Sunday, November 26, 2006

Over There


With no obvious personal stake in the war in Iraq, most Americans are indifferent to its consequences. In an interview last week, Alex Racheotes, a 19-year-old history major at Wesleyan University in Connecticut, said: “I definitely don’t know anyone who would want to fight in Iraq. But beyond that, I get the feeling that most people at school don’t even think about the war. They’re more concerned with what grade they got on yesterday’s test.”

His thoughts were echoed by other students, including John Cafarelli, a 19-year-old sophomore at the University of New Hampshire, who was asked if he had any friends who would be willing to join the Army. “No, definitely not,” he said. “None of my friends even really care about what’s going on in Iraq.”

This indifference is widespread. It enables most Americans to go about their daily lives completely unconcerned about the atrocities resulting from a war being waged in their name. While shoppers here are scrambling to put the perfect touch to their holidays with the purchase of a giant flat-screen TV or a PlayStation 3, the news out of Baghdad is of a society in the midst of a meltdown.

When I was an undergraduate student, at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, it wasn't that way for us. I knew two people who went to Gulf War the First quite well, had many other friends who expected to go but fortunately didn't have to, and was within a couple of degrees of separation of dozens who went. The point is pretty much everyone on campus knew people who went. A lot of students were in the National Guard because it helped pay for college. Some of them went to Iraq.

At the school I was last teaching, Bryn Mawr College, it was as Hebert described.* No student I talked to knew anyone who was going to Iraq (I'm sure there were students for whom that wasn't the case). It just wasn't in the air. It was something for other people.

Anyway, my point is that I'm sure there are college students for whom Iraq is very real, and whose friends/boyfriends/girlfriends have served. But the farther you get away from elite institutions, the more likely that's the case.

*Clarifying - there were certainly students who were much less apathetic than Hebert describes, but it was still something for other people.