Creating Momentum: Youth and the Anti-War Movement

For the generation of activists politically shaped by the Vietnam War the similarities between then and now are striking; the nation is deeply divided and US soldiers fresh out of high school are dying by the hundreds each year. From heading national peace organizations to demonstrating weekly in their communities, these older activists are at the forefront of the movement. This was seen recently with Cindy Sheehan’s catalyzing actions outside of Bush’s ranch which evolved into a nation-wide tour with other military families. Sheehan has become the unofficial spokesperson for the peace movement. Given all of this, what role have youth in the United States played in the anti-war struggle? What challenges do they face within the movement and within the larger political culture? A closer look at some current student-led campaigns will show how, despite widespread youth apathy, young activists are creating the essential urgency needed to end the occupation of Iraq and move toward forging a sustainable peace. This will also help address a crucial dilemma for the wider anti-war movement: How can activists, young and old, inspire committed action?

The challenges that are most visible to students and youth in the anti-war movement are those that affect everyday organizing on campuses and in their communities. These concerns are interconnected with larger political and cultural forces that affect youth in the United States. This focus on the immediate issues that directly shape the lives of youth was seen at the September 24, 2005 peace march in Washington DC. Several activists from the Campus Antiwar Network (CAN) and other organizations pointed to the apathy and complacency at schools as the biggest challenge facing students in the anti-war movement.

David, a New York University (NYU) student, was surprised that his school wasn’t more politically active: “There’s a lot more apathy than you’d expect-just a settled comfort in the student body. What we really need to do is try to get the students riled up which is not an easy task because they are very deeply settled in their own lives and in their studies and they’re not concerned about going out and doing something.” What other factors contribute to this apathy among students? David believes it has to do in part with the way this generation has been conditioned to be spectators in American culture: “It seems like in the past few decades the youth of this nation have become a lot more passive. People are forced-fed television and video games throughout their youth and they’re always told what to do. Kids have to learn the tools of the trade and blaze their own trail.”

Jasmine, another NYU student activist pointed to a general “disenfranchisement” on a national level in which citizens in the US do not feel empowered to create change: “If you go out and talk to people everyone is like, ‘You can’t make a difference. What makes you think you can change anything?’ It’s about convincing people that there actually is a chance to do something new.” Isolation is another challenge expressed by a number of students protesting the war. “Part of the challenge is to make this a movement that is more cohesive than just [disparate] things happening at different schools,” explained Elizabeth, a CAN organizer. She further described the isolation of the national student peace movement: “For the most part, students have carried out antiwar campaigns on their campuses with no connection to each other and so even while these amazing actions are taking place, it can feel very isolating.” CAN is addressing that by building a network of connected groups across the country working to end the occupation of Iraq. Their “College Not Combat” contingent at the 9/24 march was meant to strengthen connections and build solidarity between different schools.

Rob, an 18 year old student activist with the Student Peace Project from Port Townsend, WA, talked about the challenge of isolation in terms of a larger progressive movement and how that is manifested on a local level: “There’s not enough outreach between different groups…And everybody thinks that their issue is the most important thing and try to get everyone else to work for their cause. People work together, but not enough.”

Another challenge is the military’s presence at high schools and college campuses and its insidious targeting of young people, particularly in poorer regions and in communities of color. The recruitment of young men and women to enlist has become a main priority of the Pentagon as troops are spread thin in the attempt to quell the Iraqi insurgency. Young people are being bombarded with the military’s propaganda promising careers and money for education as thousands of dollars are spent on each potential recruit. But this challenge has unwittingly proven to be an important catalyst of the student antiwar struggle as the counter-recruitment movement grows and begins to gain substantial victories toward kicking the military out of schools. *

History has shown us that the most successful progressive movements have been intergenerational. However, ageist social and political structures still present vast challenges. Beyond the fact that our democracy does not represent the interests of young people – especially youth of color and those from the working class and poor families – we live in a consumer culture that enforces the passivity that David described. Mass consumerism discourages political participation and empowerment. It is a culture that falsely suggests that consumption will provide youth with power

The pervasive commercialization of culture has also shaped the notions of resistance in our society. The cooptation of youth counter-culture and activism has been an ongoing corporate project since the end of the Vietnam War. “The rebellion is difficult now,” explains a character in the new German film, The Edukators which tells a story of radical youth who employ creative methods in fighting the ruling class. “Before, all it took was long hair and dope,” he says, going on to describe how today you can buy that image in a store just like any other fashion trend, as the original sentiment behind it is now meaningless. He adds, however, that “the best ideas survived.” Students and youth in the current anti-war movement have the weight of the Vietnam War on their backs as they are constantly compared to the movement of that generation. The challenge is to creatively resist the consumerist definition of rebellion and to work toward serious political change.

Finally, youth anti-war activists face serious obstacles within the broader peace movement and political left in the United States. As student activist Sharon Smith articulated after the 2004 presidential election in an article in CounterPunch, “There is a student rebellion in the making, coalescing around opposition to the war and its military recruiters, with students by the hundreds defying threats of disciplinary action. Despite their potential to transform the political landscape, however, the significance of these militant student actions has so far escaped the leaders of the nation’s established anti-war organizations.” The same ageism that infects the political structures in this country is also manifested in the organizations attempting to create alternative to these structures.

At least from the corporate media viewpoint, the leadership of the anti-war movement recently has been Cindy Sheehan of Military Families Speak Out, Code Pink and United for Peace and Justice. These are all older activists defining the movement through the media and through mass demonstrations. How can young people achieve agency in such a movement when the leadership is predominately from a different generation?

In an essay about ageism on the left for ZNet, Brian Dominick addressed this challenge: “It remains true, as ever, that adults have plenty of experience to offer their younger activist counterparts. It’s all the more unfortunate, then, that what is usually offered is dogma, traditional methodology, unilateral conversation, tokenizing, and worse. When we think of social change, we should reflect on the subjective meaning of that term-that is, we should acknowledge that we and our organizations and movements must themselves change, not just the world around us.” He concludes, “Change requires new influences on a regular basis, and that requires young people. Kids aren’t going to get involved in activism with adults on any wide scale until those adults make some radical changes in how they treat young people.”

In spite of the challenges posed by apathy, isolation, ageism and corporate cooptation of rebellion, it is essential for young anti-war activists to create and sustain momentum and a sense of urgency as they work for peace. The future of the planet may very well depend on it.

Matt Dineen is an intern at Class Action, a non-profit organization working to bridge the class divide and create justice, equity, and sustainability for all. Email him at: passionsandsurvival(at) Photo provided by

*Counter-recruitment efforts will be addressed in more detail in the next article in this series, where other youth-led actions will be presented along with further discussion about future strategy for youth and the anti-war movement.