Are students going to make any difference in the war in Iraq, or aren’t we? The question has been popping up in the News recently. The debate is heading in the right direction by asking what we, a bunch of promising college kids, should be demanding of ourselves as the war prepares to enter its fifth year.
The main complaints against students seem a bit repetitious. No one at Yale cares enough to make it down to Washington and stick it to the president (“Few Elis attended D.C. anti-war rally,” 1/29). Our generation’s and student body’s disconnectedness from Iraq, as pointed out in professor Joel Rosenbaum’s letter Tuesday, is disheartening to those who were in college during Vietnam (“Reinstatement of draft would help galvanize protests against Iraq war,” 1/30).
The News’ View on Friday went after the other central criticism of privileged college students’ apathy: our reluctance to join the Army. The News argued that by sticking to our civvies, our generation is not cynical or uncaring, but “is choosing instead to maintain the healthy skepticism that has been part of America since our Constitution writers thought up the idea of balance of powers.” It’s a noble thought, and I’ve always believed that active criticism of the United States can constitute constructive patriotism.
Still, there’s a major catch here. The News’ argument relies on the idea that young, healthy skeptics have passed up the chance to serve in the military only after giving it serious consideration. The editorial goes so far as to claim that, “with the war such a common topic of discussion, everyone has at some point considered, however briefly, whether dress blues could be for them.” This simply is not so, not on this campus, and not on campuses like this one, especially those in the Northeast. Refusing to consider joining up is not necessarily a collective moral failing. It is true that most college-age people who have their lives ahead of them simply do not want to risk those lives for a cause that seems remote and a war that has blown out of control, and there’s nothing blameworthy about that.
Many of us are certainly skeptics about this war and the evolving role of the American military, myself included. But are we active skeptics, as the News implied? I’m not yet cynical enough to say that opposing the war on a college campus is a purely intellectual exercise, but it’s coming close. If the News’ point is true, if we students have chosen not to become soldiers — but instead to become active questioners of American military power — perhaps hundreds of us would have headed down to the Washington rally last week. Only two students went.
Maybe the News was right to say that “the failure of students at institutions such as Yale to enlist in large numbers could be taken simply as our reluctance to trust anyone’s judgment unquestioningly.” But the idea pays a compliment to the supposed fiber of a Yalie’s intellectual nature while backhandedly insulting those who do enlist. It also implies that military-minded Yalies are not up to the intellectual par of nonmilitary Yalies, a distinction that is simply not valid. I find it hard to believe that a Yale student who enlisted in the Army would make the kind of soldier who would immediately give up the ability to question another’s judgment. I would hope that future soldiers coming from this University would be able to choose between the “just following orders” excuse and the need to make hefty moral decisions in a crucial situation.
Avoiding the military to resist following orders points to a larger problem that implicates many an ambitious Yale student. In the context of the military, the “anyone” of the above quotation is unquestionably the government. One day, sooner or later, that “anyone” will include graduates of this University. They will be asking future generations of soldiers in future wars to risk their lives by trusting in their judgment unquestioningly. Can we pride ourselves on refusing to take orders while using our education as a stepping-stone toward giving them?
In his letter to the News yesterday, Rosenbaum wrote, “The reason for this placidity [of students] is quite simple: … There is no draft and, therefore, no strong drive for students to protest.” I agree with him. What I certainly do not agree with is Rosenbaum’s suggestion that the United States reinstate the draft to get students to start caring about the war. His idea that the draft will provide “a quick end to our presence in Iraq” may be well-intentioned, but it is as rash as it is questionable. The White House’s indifference has shown us the irrelevance of marching and protesting, and the civil war and increasing body count overseas suggest that going into the military only to die in Iraq may not be any more successful in solving the problems of the war. If these approaches aren’t working, I want to know what we Yalies who do not plan to enter the military can do to engage with the problem of Iraq in a way that is neither apathetic nor dogmatic.
Alexandra Schwartz is a sophomore in Saybrook College. Her column appears on alternate Wednesdays.