Letter from Campus: Who Cared About the War?

Author: Ed Cohen

I looked back over my calendar and checked a few websites a minute ago to make sure I had the date right. It’s true. Less than two months have passed since President Bush went on national TV and announced U.S. forces had commenced bombing Iraq. It seems like a lot longer ago.

As I look out my Grace Hall office window now, what I can see of the campus looks deserted. All of the students except the seniors have gone home, and many of them are off at Cedar Point or somewhere enjoying Senior Week ahead of commencement. I’m trying to remember what it was like during the month or so when the war was going on.

Unlike during the Vietnam War, when Father Hesburgh famously gave disruptive student protestors 15 minutes to cut it out or face expulsion, nothing happened this time that people are going to be talking about three years from now, let alone 30. And maybe that’s for the best.

This was supposedly a hugely divisive issue—attacking a country we think means us harm before it can get a chance to attack us. Yet neither the preemptive war doctrine nor the war itself ever generated visible swarms of opponents or proponents here. Plenty happened on campus, but it never involved large numbers of people.

Which was a little disheartening to me personally.

I participated in and even helped organize and publicize candlelight peace processions and other antiwar events as virtually the only non-student member of the Notre Dame Peace Coalition, a Center for Social Concerns offshoot that formed in the wake of September 11. Our most provocative deeds, in students’ eyes anyway, were chalking antiwar sentiments on campus sidewalks during football weekends, like “A peace-loving country doesn’t start wars,” “Rule of law, not war of convenience” and “Catch al-Qaeda, don’t kill Iraqis.”

Our scheduled events, like the candlelight marches, drew plenty of media attention, especially leading up to the war, but usually not more than 70 or so actual participants. The exceptions were a student forum in the fall and a postwar Preemptive Peace Rally held on the Field House Mall in late April. Hundreds showed up for the rally, but some appeared to have come just for the free hot dogs and hamburgers—many of which I, pulling relief on the grill, managed to burn (the food, not the freeloaders).

The only significant gathering in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom was a Pro-America Rally organized by College Republicans. It was also held at the Field House Mall and drew an estimated 150 to 175 people. The event featured a talk by a conservative talk-radio personality who said war protestors hated America. He hadn’t reckoned on a dozen or so Peace Coalition members being present wearing bright yellow “Work for Peace” T-shirts and sincerely clutching the free plastic American flags the Republicans had handed out.

One afternoon while the war was in progress and apparently going well I went for a walk around campus in search of war-related signs in residence hall windows. I didn’t find many. On the front of Siegfried Hall an American flag and a “Peace with Iraq” banner fluttered side by side. (I counted a total of five more flags around campus.) A pair of large signs in the third-floor windows of Howard Hall read “Pray for Peace” and “Draft the Bush Twins.” A sheet on the side of Alumni Hall facing the Law School declared, “If we don’t stand for something we’ll fall for anything.” And then, less ambiguously: “Support our troops.”

Student sentiment about the war, quiet though it was, divided roughly along the same lines as in U.S. society as a whole. One week after the war’s beginning, a poll at the student website NDToday.com asked, “Do you support a war with Iraq?” Of nearly 600 responses, 55 percent said yes, 45 percent no.

The one place where the war debate raged was on the Viewpoint page of The Observer, but even there it was fueled partly by what might jokingly be termed “outsider agitators.” The paper on March 25, about a week after the war’s beginning, was a prime example. A student columnist, a senior, described her trip back to Europe over spring break; she’d studied in Innsbruck sophomore year. She said Europeans were constantly asking her opinion of President Bush and his war plans. She said she found herself struggling with how to represent herself as an American when she didn’t agree with what her country was doing.

A junior wrote about running the lakes on campus and thinking of his father, who had just been dispatched to Kuwait. A 1999 graduate described his being discharged from the military as a conscientious objector. He said the United States needed to address world poverty and not just make war on hostile regimes. Coincidentally, below this letter, a fellow 1999 grad, an Air Force first lieutenant, wrote from Saudi Arabia to criticize an earlier letter in The Observer, written by a student opposed to the war (he’d apparently read it online). Next to this, a junior took issue with the same letter.

At a meeting of the magazine’s Student Advisory Board held after the war had begun, a fifth-year senior told me her professors were “dumbstruck” by students’ lack of activism either for or against the war.

But the more I think about it, the situation made perfect sense.

Unlike their professors, nearly all of today’s students were born after 1980. The only wars they’ve lived through have been brief, video-game-looking affairs that entailed little loss of life (on the U.S. side anyway) and didn’t pose any threat of ensnaring them personally. No draft.

People with that kind of background and prospects aren’t likely to protest a war or demonstrate any deep personal interest in it before it starts.