Veterans Day: Students and the War in Iraq

by Peggy McGuinness

I began in academia after the Iraq war began, and have been puzzled — and at times frustrated — by the lack of student attention to or interest in the war. One could spend weeks on campus at MU and never see evidence that this is a state university in a country at war. (I arrived at school one day to see the quad in front of the law school outlined with hundreds of small black flags planted in the ground. Thinking that this was — at last — a sign of student activism about the war, I stopped to read the handwritten words on a flag: it was an ad for a Henry Rollins concert).

This op-ed piece in yesterday’s WaPo caught my attention. It is written by an Iraq war veteran and current Georgetown undergrad and includes some interesting observations about student apathy toward the war:

People on campus don’t think about the war very much. It rarely comes up in conversation, either inside or outside the classroom. Some professors have encouraged me to share my experiences, and some students have expressed interest in my past. Last semester, one wrote an article about another Iraq veteran and me for the campus newspaper. And this semester I dedicated about 250 words of a 900-word paper to the problem of sectarian violence in Iraq for a class on international relations. But that was the first time in my three semesters here that I was asked to formally consider the war for a class.

Beyond that, my theology professor gave a lecture last year that challenged students to find God in Iraq. My philosophy professor used Baghdad to describe what the philosopher Thomas Hobbes may have meant when he said that life in the state of nature would be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish and short.” But that’s about it. One student actually told me to stop thinking about Iraq. “You need to get rid of all that baggage and let yourself live,” she said. “We need to be shallow sometimes.”

I find it frustrating that Facebook is a bigger part of most students’ lives than the war. After my first semester, I decided to rejoin the Army by signing up with the ROTC. I felt a bit guilty for having done only one tour in Iraq while friends of mine have done two or three. And I didn’t want to forget the war. I may be prejudiced, but many of my college peers seem self-absorbed. I didn’t want to end up like that.

Behind the law school here is “Speakers Circle,” a free speech zone that does not require a permit for speeches, rallies or gatherings. By my own unscientific daily observations, about 80 percent of the speeches and events hosted there are religious preaching (by preachers from outside campus). I have not once in my four years here seen any student groups or outsiders use Speakers Circle for a discussion of the war. I am not aware of any student events or student-sponsored speakers at the law school organized around discussions of the war. To be fair, there is a separate part of campus called “Peace Park,” which was known as a gathering place for protests during the Vietnam War. Several community events (mostly non-university) protesting the Iraq war and/or supporting Iraq war vets have originated there. The most visible anti-war presence in town, however, is an off-campus weekly protest by a handful of Boomer-aged protestors, which usually is accompanied by a Boomer-aged group of war supporters responding from across the street.

I’d be interested to know what others have experienced on other campuses and in other states. How much have students lives been affected by the war? Has there been a marked change in interest over the past four years? Are we as faculty doing enough to use the war in our classes?

6 Responses

  1. Here at Columbia, there is also a dearth of speech about the war. Of course, the visit of the Iranian president caused everyone with something to say about Iran or the war to come forward for a day. However, students generally don’t discuss these issues here either.

    I doubt very seriously that professors or law professors can do more to generate student interest. Even some aspect of the war is used as an example in class, it will be solely an intellectual exercise for those with no vested personal interest. Americans seems to have a short attention span. There is so much going on in their lives that most things become background noise unless something specific genuinely sparks someone’s interest or affects them directly – either in their own lives or those of an immediate family member. Even then, I am amazed by some people’s ability to ignore or focus on things other than those affecting a parent or child. Sometimes even they go ignored. How can we expect concern about something happening so far away?

    The U.S. path to separating the military from its society is nearly complete. Only volunteers, public (military) or private (e.g. Blackwater employees), fight or are involved in the fight. A substantial portion of our population would need to exhaust all six degrees of separation to relate to someone fighting in this war. Government burdens, bureaucracies and expenditures are so large that it has all become background noise for the average American. Talk is just that. There seems to be a sense of inability to influence the ultimate outcome. Look at how long this war has outlasted popular public opinion or congressional support!

    Even this blog post demonstrates a symptom of the inherent problem (not intending to disparage its author). The Iraq war is on everyone’s mind. The Afghanistan war is not even mentioned here…though it arguably has more to do with international terrorism. Similarly, Abu Ghraib focused the issue of detainee abuse on Iraq and Cuba. Little is publicly discussed regarding the alleged abuse or current status of detainees in Afghanistan (whose numbers are growing in response to Supreme Court decisions).

    I suspect modern America is intensely practical and a bit cynical. What is the average American’s actual ability to influence the direction of the nation or any specific policy? I believe the average American wants to see a tangible benefit to any expenditure of effort or demand on their time. Well…voting would seem to qualify. What percentage of America exercises that right?

    I’m not sure what the answer is. However, even I am concerned that we no longer have a representative government. Perhaps this reflects the diversity of our society and nearly every congressional district in it…perhaps it reflects the corruption of our domestic political process by special interests…perhaps it reflects intense narcissism bred by modern notions of individualism and a lack of any sense of community obligation. I must leave these questions to scholars of the behavioral and political sciences.

