HAW Teach-In at Mount Holyoke College, South Hadley MA

Our October 17 teach-in attracted a spirited group of 150 people, nearly all of them undergraduates here at Mount Holyoke, the oldest women’s college in the nation.  Organized by Jonathan Lipman, a member of HAW who specializes in modern Chinese history, the event featured four faculty members speaking from a variety of perspectives.

Chris Pyle, professor of politics, offered a devastatingly detailed critique of “A Nation That Tortures.”  Speaking on the same day that President Bush signed the so-called Military Commissions Act, Pyle carefully outlined how the new law gives the executive branch the authority to detain people indefinitely, with no access to the courts to challenge their detention.  He noted as well that the president—indeed any president—now has the legal power to decide how torture is defined.  Pyle also discussed the work of his son Jonathan, an attorney who has been representing the Abu Ghraib prisoners victimized by their American jailers.

In his talk titled “No Weapons of Mass Destruction But Lots of Oil,” economist Fred Moseley insisted that the 800-pound gorilla of Iraqi oil be put back on the table of public debate.  After all is said and done, he argued, the American desire for military hegemony in Iraq revolved around the world’s second largest known reserve of crude oil.  He offered several examples illustrating how the power of Big Oil has consistently and cynically undermined efforts to democratize Iraqi life.  But he also noted that the organized oil workers in the Basra have had some success in resisting that power and perhaps represent the kernel of a more progressive political bloc in Iraq’s future. 

Stacey Philbrick Yadav, a visiting professor of politics, asked, “Does Fighting the Iraq War Mean Losing the Wider War?”  Drawing on her broad knowledge of the region, where she has lived and conducted extensive fieldwork and research, Yadav reviewed the appalling, seemingly willful, ignorance of American policy makers.  Their lack of knowledge and understanding about Iraqi history, language, religion, and culture has contributed mightily to strategic blunders that have in fact strengthened the influence of Islamist extremism.

My own contribution focused on “Iraq and the Shadow of Vietnam,” in which I argued that the continuing struggle over that war’s meaning—the battle for cultural memory, so to speak—has loomed over the Iraq war from the start.  Indeed, I believe the debate—or more accurately, the lack of real debate—that accompanied the decision to invade Iraq reflects just how successful American conservatives have been in winning the war for the cultural memory of Vietnam.  For today’s students, the Vietnam War seems like ancient history.  But the absence of the draft, the promulgation of the POW-MIA myth, the erasure from public discourse of the powerful anti-war movement within the armed forces, the alleged threat of Iraqi chemical and biological weapons as a substitute for the historical reality of America’s massive use of such weapons in Southeast Asia—all of these connections need to be made for today’s students.

We had a very lively and at times emotional Q&A session following the speakers.  I was struck by how worried and even scared many of the students are by the unfolding disaster of this latest American war.  Many asked broad and at times deeply philosophical questions about political activism beyond elections—what can be done to reverse course?  Some of us reminded the students that politics has never been limited to voting.  There was also much discussion about an impending war with Iran and what might be done to stop it before it starts.  We received a lot of positive feedback over the next few days, and we plan to hold another teach-in later this Fall.  Thanks again to HAW for inspiring us at Mount Holyoke and around the country.

Daniel Czitrom, <dczitrom@mtholyoke.edu>

History Department



Additional Note on the Mt. Holyoke Teach-In:


The question-answer session after the talks lasted over an hour.  Student questions ranged from technical inquiries about the role of the United Nations and the power of diplomacy to emotional outbursts about feeling alienated, isolated, and misunderstood as a result of the war.  They pushed us on issues as diverse as environmental impacts of the war and of American consumption patterns, racism and religious fundamentalism, and governmental duplicity.  Panel members responded, as did other faculty who attended. 


Feedback has been generally positive, with many students thanking the faculty for taking the time to be available and for making clear their personal opposition to the war.  One thoughtful student argued that the program was too centered on the USA rather than “what’s actually going on” in Iraq and Afghanistan.  We had actually chosen to focus on the USA, but the second teach-in, which we hope to run in early December, will include more expertise on the Middle East and be more in the nature of a “what’s going on?” session.


Jonathan Lipman, <jlipman@mtholyoke.edu>

History Department