunt of military action: the poor, the minorities, the disadvantaged. Students at the University of Miami tend not to be from these social strata, and therefore tend to be socially removed from those who are being called up to military action in the Middle East.
Some students, either members of ROTC or of military reserve corps, have already been called up to training for action halfway across the world. It is surprising that these students have not been more outspoken against the possibility of a drawn-out military involvement in the Middle East, that may involve decades of occupations and social structuring that may leave Iraqis even more un-American than they are now.
A possible war may also have effects of the level of international student exchange. International students may be more hesitant to travel to the United States during a period of international conflict, and therefore, UM international student enrollment may drop. UM students may also be less likely to travel or study abroad, especially in regions close to conflict, such as Africa, Asia, and Europe.
Who’s to say what effect military action will have on the consciences of UM students. When faced with the reality of a television war, complete with death, bombs, assassination, regime change, and military-industrial bed buddying, will students stand up and shout for civil liberty, for justice, for truth? If so, they may come in direct conflict with authority figures that have control over their educations, their careers, and their futures.