It’s sometimes hard to remember that the United States has been at war in Afghanistan for ten and a half years. Recent tragedies such as the killing of 17 Afghan civilians by US Army Staff Sergeant Robert Bales have shed light on the tolls of continuing this conflict. Such events are an impetus for Cornellians to reconsider our largely passive stance on continuing American engagement. As of late, there has been little mention or consideration of the war on campus. Ignoring the human element of war is dangerous, and could lead us to blindly stand by while Americans continue to risk their lives abroad.
Nationally, attitudes toward the war seem to be changing. According to a New York Times / US News poll released this week, American popular support for the war in Afghanistan has declined significantly. 69 percent of Americans now feel “the United States should no longer be at war in Afghanistan,” compared with 53 percent of those polled four months ago. Mounting opposition is built on perceptions that the war isn’t going well and leading to tragedy, both for Afghans and American soldiers. While our connections to the victims of 9/11 originally inspired support for the war effort, time, a regime change and the killing of Osama bin Laden have made the connection more tangential.
The effects of the war may be finally hitting home for Americans, but there still has been a lack of popular active opposition. Once upon a time, college campuses were bastions of anti-war activism. Cornell was no exception. During the Vietnam War, there were protests and teach-ins across campus. Pictures and testimony document a time when Cornell students took a stand on the war effort and sent a clear message challenging American involvement abroad.
Today, any campus discussion or debate over America’s engagement in foreign conflicts is far less visible. Whatever opposition to the war in Afghanistan exists is marginal at best. There are no mass campaigns, gatherings or signals that students care about the continued loss of life and resources. I’m sure that many students would say they oppose the war if asked, but we tend to see it as distant.
What makes the Afghanistan war less visible than our involvement in Vietnam, and why do Cornell students seem to care less? Obviously the scale differed, but in both cases, national support waned and the conflict seemed to drag out to a point where there was little to gain and much to lose. Now, however, Cornell students are isolated from the men and women engaged in combat. It’s easier to not have a personal connection to those fighting the war and forget many are close to us in age.
The draft in place during the Vietnam War meant Cornellians were intimately acquainted with those on the front lines. Student deferments meant that many young men were exempt from the draft during their time at Cornell, but the prospect of joining the military always loomed large. Leaving school or graduating meant reclassification and a draft card.
In any case, students had friends and family conscripted. For everyone on campus during the Vietnam era, there was a human face to be kept in mind when discussing the war. Students kept either their fate or that of a friend in mind when debating whether the United States was pursuing the right course of action.
Today on East Hill, we tend not to think of people when discussing the merits of continuing the war in Afghanistan. Part of this could be that the men and women serving our country are more anonymous to us. We don’t necessarily have a connection to someone on the front lines and certainly don’t see ourselves potentially having to be in that position. I, and presumably many of my fellow male Cornellians, registered for the Selective Service System on my 18th birthday. But I don’t realistically see the draft ever being reinstated.
Additionally, military recruiters aren’t exactly prevalent on campus. According to the US Army 2011 Demographics Profile, only five percent of active enlisted soldiers possess a bachelor’s degree. Enlisted soldiers tend to be the actual troops in combat. So, the front lines probably aren’t in our future.
The subsequent loss of a connection to the physical nature of war is accompanied by the generational gap. Most of our parents did not serve in the military, unlike our grandparents, so there is further distance from actualities of conflict. While Cornellians in the Vietnam era had significant knowledge of what combat entailed, we tend to lack an understanding of a soldier’s actual experience.
Of course, those in the military with college degrees are almost always commissioned officers. Many of these individuals, who still risk their lives and face considerable challenges, come from institutions such as Cornell. Our University has proud Air Force, Army and Navy Reserve Officer Training Corps. ROTC students are prominent on campus and will, upon graduation, serve in military leadership.
Their efforts, however, are evidently less visible than they were during the Vietnam era. Unlike in 1967, you no longer see “ROTC trainees charging across the Arts Quad with bayonets fixed.” Barton Hall seems distant except on days of CCC shows. We tend not to recognize that friends from class may be leading battalions in Afghanistan come June.
Our military is currently strained, and multiple, unexpected tours of duty are not uncommon. The implications for the mental and physical well-being of soldiers are particularly worrisome. Increasingly, pictures and testimony have made the conflict more personal than names printed in newspapers have in the past few years.
We at Cornell today, unlike students during the Vietnam War, may not easily identify with or be able to picture the troops at war. But that doesn’t mean we should take any less of a stake in its consequences. The decisions our leadership makes with regard to Afghanistan will impact countless young Americans, including our very own ROTC officers. The human faces on the front lines still exist, and will continue to do so unless we make more of a concerted effort to end the war. Cornell should still send a message it wants to bring the troops home, even if home for today’s troops isn’t East Hill.
Jon Weinberg is a junior in the School of Industrial and Labor Relations. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. In Focus appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.