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Book of Matthew: War stories

Published: April 29, 2011
Section: Opinions


If you look closely enough, you can still find the picture floating around on the Internet. I found it a few days ago without meaning to on the Mother Jones magazine website. In it, a group of U.S. Army soldiers prepare to board a helicopter that has just landed in Afghanistan. They keep their weapons raised as their eyes scan the horizon, searching for things unseen.

The title of the picture says it all: “We’re Still at War.” These days, we need reminding.

Long gone is the flag-waving furor that kick-started our foray into the Middle East; gone as well are the protest marches that tried to stop it. We—and by “we,” I mean college students—have entered a third phase: a quagmire of apathy as widespread and complex as the quagmire of Afghanistan.

I can only remember one major anti-war demonstration in the four years I have spent here. In March 2008, several campus organizations organized a march to protest the Iraq War on its fifth anniversary. About 100 students—myself included—put up signs and chanted all the way down from the Rabb steps to Shapiro Campus Center, where we sang protest songs, sent letters to members of Congress, and had the opportunity to hear both Catholic chaplain Father Walter Cuenin and Protestant chaplain Alexander Kern speak.

The whole thing lasted for maybe an hour or two, and then we all left, going our separate ways to class, or to the library, or back to the dorms to hang out with our friends until slowly, one by one, we forgot about what we had done. And why not? After all, whether the war continued or ended, would our comfortable lives at school really be affected?

What a difference a few decades bring. It was 60 years ago when Abram Sachar, Brandeis’ first president, told the Justice that the university’s expansion plans would operate on the assumption that between 30 and 50 percent of male enrollment would be drafted into the armed forces to serve in the Korean War. And it was 41 years ago when Brandeis became the headquarters for the National Strike Information Center, which collected information about ongoing Vietnam protests across the nation and published newsletters for participating schools and strikers.

We’re lucky. We don’t have to deal with the same kind of fear and uncertainty as our forebears. We don’t have to fight our government’s foolish wars if we don’t want to. But we also don’t have to think about them.

I was reminded of this during winter break when I took a trip to Israel via the Taglit-Birthright Israel program. Our group was visiting Haifa, and because Haifa and Boston are sister cities, we made a special trip to a Haifa high school to meet with some of the students there.

We split into smaller groups and filed separately into classrooms, each group with two Haifa students.

I don’t remember why we started talking about the military. Maybe it’s inevitable when you’re sitting in a room with two people who are only a year or so away from being drafted by their own country. But I do remember one of the students asking us if we had ever considered enlisting ourselves.

Our response consisted of a few shaken heads and a murmured “umm, no.”

In a way, it highlighted a different sort of Brandeis bubble. One girl mentioned that where she came from, there were no Memorial Day parades. Another said that she didn’t know anyone who had ever served in uniform.

I remember being shocked for a moment but ultimately not surprised. Military presence on campus is small: Last time I checked, only two Brandeis students participate in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps program (which is held at Boston University). Last semester, they were featured in a Justice article, with a headline that had to clearly explain what ROTC was. The Justice editors clearly knew their audience.

I used to think that I had a passing familiarity with the military. Not the I-play-Call-of-Duty-and-cite-weapons-specs-at-parties kind—it’s simpler than that. I know a few guys from high school who, for one reason or another, chose to enlist. I still have the empty shell casing from when my grandfather had been buried with full military honors. These weren’t things that I had thought about very much but, when I did, I realized that they didn’t add up to a whole lot.

What I didn’t want to say to the Israelis—what I couldn’t bring myself to say out of embarrassment—was that they were talking to the wrong people. We belonged to a demographic that, statistically speaking, does not join the American military—we were white, middle-to-upper-class and in college.

The old story goes that President Nixon sought to end the draft so that young people, especially affluent ones, would stop protesting once they realized they wouldn’t have to fight. At that point, it wasn’t much of a political battle. The draft had become so unpopular that both parties eventually embraced its demise and the Vietnam War itself soon followed. To some, it was a double victory. But things changed as Americans got used to the idea of an all-volunteer military.

Much has been written about student response to war in recent years. Many before me have decried the seeming growth of apathy on campuses. Others, speaking in defense of students, say that we are just as active as we have always been. The only difference is what we focus on. As one Harvard College assistant dean told The Boston Globe in a 2007 article about this issue, students prefer to “focus on causes they can see in front of them.” He cited a hunger strike that was held in support of better working conditions and pay for campus security guards.

As clichéd as it sounds, I tend to agree with both sides. I certainly don’t want to discount the work that many college activists are doing on smaller scale projects, and we will always need that work.

But certain truths still remain: Combat troops are leaving Iraq, but we’re still there to “advise” and “assist” the new government. The nearly 10-year war in Afghanistan is only growing larger. And lately we’ve been intervening in Libya, though most Americans are not sure what that means.

“We’re Still at War.” It’s as true a statement today as it was three years ago, or 10 years ago, or even 45. As citizens, we have always been indirectly responsible.

So I hope we can learn to show awareness, regardless of self-interest. Because as it turns out, ending the draft may have been the greatest trick that Dick Nixon and his cronies ever played on us.