Eight years later, a quiet campus on Sept. 11

Eight years after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, war rages on in the Middle East. But at Yale, one would be hard-pressed to notice.

“I should know much more about it,” Nathan Blevins ’12 said. “I know it’s important, I’m just not up on it.”

“I don’t actively follow it that closely,” Esi Hutchful ’12 added.

Yale University and its students have had a long history of political engagement, particularly when it comes to armed conflicts, Larned professor emeritus of history Gaddis Smith ’54 GRD ’61 said. But eight years on, with the United States still committed to conflicts in Afghanistan and Iraq, students interviewed said they felt disengaged.

Ignorance may be playing a part in silence. Of 35 students interviewed, only four could guess within 10,000 how many servicemen and women the U.S. had deployed in Afghanistan. And while many of the students expressed surprise at the number of incorrect responses, they said the interviews suggest just how little students truly care to know about their nation’s conflicts.

(The United States will have roughly 68,000 troops deployed in combat and support operations in Afghanistan by the end of the year. About another 135,000 are in Iraq, drawing down as the U.S. prepares for a 2011 withdrawal.)

Diplomat-in-Resident Charles Hill, a long and vocal supporter of both wars, said in an e-mail he has not felt students are apathetic, hinting that their current silence is a result of agreement in the wars’ necessity.

“Students recognize, as President Obama has come to do, that these wars must be fought to a successful outcome if the Middle East region is to be stabilized and international peace and security maintained,” Hill said in the e-mail.

The last two full Yale Political Union debates on the wars were years ago — one in 2005 and one in 2007. And there are no registered undergraduate student organizations dedicated to Iraq, Afghanistan or the wars in the two nations.

Indeed, Yale is, by all accounts, decidedly less vocal than it has been in years past. And there seems to be little consensus, particularly among students, as to why they are tuning out the wars — the waning memories of Sept. 11, the divisiveness of the Iraq War and the economic crisis are each blamed for the timidity of campus discussion.

“Without an event like 9/11 to shock people,” Kristin Briggs ’11 said, “we tend to have a short attention span.”

And as Michael Kurland ’12 commented: “If it’s not in The New York Times’ headlines, I don’t read it.” He said many students he knew had similar or lower grasps of the conflict.

Smith said that, in recent years, he has noticed an ever-decreasing number of undergraduate students attending University events that deal with the Iraq and Afghanistan wars.

“In 2006, at the height of the Iraq War death toll, I spoke at a faculty-organized teach-in on the war, and I asked undergraduates in the room to raise their hands,” he said. “In a room of over 50 people, there were only two undergraduates.”

Paul Kennedy, a professor of history and the director of international security studies, recounted a similar trend in undergraduate turnout at Sept. 11 memorials through the years.

“I have tried to attend the small memorial service on the Beinecke Plaza each year, and noticed a diminishing number of Yalies attending; sometimes, it’s the National Guard, and a few of us,” he said in an e-mail.

This year’s Sept. 11 memorial service, a “remembrance” sponsored by the Chaplain’s Office, will be held in Battell Chapel from noon to 3 p.m., three hours shorter than last year’s service.

Comments

  • Should We Be Surprised?

    Of course people don’t know the fine details of the wars their country wages. The only way we can accept democratic responsibility for warfare and killing is by desensitizing ourselves to the horrors fighters and civilians on all sides experience. At the same time, gone are the days when Americans would be told of the deaths of thousands in one horrific swoop back in the days of WWII. Wars are becoming less shocking and less deadly in general.

    Hill’s comment was off the mark: we haven’t all “realized the necessity,” we just shunt those pesky pricks of conscience to one side so that life doesn’t become too depressing, what with all the state-sponsored killing.

    This is not to comment on whether or not awareness is a bad thing. I personally think it’s good to stay relatively informed. But mass media pick up on these little signals of ennui and tell us about what we’re interested in knowing, as opposed to what we need to know.