Over 4 years ago, on a short visit to the US, I was introduced to an Elementary – Teacher in a public school in Brooklyn, at a private party. The adjective for this American was “White” and that distanced him from the Brooklyn majority. What is important here is not that, though. But wait. That may have some relevance to his ignorance. Why not ? He did not know there is a country called “Sri Lanka” now, and that it was “Ceylon” at the time he was born, in the early 60’s. It thus served no purpose to ask this American about Colonel Henry Steel Olcott.* Michael Moore called this ignorant, modern ‘white’ generation, “Stupid White Men”. And they are, or they have to be.
This generation and those before and after them, are those who elect the man or may be a woman next time, to sit in the Oval Office, at the White House. They elected and re-elected George Walker Bush as the 43rd President of the USA from 2001 to 2009. Then again, Barack Hussein Obama II, as the 44th President, from January 2009, still going loud.
These “modern” White Americans are different to that old generation of American men and women, who took to the streets against the Vietnam war. Different to that of Cassius Clay’s generation. Cassius Clay, who in 1967 as Muhammad Ali, refused to be conscripted into the US military to fight the Vietnam war. Arrested and found guilty on draft evasion charges, Ali “The Greatest” was stripped of his boxing titles and his license suspended. But he stood firm on his conviction, like all other great men and women of the 60’s.
“If I thought the war was going to bring freedom and equality to 22 million of my people, they wouldn’t have to draft me, I’d join tomorrow. I have nothing to lose by standing up for my beliefs. So I’ll go to jail, so what ? We’ve been in jail for 400 years.” Ali is quoted in the book, “Redemption Song: Muhammad Ali and the Spirit of the Sixties (1999) by Mike Marqusee.
That certainly was the spirit of the “sixties”. That spirit was electrifying. It wasn’t only Muhammad Ali. Listen to John Lennon. Listen to “Imagine” and the Beatles’ Album, “Revolution”. And then Lennon wrote “Power to the People”. They were not the present day radicals in peripheral art worlds. They were giant musical icons who moved whole continents of anti war youth. Those like Mick Jagger, who took to the streets in London against the American State, waging war on Vietnamese people. Cities in other European countries couldn’t be left empty of anti Vietnam war protests. Paris, Amsterdam, Stockholm, Frankfurt, Oslo and Lyon were all having their share of large anti war protests. Very often dominated by college students and artistes.
The US, was obviously into a bigger storm of protests. Joan Baez, her journalist husband David Harris the peace activist, who was later imprisoned for resisting military draft, Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, Barry McGuire, Sam Cooke, Nina Simone, were not alone among thousands of peace activists, who coaxed the American society to condemn war, discuss and debate civil rights, freedom of expression and even the right to protest, in mid and late 60’s, into early 70’s. The “counter culture” movement was pricking the conscience of the American society.
It wasn’t singers and musicians only, who were coming out on the streets. “Throughout the Vietnam war, artists contributed their works, skills and names to the antiwar movement. Pop artists Claes Oldenburg, Robert Rauschenberg, James Rosenquist and Ed Kienholz made works that referenced the war. Alexander Calder designed a button for the New Mobilization Committee to End the War in Vietnam, a national mass protest held in Washington D.C. in 1969. Many African American artists like Cliff Joseph of New York’s Black Emergency Cultural Coalition railed against war.” The “change artist” Mark Vallen reminisced on the occasion of the 30th anniversary of the defeat of the US army in Vietnam.
The large protest at the Pentagon and the much larger protest march to the UN office in 1967, radicalised the “Peace Culture” that was brewing as a counter culture movement. In 1969, the network of anti Vietnam war activists, fixed the date October 05th as the day for the “National Vietnam Moratorium”. Jasper Johns, the popular American painter was commissioned by the Leo Castelli Gallery of Los Angeles, to design a poster for the occasion that became the most popular poster of the entire anti Vietnam war period. Anti war sentiments in the US ran so high, the National Vietnam Moratorium turned out a stunning success, with university campuses across the US either cancelling classes or lying paralysed by student strikes. Some 30 million Americans, “Black, White and Latino”, participated in some type of protest against US engagement in Vietnam.
