The 1960s Anti-War movement is something that’s always been vaguely of interest to me but I’ve never seriously studied it, so I picked up this book as an introduction to the history.
That was a mistake on my part, because it’s not a history; as the title indicates, it’s a personal history, or a memoir, of Carl Oglesby’s involvement in the SDS. Oglesby started out as a technical writer/editor for a defense subcontractor, got vaguely involved in politics by a circuitous route, and subsequently discovered through research that the Vietnam war was a really, really dumb idea. (The ‘ravens’ in the title refer to Oglesby’s characterization of himself, and others, as neither a hawk nor a dove – not a pacifist for the sake of pacifism, but opposed to stupid and unwinnable wars). Oglesby eventually found himself elected president of the Students for a Democratic Society, writing and delivering anti-war speeches, staging nonviolent protests, traveling to Vietnam and Cuba, and trying to bring moderates and even conservatives into the movement. This, as the movement was radicalizing itself, beginning to make overt appeals to Marxism and revolution and violence.
I feel like this book would be better appreciated by someone with a solid grounding in the relevant background and history, because there were many points where I wished for more context, more information, instead of some level of assumed knowledge. The book is clearly one person’s individual point of view, and while it’s always calm, measured, and politically moderate, it doesn’t quite strive for objectivity. In some ways it feels more like long-after-the-fact persuasion and editorializing and self-justification than mere recollection of the era.
That said, it’s a fascinating story. I loved reading about the divisions within the movement, the conflict between moderation and radicalism, especially since I am sometimes equally tempted by both sides. It was also interesting to read about the slowness of the radicals to embrace women’s lib – with liberal publications still making their female employees get the coffee! And it’s scarily timely to read a book that deals with paranoid administrations fighting unpopular and unwinnable wars