It's not every day that the U.S. secretary of defense comes to Bloomington to address the new graduates and receive an honorary doctorate. Local peace activists saw this event, which took place at 9 a.m. on Dec. 19 at Assembly Hall, as a call to action.
On the cold, snowy Saturday morning, 22 people with signs stood, conversing quietly, across from the south entrance to Assembly Hall as people arrived to observe a commencement ceremony that featured Secretary of Defense Robert Gates.
Gates served as secretary of defense under President George W. Bush and continues in that role today under President Barack Obama. He was the director of the CIA from 1991 to 1993. Before that, from 1986 to 1989, he was the deputy director of the CIA.
In 1966 Gates received a master's degree in history from IU. As the secretary of defense, he is sixth in the presidential line of succession.
According to recent polls reported in the Washington Post, a majority of Americans today think the war in Afghanistan isn't worth fighting, and 75 percent say no new troops should be sent to that country. Public opinion is on the side of the IU commencement protestors.
"Gates is the consummate bureaucrat and does whatever he's told."- Ed Vasquez, protester
Some protestors looked at the bigger picture. Ed Vasquez, an employee of the IU library, came to protest the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, especially the “surge” in troop levels that Obama has approved, and what he called “the secret war in Pakistan.”
The Afghanistan aggression is a war, Vasquez said, for "oil and opium. It's an illegal war, and we shouldn't have been there in the first place," he said, "Gates is the consummate bureaucrat and does whatever he's told."
To Vasquez, Gates "personifies the military-industrial complex. He's a professional liar -- he lied about Iran-Contra and the Soviet Union's military might."
Marge Steiner, who holds a doctorate from IU, said she was "ashamed, appalled, outraged and sickened" by the granting of an honorary doctorate to the secretary of war. "Gates," she said, "has the blood of many, many people on his hands." By giving Gates this honor, the university gives the wars "a stamp of approval."
Retired professor of philosophy Milton Fisk said, "An honorary doctorate should go to a peace advocate. That would have been more appropriate to the university's ideals."
Paul Smith, an employee of the IU physics department, held a sign that said, "NO HONORS FOR WAR CRIMINALS." He said he came to "protest the rampant militarism of this country." He objects to the fact that "the U.S. spends billions and billions for war and none for health care."
"The U.S. spends billions and billions for war and none for health care." - Paul Smith, IU employee
Retired education professor Bob Arnove contrasted this protest with one he remembers from the '70s, when IU awarded an honorary doctorate to a man who earned a bachelor's degree at IU and became the dictator of an African country "who was known to use violence against anyone opposed to his policies."
That protest, which involved some 100 people, was featured on the front page of a major national newspaper and garnered international attention, after which, Arnove said, "the human rights situation improved in that country, at least for awhile."
Arnove said he thought that an honorary degree should go to a "scholar, scientist or someone who's contributed to the arts or humanities, somebody with a record of social justice and peace."
Marian Shaaban expressed concern about the war's escalation and funding. To her the United States "should be spending money on the jobless situation."
"Why are we there?" she asked. "The Taliban had nothing to do with 9/11."
Alex Smith, who was to receive his master's in biology at the commencement ceremony, stood in his cap and gown with a sign that said, "I won't walk with a warlord -- Robert Gates go home." When the clock struck 10, he hurried into the building to obtain his diploma, and the 21 remaining protestors, thoroughly chilled, left for home.
Linda Greene can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.