The Quietest War

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“Workers struck in record numbers in 1917,” writes the historian Nell Irvin Painter in her unflinching history Standing at Armageddon: The United States, 1877–1919 , and whole unions, such as the International Workers of the World, opposed the war. Vigilantes used this opposition as an excuse to lynch labor leaders and even transported 1,200 striking laborers from Arizona to the New Mexico desert by rail and left them there. The wartime influx of black workers into new urban areas—and traditionally white industrial jobs—led to white-on-black riots from Chester, Pennsylvania, to East St. Louis, Illinois, where some estimates put the number of black men, women, and children slaughtered by the mobs as high as 200.

Even World War II saw considerable turmoil on the home front—the zoot suit riots in Los Angeles; major disturbances in Detroit and New York; constant conflicts throughout the country as African-Americans took jobs in previously all-white plants; running fights between black troops based in the South and local law enforcement officers. The term juvenile delinquent first came into common parlance when fathers went off to war while mothers went off to work.

Yet all these conflicts, terrible as they often were, may be considered the growth spasms of a vigorous democracy. Even the fissures that Vietnam opened in our society, with all the bad feelings they emanated for years to come, can be seen as an enduring lesson in liberty: When the government ran an undeclared war the people did not support, they put an end to it. In that war at home there was honor on both sides; early on in our escalation in Indochina, there were even mass rallies held in favor of the war.

Wrongheaded as those might now seem to have been, I prefer them to our current state of civic disengagement. The most disappointing realization about the war in Iraq is how little we care, how precious few demonstrators there are on either side of the issue. Just as the war exists for most of us on television, so we have subcontracted out our civic feeling to the angry rhetoric of so many ranting heads. We do not serve, we do not pay, we do not watch, and we do not object. Imagine how this might have worked in World War II. No matter how this war comes out, we have already lost.