Postwar, a dimmed idealism

Published December 8, 2007

"But all is changed, that high horse riderless ..."

- W.B. Yeats

For more than six years now, I have been president of a residential liberal arts college of roughly 1,800 students from 50 states and dozens of foreign countries. Eighty percent of those students live on campus. Like most residential colleges, mine takes the opportunities (and challenges) of educating young people outside the classroom to be just as important, just as informative, as those inside the classroom. The lessons, formal and informal, we teach our students are of course supplemented by their experiences in the world outside the college gates, where they work, volunteer, play and vote.

Our students are not easily fooled: They know that the deepest lessons are not taught, but lived. Listening to them, and remembering my own student days during the raging Vietnam controversies, I find the lessons we are currently teaching them about public life are ethically disturbing and may presage a generation - not unlike a good segment of mine - that is permanently troubled by the national experience of a foreign war of questionable purpose and prosecution. Those lessons include:

- The defense of torture. Before 2001, it was common wisdom that Americans were against torture. Our national culture did not accept nor did it approve torture as a legitimate or moral weapon. Period. We assumed (and we were right) that our soldiers did not even torture the Nazi and Gestapo murderers of millions.Now, torture as a legitimate tactic is routinely parsed by our government and practiced by our army (if only Abu Ghraib were the single aberration to our national practice). As Andrew Sullivan recently observed in the Sunday Times of London, comparing what the United States now condones to the practices of Hitler's Germany, "Verscharfte Vernehmung, enhanced or intensified interrogation, was the exact term innovated by the Gestapo to describe what became known as the 'third degree.' It left no marks. It included hypothermia, stress positions and longtime sleep deprivation." The best face one can put on this extraordinary lesson for the young people of America is that the use of torture is now eminently debatable.

- The acceptance of outsourcing war as American practice. Many of our students are well aware that their own quiescence and that of the larger society (unlike our Vietnam experience), as well as the failure to provide adequate troops for our Afghanistan and Iraqi missions, are a result of the absence of a draft, andthat the alternative has also been to outsource much of the war effort to supply construction and security contractors (some 180,000, more than our troop strength in Iraq at any time), including such firms as Blackwater. Our students were taught, as I was, that George Washington won the Battle of Trenton after crossing the Delaware partly because he and his patriots were fighting Hessian mercenaries who had no real passion for the cause for which they fought.

- The implication that war is primarily an enterprise for citizens from the lower economic stratum of our society. The current approach is not consistent with the long-standing practice of the United States to compose its military forces from all economic levels of society and is ostensibly a result of the absence of the draft. While not having a draft has certainly made the lives of college students, not to mention college administrators, more pleasant and less fraught with impending stress and peril, it may be teaching a lesson that we do not really want to teach.

There are, of course, many other lessons our students - and millions of others - are learning from this defining episode in our American narrative. What they will do with what they have - or think they have - learned is another matter. It is still not clear, for example, that we learned much from Vietnam: Our policies in Iraq are overwhelming evidence of that.

I will, though, venture this: Today's students will not blame George W. Bush or Donald Rumsfeld or Dick Cheney for the apparent ineptitude and immoralities of the Iraqi war and subsequent occupation. They will not remember who was who, or whether they were red staters or blue staters. Parties and personalities will fade away soon enough; when President Bush was re-elected in 2004, the Iraq war became no longer his war, but ours. What our students will remember is that the lessons of Iraq taught them that many of the high ideals they had for the United States of America before 9/11 no longer apply to the country they now live in. They may be more sophisticated, more subtle in their considerations of what is good and true and what is not. But, with respect to patriotism, they have lost their innocence, and with some part of it their hopes and ideas for what America can be and should be.

Donald R. Eastman III is president of Eckerd College, a national, private liberal arts college in St. Petersburg related by covenant to the Presbyterian Church (USA).