Our teach-in at the University of Maine on Tuesday evening, October 24, drew about 140 people, including both students and members of the community.
Brian Clement, an Iraq war veteran and UM student delivered the powerful keynote address of the night. Clement described his one-year tour of duty in Iraq and detailed how he became progressively more disillusioned with the war effort there. U.S. forces, he argued, often ended up destroying in battle areas that they had just rebuilt. Clement also grew skeptical about the amount of time U.S. soldiers devoted to building U.S. military bases and an infrastructure to support the U.S. presence there while Iraqi civilians remained without basic services such as electricity. Clement spoke movingly about a friend who died in Iraq and noted that he found it impossible to tell his friend’s wife that his death had been for a good cause. Clement received a standing ovation for his talk.
Several historians from the University of Maine’s history department also briefly spoke and provided important historical analyses of the war in Iraq that are rarely covered in the media. Alex Grab argued that many of the problems in Iraq today could be traced back to the way in which Britain artificially constructed that nation in the aftermath of World War I and included within its boundaries groups that had quite distinct heritages and conflicting agendas. He also explored European and U.S. imperial oversight of the Middle East in the interwar years and their exploitation of the region’s oil resources.
Nathan Godfried highlighted the U.S. drive for hegemony and oil in Iraq and the Middle East after World War II and discussed the destabilizing effects of these policies as well as the ways in which they provoked anti-American sentiment.
Beth McKillen talked about what the “losers” in past debates about national security could teach Americans about defining the nation’s security needs in the post 9/11 world. She particularly highlighted the lessons afforded by socialist and labor opponents of World War I, by the interwar women’s peace movement, and by the antiwar movement during the Vietnam era.
Ngo-Vinh Long offered a sophisticated assessment and comparison of U.S. involvement in Vietnam and Iraq. Long first noted the importance of understanding that Vietnam and Iraq are very different societies—a fact too often glossed over by Americans seeking to draw analogies between the two conflicts. He also noted that the U.S. casualties in Iraq are still dramatically smaller than they were at the height of the Vietnam war. But Long argued that the counter-insurgency techniques employed by Americans in Iraq are strikingly similar to those used in Vietnam and will have the same disastrous consequences for the United States.
Michael Lang spoke on the way the absolutist language of the Bush administration had often undermined democratic discussion of its foreign policies. He noted, in particular, the use of words like “evil” to describe Iraq and Korea and suggested that such language precluded a sophisticated discussion of the issues at stake and of the range of possible options in dealing with problems posed by the two states.
Local political activist Scott Ruffner concluded the presentation component of the night by discussing the possibilities of working within existing party structures in Maine to change Iraq policy.
A lively discussion followed the presentations, with many audience members focusing on what options were available to try to change Iraq policy. A majority of the audience remained for the entire two and one-half hour session and those of us participating in the panel were struck by our students’ interest in the Iraq issue. The campus media provided extensive coverage of the event, but we were disappointed that the Bangor Daily News failed to send anyone to cover the event.
Beth McKillen, Elizabeth_McKillen@umit.maine.edu