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.