Old war protestors never die

Like old soldiers, old war protesters never die. But neither do they fade away. They just keep getting arrested and hauled away.

If there is any doubt about this, one should review the pictures of those being removed from what has become a major protest venue, President Bush’s Crawford, Texas, ranch when he is in residence. Lined up with the newer professional versions of the model, including anti-Iraq mom Cindy Sheehan, was none other than Daniel Ellsberg, 73, of anti-Vietnam fame (or infamy, if you prefer).

Looking much frailer than in the days when he and his psychiatrist were targets of the notorious White House plumbers and the Nixon administration in general for leaking the Pentagon Papers, Ellsberg was nonetheless firm in his apparent long-held convictions that Americans should never raise a gun in anger against an enemy real or perceived. He was once again ready to do his duty in the protest lines, a figure forever hated or canonized as a historic enigma in an era of turbulence and official paranoia that ultimately brought down a president.

For Ellsberg, not unlike others, including 2004 Democratic presidential nominee John Kerry, Vietnam was an epiphany that changed a career from gun-toting hawk to placard-waving dove. Ellsberg’s penance was to leak to the press the top-secret study of how it all came about, bringing about a Supreme Court decision that established the doctrine prohibiting prior restraint of published material under the First Amendment. During the uproar that ensued, members of the plumbers, several of whom later participated in the Watergate scandal, broke into his psychiatrist’s office looking for material to discredit him.

Ellsberg returned from his assignment in Vietnam to work for the Rand Corp., a think tank then conducting a super-secret study of the origins of U.S. involvement in the war. In country, to use an old Vietnam expression, he worked and reportedly worshiped at the knee of Lt. Col. John Paul Vann, the legendary “missing man” of Southeast Asia, the shadowy Army figure who was killed in Vietnam.

What actually goes into the making of a protester?

In Ellsberg’s case, according to those who knew him, it was a series of events _ the death of Vann; a nasty divorce that left him unsure of himself; a subsequent love affair with a wealthy young radical, who some said, convinced him that he was responsible for much of what went wrong and must atone for his sins. Whatever the reasons, it was a slow but lasting transition. At times during the entire process, he seemed almost frantic to make amends, trying more than once to leak the controversial Pentagon Papers to reporters who were skeptical and turned him down. Ultimately, the New York Times became the outlet for the sensational material.

Ellsberg actually stands as a flawed icon among those who have leaked important material that probably should never have been classified in the first place. In the current atmosphere of leak inquiries and prosecution of at least one government official, his stature as a mere protester seems inconsequential compared to his place and those of a free press in the fight to prevent the shredding of the First Amendment by overzealous prosecutors. He was indicted on 115 counts, but the case was dismissed five months later.

At the same time, Ellsberg’s presence at Crawford, while renewing memories of times far more violent and emotional, shows how anemic today’s anti-Iraq movement appears to be. At this stage, at least, it simply lacks the fuel of a young American populace faced with what many considered at the time forced conscription and possible death. Also, polls are showing that a strong majority of Americans believe the current heated congressional debate over the conduct of the war is aimed mainly at gaining political advantage and is having a bad impact on the morale of American troops.

A recent poll conducted by RT Strategies revealed that even 55 percent of those who identify themselves as Democrats believe morale has been hurt. Overall, 44 percent of all those polled held that view. The survey also revealed that only 16 percent of Americans support immediate withdrawal of troops from Iraq. This, of course, is a far cry from what the polls had begun to show about Vietnam when Lyndon Johnson decided not to run again and during the Richard Nixon years.

But despite the apparent lack of public appeal his actions once had, Ellsberg keeps true to himself and is willing to be hauled away again.

(Dan K. Thomasson is a former editor of Scripps Howard News Service.)