  2. The Bush School (at Texas A&M) has a significant quantity of former senior (COL to LTG) Army officers on the staff as well as a variety of civilians who write papers about various topics pertaining to national security.

    In my class on natl security law last semester, a young Army CPT was in the class, having returned from Afghanistan three weeks before class began. He and I were the only veterans in the class and he was still sort of wound up although he finally assimilated nicely in the final few weeks of class.

    This semester, in my grand strategy class, there is the USMC CPT, the USAF MAJ, and the USMC SGT who is a reservist and has done two tours in Iraq. And then there’s me. This class has been interesting simply because the two jarheads have offered some outstanding comments that I understand and the professor, a professional academic, alleges to understand. The rest of the kids hear what’s being said but have no point of reference nor do they have any expectations of seeing Iraq or Afghanistan.

    I know there are a large quantity of veterans of military service on the A&M campus and I presume the majority of them are of very recent vintage. Further, given that A&M is a provider of a huge quantity of military officers with each graduating class every May, there is a conspicuous heritage that cannot be ignored. Regardless, Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be somewheres between Pluto and Uranus (read that any way you want to) and therefore there is a certain evident sterility to discussions about military technologies and tactics, among other related topics.

    I agree very strongly with XXX’s comments below about the absence of a draft and the absence of any semblance of economic sacrifice by the population as a whole. However our fearless leaders choose to frame the context in which these battles are being waged, a miniscule portion of our society is bearing a terrible burden and I think the remainder are more or less indifferent. Or, as I’m fond of stating, as long as it doesn’t bother them, they don’t wanna know about it.

    As a matter of closing comment, I had heard about A&M honoring student veterans in years past. There was no such affair today.

    Billy Bob

    On Nov 12, 2007, at 8:45 PM, xxxxxxx11 [at] aol [dot] com wrote:

    Probably a combination of things. I believe a majority of people felt like they were part of a righteous war when we invaded Afghanistan. Iraq changed that dynamic and it went downhill from there. It really hit bottom when everyone finally realized we went to Iraq based on false information. The administration missed a bet by not asking the American public to sacrifice anything and therefor feel we were part of the war effort. We were asked to shop and if you made over $200,000 a year you got a tax cut to help you buy things. Add the fact we don’t have a draft anymore the war doesn’t come close to impacting most college-age young people.

    ——-Original Message——-

    To: William J. Neill

    Sent: Mon, 12 Nov 2007 8:19 pm

    Subject: Re: [opiniojuris] Peggy McGuinness: Veterans Day: Students and the War in Iraq

    How depressing is this? I can recall my youngest son running around like a wild man mowing “USA” into our back field with my tractor during the first attack on Iraq. He knows better now. BB, you must see this shit at your local indoctrination center every day. Is there really an anti-war movement anymore? Or is it just a bunch of old vietnam era boomers like us who remember how evil state-sponsored war can be? I was encouraged by the young folks coming out in support of Dr. Paul, but really, how many more have no clue? Have we lost the next generation? Have the neocons won? This is very disturbing.

  3. By interest, you really mean opposition/protesting. Just thought I’d clear that up.

  4. The Iraq War simply doesn’t consume enough resources, either in terms of people or expenditures, to impact the life of most of the population sufficiently to keep it in the forefront of their thoughts.

    It would indeed be nice to balance the budget, but even then, war expenditures would be a fraction of the total cost.

    It’s more just a function of our military might that we can defeat, then occupy a sizable country without using even a considerable fraction of our resources. Certainly, our military capabilities are severely impacted, but that’s generally not noticed until a situation that demands them arises.

    People judge the importance of events by the impact on their personal lives. There’s nothing unusual or illogical about this, it’s just that in the past, wars had a much larger impact.

  5. The war is costing a lot, but, like Matthew Gross said, we are rich enough to afford it, so people don’t complain too much.

    People tried to do something to stop the war before it started, with mass protests across the country, and we were ridiculed by the president and ignored by the press. There’s a real sense of powerlessness, deepened by the failure to change anything through the 2004 election.

    And yes, humble law student, she means opposition/protesting. What do you want to see, full-throated support? Don’t tell me you’re in the crazy 27% that still thinks Bush is teh awesome.

    What worries me is not so much that most students are apathetic, it’s that the “engaged” Georgetown student thought the best way to do his part was to sign up to go kill more hajis for God and country.

    All I can hope is that the GOP will be so long out of power after 2008 that they’ll think twice before using invasion as an electoral strategy again.

  6. There was not much at Chicago, either. But I think it’s less apathy (though there is certainly quite a bit of that) and more pragmatism. Most students realize that there is absolutely nothing they can do about the war. They tried in 2004 with Kerry, and failed horribly. I see more attention to things like Darfur (which will probably peter out soon too) and local things like workers rights. The activists, who care, are simply choosing priorities where they stand a chance of accomplishing something.

    Also, while it is a war, it’s on a much smaller scale than previous conflicts. There’s no draft, certainly not of college kids, and casualties are miniscule compared to previous wars. The mortality rate of soldiers in Iraq is probably less than that of binge-drinking frat boys. The life of the average college student is not affected at all by the war.

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