Shafer and Wittmer: Our silence is not agreement

Students at Yale don’t talk about Iraq and Afghanistan because we don’t have to. All too often, we’re apathetic about issues that seem distant from our lives, caring only about issues that seem to affect us directly or locally. We’re more likely to know yesterday’s Dow Jones average than yesterday’s death toll in Afghanistan; we’d sooner be discussing the quality of our own health care than the effect of occupation on Iraqi infrastructure.

Last Friday the News marked the anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks with an article describing Yalies’ ignorance of and inattention toward the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan (“Eight years later, a quiet campus on Sept. 11,” Sept. 11). The article posited several possible explanations for this disregard, including apathy among students and a lack of ongoing media coverage of the wars.

But the article also put forward another possible explanation, one advanced by Charles Hill, our university’s diplomat-in-residence. Apparently Hill wrote in an e-mail to the News that students remain unconcerned with the wars not out of apathy, but rather because, in a broad sense, they agree with American foreign policy at the present. The article cited Hill as writing that “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.”

We disagree strongly with Hill’s analysis of student inaction. It is our belief that students at Yale by and large pass over the wars not because we agree with the foreign policy ideas behind them, but rather because the privileged culture of the Yale campus has distanced American Yalies from the effects of our own nation’s foreign policy.

For us as students, the present conflicts in the Middle East carry few immediate consequences or repercussions upon our daily lives. In contrast to World War II and the Vietnam war, no draft today compels us to serve, and thus we have no sense of shared responsibility for the nation’s foreign action.

Most who join the military do so at least in large part because they want to serve their country, but far too many also are motivated in some part by financial considerations. Many see no other way to pay for higher education or to achieve financial stability. Due to generous financial aid and the wealth of many Yalies’ families, these considerations concern relatively few of us here. In this way Yalies (including the two of us) are additionally distanced from the real effect that war has on both occupied peoples and America’s soldiers.

Students at Yale can and will have differing opinions on the wars, but we cannot afford to ignore the conflicts. We have a moral responsibility to consider the effects of our nation’s policies on others, a duty to debate and discuss the decisions that our government makes in our name. It is therefore necessary that we seek to change the campus culture on this issue from apathy to engagement. We must focus on the wars precisely because they are so easy to ignore.

Oct. 7, 2009, will be the eighth anniversary of the invasion of Afghanistan. This date provides all of us here at Yale with the perfect opportunity to reignite campus conversation about an issue that has gone ignored for far too long. The Yale Political Union can play a crucial role in raising consciousness about this issue; indeed, it has been two years since the Union last held a debate on the wars, and it is high time for another.

In the context of a conflict fraught with religious tension and fundamentalist extremism on all sides, the University Chaplaincy also plays an important role in fostering discussion and dialogue. The College Democrats, College Republicans, and the various affiliates of Dwight Hall should band together to organize events for the anniversary week. In classic Yale style, a panel of experts, reporters and professors could convene to discuss the current state of the wars and debate where the United States should proceed from here. Other organizations across campus can contribute their own perspectives, and perhaps eventually new groups dedicated solely to the wars will be formed.

There is no time better than now to reopen this critical conversation. Let us break our tragic silence and show that we do care about our countrymen abroad, about the actions our government takes in our name and about those in other countries who feel directly the effects of our foreign policy.

Comments

  • Yalie

    This is a well-written, introspective piece. You do not speak for me, and at least some other Yalies, however. Your speculation that the rest of us are apathetic because we are privileged really only reveals your own worldview. Personally, I think that continuing the wars is less costly and more beneficial than ending them prematurely, but apathy has little to do with my opinion. Oversimplifying these issues is poor journalism.

  • Sam Huber

    Great article. I think even those of us who know enough about the wars to have formed opinions may deserve the apathy label simply because we do so little to act on them. Pieces like this are a necessary first step towards bringing these wars (which, in my opinion, are terrible by definition) back to the forefront.