Camille Seaberry ’08 spent two weeks in October painting white crosses — 2,000 of them.
As a coordinator for Yale Peace, Seaberry worked with two other students to prepare the crosses for a demonstration the organization was planning to commemorate the death of the 2,000th U.S. soldier in Iraq.
But for all their effort — they worked three nights a week, more than three hours per night — the response they got when they displayed the 2,000 crosses on Cross Campus and read off the names of the 2,000 soldiers killed was disappointing, Seaberry and her fellow organizers said.
“We thought maybe a few people would stop and listen, but we found that people didn’t even stop their conversations as we were reading out names of 18- and 19- and 20-year-olds who had died,” said Jesse Harris ’08, another Yale Peace organizer.
In 2003, before the war in Iraq began, Harris said, Yale Peace had nearly 100 student members, could count upon 50 students showing up to its meetings, and filled four buses of students to head off to anti-war rallies in New York City and Washington. Now, she said, membership has fallen to around 10 students, only five to seven members attend weekly meetings, and the group had to reach out to the New Haven Peace Council to fill just one bus for a rally in Washington this September.
“There isn’t really a sense that we’re still at war,” Harris said.
Yale Peace is not the only group on campus that has struggled in mobilizing students against the war.
Tiffany Wan ’07, a coordinator for the Yale chapter of Amnesty International, said her group also found that students were disengaged from the war when only 30 people, mostly adults, turned out for “Denounce Torture,” a panel discussion the group sponsored last April.
Wan said there were several reasons for the low turnout at the panel — which featured one of the first journalists to break news of the Abu Ghraib scandal and a lawyer representing Guantanamo Bay inmates — including the fact that the Amnesty International chapter was focused on publicizing its “Rock for Rights” concert the next week. Aside from that, she said, she thought the lack of interest might stem from a sense of complacency among Yale students with respect to the war, due in part to the lack of a draft, and the fact that very few Yale students enlist in the military.
“If you’re going to protest against the Iraq war on campus, who are you going to protest against on campus? We don’t have ROTC, we don’t have a massive Army or Marine recruiting effort,” she said. “It’s not students on our campus who are going out and fighting the war.”
Alissa Stollwerk ’06, president of the Yale College Democrats, said she has the impression that Yale students are talking about the war, but only amongst themselves, and are looking to the federal government to lead on action.
“There’s an incredible debate going on in Washington right now. [Senate Minority Leader] Harry Reid closed down the Senate in a closed session, and the Senate is very rarely closed,” Stollwerk said. “Debate is stirring, and I think that it will come to campus. I think that it’s here now, but only in a very informal sense.”
Although Yale Peace’s membership has shrunk from four buses to the capacity of one van, Harris said the organization has led a number of smaller activities and talks this semester. In addition to reading the 2,000 names on Cross Campus, the group co-sponsored a talk by Tom Matzzie of MoveOn.org with the Yale College Democrats and sponsored a panel with Tour of Duty, a speaking group that includes a former CIA agent and the mother of a soldier killed in Iraq.
“Our big struggle has been to get everyone who is passively anti-war to get actively anti-war,” Seaberry said.
Yale Peace’s efforts have been further stymied by internal disagreement surrounding the group’s attempt to hammer out a unified position on a possible exit strategy from Iraq. Although the group is unified in thinking that the war is misguided, the members are divided as to whether they should advocate for an immediate or gradual withdrawal, Harris said. She said the group already lost a few students who decided not to come rally in Washington because the rally’s theme was “Troops Out Now.”
“There’s a general agreement among people that we shouldn’t be there, but since we are there, what should we do? That tends to be a divisive [issue], and we have so few members as it is, we can’t afford to be divisive” Harris said.
To support the group’s efforts, Seaberry said, professor John Demos has been pulling together some fellow history professors to mobilize against the war. Demos and some of his colleagues volunteered to pay $100 each for speaker fees for the “Tour of Duty” speaking group after the original sponsor, the Council on Middle East Studies, backed out because the council cannot support political events.
Demos said about 30 members of the history faculty and history graduate students turned out to a meeting he had organized at the beginning of the fall semester.
“I find it puzzling and astonishing that there’s as little activity on campus against the war,” Demos said. “The thing that’s perplexing is that I’m quite convinced that if we polled the campus we’d find a great deal of skepticism, if not outright opposition, [to the war]. … We have that on the one hand, but on the other hand that kind of feeling is just not mobilized.”
While Demos said he was disappointed in the low turnout at the Tour of Duty talk and was astonished at the lack of response to the display of the 2,000 crosses, he said he was optimistic that the recent speech by Democratic Congressman John Murtha questioning the war is symptomatic of a new life for the anti-war movement.
“I’m hopeful in the sense that the whole tide nationally is turning against the current war policy,” Demos said. “Our short-term goal is to create some real active and demonstrative activity on campus against the war, but the long-term goal is that … there will be a national anti-war movement, as there was 35 years ago.”
For now, Yale Peace is finalizing plans for “Counter Recruitment,” a program that will send Yale students to Wilbur Cross and Hillhouse high schools to distribute information about the costs of joining the military. The group has cleared the program with the New Haven Public Schools Superintendent Reginald Mayo, and they are waiting to hear back from the high school principals, Seaberry said.
“It takes little actions like that just all the time to get big things going,” she said. “That’s why we haven’t given up, even though we have meetings of five people.”