Ben-Meir: Learn, then opine

Watching President Obama announce his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan, I did not know what to think. I hate war categorically, although I do not believe that war is never necessary. Like many in my generation, my perception of the use of American military power was powerfully shaped by the dishonestly conceived and disastrously executed invasion of Iraq. I do not completely trust the notion of a “war on terror,” executed as a perpetual and borderless conflict against an enemy without number or flag. But I also refuse to allow September 11 to become a distant memory and to forget the existence of implacable evil in the world. Certainly, there are those in the world who have legitimate reasons to hate the United States, but there is no way to legitimize the murder of innocents. And it is wrong to think that if only we act more rightly, the wrong in the world will suddenly cease to exist.

These concepts guided my reaction to the president’s speech, but I was asking the wrong questions. I believe that President Obama also hates war, and anyone watching the conflict playing across his face as he announced this escalation would be hard-pressed to disagree. And yet, he has chosen to escalate. To understand this decision, it is necessary to turn to a different set of questions, ones grounded more in the specific circumstance than a grand philosophical vantage. What is our objective in Afghanistan? Can we reach this objective through an increased use of American military power? Is the attainable objective worth the cost? Is it even the correct objective?

It is necessary to answer these questions to decide whether to support the president’s decision to escalate, and to answer these questions with any authority requires a good deal more work than we might like to admit. In the age of information, opinion often acquires the aspect of fact through overwhelming mass and deafening volume, but we should not be satisfied with rhetoric. Rather, we must privilege cold fact over hot emotion, history over speculation and a humble understanding of reality over the arrogant desire of will. Without this, a declaration of support or disagreement with this escalation is less a comment on the war than on the ideology of the speaker. It is the difference between saying “I am against this war” and insisting “This war is wrong.” Without knowledge painstakingly built, we cannot hope to claim moral authority. We are simply parading ourselves, turning our position on a war into another line of personal information on Facebook, with nobler intention but no greater legitimacy.

This is not to scold those who are not now scrambling to become experts on Afghanistan; I certainly am not, and could not condemn another for choosing my same path. But we often assume authority to pass moral judgements by virtue of being Yalies, and we must recognize that this is not the case. Whatever authority we gain from this place, we gain by virtue of our education here, what we learn, the richness and depth of our understanding as a result of the work we do.

I am by no means saying that those who make the effort to inform themselves should not add their voices to this (or any) debate, nor am I suggesting that the opinions of the uninformed are worthless. As students, as human beings and as citizens, we have a right and perhaps an obligation to have opinions about this war. But it takes work to gain the legitimacy necessary to elevate one’s private opinions into the realm of serious public discourse. If we want to talk about something other than ourselves when we talk about the war, or anything in the public sphere, we all have a lot left to learn.

Ilan Ben-Meir is a sophomore in Trumbull College.


  • SY ’11

    Frankly, Mr. Ben-Meir, this article says nothing. It seems you are only reminding us to think before we speak, to learn before we protest. Was this war really the necessary outlet for your pondering and reminders of childhood lessons?

    To the YDN: I’d rather this space not be a moral one with beautiful words that mean nothing…but doing what Ben-Meir seems like he would want. Contributing to our knowledge about, for example, the war. Instead of publishing him.

  • Y’11

    I certainly can’t see you arguing this when Bush sent the 30,000 troops to Iraq. Let me summarize it for the readers: “Oh my… Obama is sending more troops? I don’t understand. There must be a reason. My idol said something I dont agree with… maybe I should learn more about it. Before, I didn’t need to know anything about Afghanistan because the Democratic position was clear. But then, they changed their stance; so I thought I should find out more about it. Let’s all keep an open mind, learn, and have a conversation about it.”

    I’m sensing an element of you being… how should I put it… a PARTISAN HACK?

  • Another SY11

    I liked this one a lot, actually. It was actually, you know, BALANCED, and Ben-Meir accurately describes the deliberation must of us (I think) face when weighing the ongoing need for justice for 9/11 and the wariness of an offensive, costly and possibly long-term war. That said, I take issue with calling the Iraq war “dishonest.” Misinformed, yes, and very poorly executed, but it’s time to start quashing this ridiculous notion that Bush was sitting in his office steepling his fingers over a CIA report reading “NO WEAPONS OF WMD” while thinking “Oh whatever, we need oil and empire” and bungling on anyway.

  • ibenmeir

    To SY’11: Clearly, I disagree with your characterization. The point of the article was to examine the false conflation between private opinion and public discourse that I feel is becoming far too prevalent. I am not telling people to “think before they speak,” but suggesting that in the era of the instant expert, we have some humility, and not mistake our personal beliefs for definitive judgements on public matters. I would also suggest that if you are looking for knowledge about the war, rather than “a moral…with beautiful words,” a book, Foreign Affairs magazine, or one of the many foreign policy experts on campus might be a wiser choice than the opinion page of your college daily.

    Y’11: I probably would not have written this when Bush decided to surge, but I don’t think my points are partisan at all. While I really don’t know enough to speak with confidence, I am inclined to oppose this escalation, regardless of who is ordering it. My point is not about the escalation, but about the fact that it would have been absurd for me to write an article on “Why I Oppose the Escalation,” given my extremely limited understanding of the situation. Such an article would have told you a lot about me, and very little about the war itself. If anything, this piece is about getting beyond my gut-level reactions to politicians, at least when speaking in the public sphere.

    Another SY11:

    Thanks. I feel comfortable calling the war in Iraq “dishonest,” for reasons other than those you assigned to me, but I think that ground has been tread near to death. Even if that was was not dishonest, the widespread (though certainly not universal, or even general) perception that it was has an equivalent effect insofar as it deeply shaped my personal understanding of war-making in modern America. Regardless, thank you sincerely for interacting with what I actually wrote, and not assuming that, by virtue of my being a Democrat, everything I write is mindless, Obama-worshiping crap.

  • Agree

    Agreed with SY’11 (the first one.)

  • afghan

    One thing that is certainly a non-issue for Obama, the media, and the opining on the war in Afghanistan is the killing of Afghani civilians. In the hundreds of hours of coverage of this issue, has anyone asked how many Afghani men, women, and children have died in the last eight years? And how many more are likely to die due to putting thirty thousand+ more troops and however many drone missions that kill anything in site?

    What kind of public debate can be considered free and balanced when the lives of tens of thousands of dead Afghans does not even enter as a topic in public discourse?

  • Y’11 again

    Mr. Ben-Meir: maybe I was a little harsh and in an overly-sarcastic mood. That’s what the end of semester does to you.

    Anyways, I’m glad you got beyond your gut-level reactions to politicians, even if it took you this long.

    To me, the most dangerous political game is standing in the middle of the road, trying to please everyone but not committing to anything. This is especially true when the lives of our troops are at stake. It’s the worst thing to be like: “See, we’re going something about Afghanistan (to the righties). But don’t worry, we don’t have that large of a presence (to the lefties)” Please bring all of them home OR make sure you’re doing everything in your power to give them a winning chance. We can’t just send them to a suicide mission. This is why I applaud Obama for making this unpopular (at least with his own party), but necessary decision.

  • obamaaa

    It’s hilarious to see young liberals react to their idol sending more troops in a way that is inherently anti-liberal. So confused!

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