Where are the campus protests against war?

March 2, 2007

Students rioted against the Vietnam War, but little has been heard from universities about Iraq, says Mary Evans

Ten days ago in my local supermarket, I met the mother of a young man who is serving with the British Army in Iraq. As well as expressing concern for her son, I also expressed - somewhat guardedly - my view that we (the British state) should not be in the country. This remark was met not with rebuttal but with vehement agreement and the assertion that "99 per cent of the people out there in the Army don't think we should be there either". That same morning, The Guardian published an article by Eric Hobsbawm in which he spoke of the overwhelming intellectual and academic support for the Republic in the Spanish Civil War.

It is in this context that we might ask where, exactly, is the public intellectual/academic opposition to the UK's presence in Iraq and, more generally, to a foreign policy that refuses to entertain any of the arguments or the expert opinion that challenges the views of the US. Before the troops went in, British specialists on the Middle East had pointed out that whatever the shortcomings of Saddam Hussein, he maintained a secular state in which a form of civil society was possible, in which opponents to the regime were included and many - if not all - Iraqis could live something approaching an "ordinary" life.

Eminent voices made plain their view that the invasion was illegal, not just ill-advised. More than 600,000 people are now dead in Iraq and a brutal civil war is raging, so it is all the more extraordinary that little has been heard from British campuses on the subject and that there exists no truly disruptive intellectual or academic intervention.

In the case of Vietnam, the draft made the death of middle-class boys possible and created a fierce and effective opposition across generations.

Britain has no present equivalent to the draft, but this cannot be the reason why universities and a generation of students have been so quiet about Iraq.

There is now considerable evidence to suggest that the population as a whole condemns British policy in the Middle East, but we still have to look hard for the kind of public protests - the debates, the teach-ins, the petitions - that raged over Vietnam. The irony is that the cause itself is apparently so popular. Is the lack of protest due to the sense that there is no debate to be had?

A more depressing explanation for the "silence of the universities" is that universities have now become so skilled at communicating the importance of specialist and instrumentalJ knowledge that there is little place left for political and moral engagement. In one sense, of course, the debate about Iraq demands specialist and informed comment; we need informed analyses of the religious and sectarian hostilities.

But at the same time we do not have to be "experts" on anything to know that thousands of civilians are being killed and injured and their chances of anything approaching a viable present are diminishing as every day passes. It is surely the role and responsibility of intellectuals to challenge the confident lies and misrepresentations made by "expert"

assertion that is common to the conduct of every war.

Central to the kind of challenge that is the proper function of academe is that of the questioning of the political cliche such as the assumption that we all agree about the "war" on terror or that we take the view that Western democracy is appropriate for all countries. Equally, universities have an essential function in teaching, in setting out the complex history of the Middle East against the virtually idiot version that is voiced by some of those in British politics.

One of the greatest failings of the Blair Government has been its refusal, despite its massive parliamentary majority, to listen to any politics other than its own. On the question of the now deeply unpopular war in Iraq, this arrogance has reached Canute-like proportions, but it is a refusal that is tacitly allowed by universities. A Government apparently committed to the extension of "expertise" does not hear expertise that dissents.

It is highly unlikely that anyone would wish to reintroduce conscription to sharpen opposition to current British foreign policy, in which war in Iraq is certain and another war against Iran possible. But thinking of that possibility might encourage us to voice publicly our concerns with what is being done in our name and what certainly affects our colleagues and their families in Iraq's universities.

Mary Evans is professor of women's studies at Kent University.

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