The “Spirit of the Sixties”, the developed world in the West, they had a conscience to live with. When Pete Seeger wrote and sang the song in anti Vietnam war rallies, “If you love your Uncle Sam – bring ’em home, bring ’em home”, the Americans were tired of seeing their sons fighting a war in a land they did not know and had nothing to do. No, it wasn’t only about their sons and husbands getting killed. They wanted their sons and men brought home from an unwanted war, that had killed over 1.6 million Vietnamese civilians. That’s a conscience to live with.
When the Paris Peace Accord was signed in January, 1973 that brought all American servicemen home, 58,000 American soldiers, their average age 22 years, had died in Vietnam. Over 2.5 million Americans had served in the US army fighting the war in Vietnam, during a 10 year period.
I am now browsing over numbers the modern man of the “developed West” perhaps knows better about. Numbers in Iraq and in Afghanistan. Anti war division of the Randolph Bourne Institute, counts 1.42 million deaths in Iraq, due to US invasion. It says, 448 academics and 348 journalists have been killed too, in Iraq since the US invasion. Since the war began, 4,447 American soldiers have died there. After Barack Obama was inaugurated as President, 219 had died. American soldiers wounded to date, total 33,000, while other estimates lay it at over 100,000.
In Afghanistan, US military casualties account for 1,419 deaths to date. Another 363 British forces personnel have also been killed. The total Coalition forces’ deaths total 2,323 up to March, 2011. Reuters in February, in a “fact sheet” report said, “at least” a total of 401 Afghan civilians were killed in hostile attacks. In March 2011, the UN reported 2,777 Afghan civilians killed in the year 2010 alone, but saying most were due to Taliban attacks. A significant number of civilian deaths account for women and children, responsibility being irrelevant in war.
Despite all the news that come much faster and more accurate to their homes, than it did in the 60’s and the 70’s during the Vietnam war, there are no anti war protests in any city, any university now. No civil movement now says “If you love your Uncle Sam – bring ’em home, bring ’em home”. There are no celebrity names, no academics, no artists on front pages of news papers, on TV Talk shows, condemning the Iraq war, holding the US government and its Allies responsible for thousands of civilian deaths in Iraq and continuing Drone attacks in Afghanistan. There’s blood in the hands of the Western world, but this millennium, the “civilised” West has lost its conscience. Deaths don’t matter any more to them.
The Student Non violent Co-ordinating Committee, Students for a Democratic Society, American Writers Against Vietnam War, National Black Anti War Anti Draft Union, Washington Peace Center, Catholic Association for International Peace, Vietnam Day Committee, Vietnam Solidarity Campaign and many, many more were sprawling platforms then in the sixties that brought the conscience of the West into loud and unavoidable public display, but wholly absent today with not one, but two major catastrophes unfolding in Iraq and Afghanistan. Possibly spreading to North Africa.
The spirit of the sixties have had a slow death in de-civilising the modern man in the West and muting his democracy that now allows war to be waged on any one’s land. It is this man with a dead soul who now runs the world and its apex bodies, the UN, the EU parliament and most other appellate agencies within the world order.
On tradition and on old experience, we are still looking for their solidarity, their intervention. But the wars painfully bleed through humanity. It bled ruthlessly in Sri Lanka. It is bleeding profusely in Palestine, in Iraq and in Afghanistan.
How many more societies are still bleeding ? No matter how, this modern West would not speak out as in the sixties. Its the turn of the non developed man in other parts of the world, now, to take the lead. Its their turn to reignite a new counter culture, write and sing for peace and decency. Its their-our- turn to question,
“Who held the riffle ? Who gave the orders ?
Who planned the campaign to lay waste the land ?
Who manufactured the bullets ? Who paid the taxes ?
Tell me, is that blood upon my hands ?”
[from ‘Last train to Nuremberg’ by Pete Seeger]
Till, as Pete Seeger sang, “We shall overcome….some day”.
Kusal Perera, 15 April, 2011
[written after the UN SG’s advisory panel report and in view of the 36th anniversary of “Vietnam Day”, just a fortnight away]
* A pioneer Theosophist from US, considered the first American convert to Buddhism, who arrived in then Ceylon via South India in 1880 May 16, and established the Buddhist Theosophical Society that is accepted as the catalyst and forerunner of modern Buddhist revival in the country, that also established the early Buddhist schools in the country, beginning with the Ananda College, Colombo. Olcott also helped design the “Buddhist flag” which is now the symbol of the World Fellowship of Buddhists.