Ending campus silence on war in Iraq

After two and a half years, the war in Iraq still seems far from ending, or at least far from an ending many Americans would be proud of. The number of U.S. troops that have died is now over 1,900, and that figure is dwarfed by Iraqi civilian casualties. Even as the country inches toward approving a constitution, the possibility of intense civil strife remains. And across the United States, support for the war — and the president’s leadership — is dwindling.

But on Yale’s campus, there is little indication of any of that, only an apathy that stands in stark contrast to the University’s history. During World War II, Yale students enlisted. And during Vietnam, they protested, making New Haven a center of anti-war activity. But during this war, we have, for the most part, simply gone on with our lives as though nothing were happening.

The same university that was thrown upside down by Vietnam watches the news from Iraq sometimes with dismay, but more often with simple disinterest. With no draft, and many of us from places that send few men and women into the military, most Yalies can pass off this conflict as someone else’s war fought somewhere far away. Desensitized by constant reports of terrorism and political dissension, we seem to rest easy in the knowledge that what happens in Iraq may have little impact on our lives.

For us to do so is a discredit, both to the country and to the vision of Yale most of us hold. Yale considers itself a center for international debate, and its students international leaders. But no matter the developments in Baghdad, there is little talk of them in Commons or on Cross Campus, and little sign of leadership (in either direction) from students.

In a way, this is because the war lends itself to few clear-cut stances. We are pessimistic about the direction in which the U.S. effort in Iraq is heading, but we also struggle to see a better way. The moral certitude of those who simply call for “bringing the troops home” isn’t quite comfortable for many of us, but neither are the alternatives. We feel disappointed by politicians, Democratic and Republican, both for leading the nation into this war and for failing to offer a reasonable way out. And yet, we are ourselves skeptical that a reasonable way out exists.

Still, the fact that the war offers no simple solutions cannot be seen as an excuse to turn away — if anything, it only puts an added burden on a university like Yale to engage in the discussion. Whether this means protesting in the streets or writing policy briefs, Yale’s students, and its faculty, too, can have a louder voice in charting a new course for Iraq. We don’t need to be idealists or extremists, convinced either that a stable Iraqi democracy is imminent or that a U.S. presence in Iraq is morally indefensible. Yet even as we acknowledge the complexity of the situation, we cannot let it resign us to silence.

Looking back on the days when University leaders like chaplain William Sloane Coffin Jr. provided strong commentary on Vietnam, there is no doubt that Yale could play a greater role today in building debate on campus. But the real voices must emerge from students, whether out of hope, outrage or simply a determination to see things made better.

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