A crime against trust

Today’s young people seem destined for disillusionment.

Photo Illustration by Tina Flynn

It was nearly two years ago that the U.S. went to war in Iraq. The week the war began, I asked my freshman-level college students to write brief in-class essays on that subject. What follows is some of what I received in reply (exactly as written).

From a young man: “I’m glad we finally went to war with Iraq. We wait to long to do so. Sadam was just building weapons and we knew it. We should of went in there and destroyed them. I thinks it is time to get serious with this War and destroy everything that has anything to do with Sadam or the military. We can’t just sit back anymore because the Iraques have to be planning some sort of big attack on us. I thinks its lame if other countries think we are doing bad thing because first off, we are threatened by these people and second we are the only country with balls to try and stop them. I am all for war and killing Sadam and destroying the nucular bombs they have to have.”

From a young woman: “When I first hear that we were at war, I couldn’t believe it. I knew that it was a possibility, but by the way Bush kept extending Irac’s time to dis-arm, I thought the possibility of going to war were slim. I’m totally for the war because somethings needed to be done with Iraks pres. It does scare me, I have three friends from school & a cousin fighting over there for our freedom. I have family over see’s protecting us Americans. I hope the war gets resolved quickly.”

From a young man: “I am for the war because of what happened on September 11. Iraq deserves what is happening to them. Not the civilians, but Sudham and his army. I have friends in the military. It scares me that they are over there, but I know they are strong and they will stick in there.”

From a young woman: “I have never felt that war is a good thing. There are usually better ways to solve problems. However, when I watched the Twin Towers fall on the news, and heard about the airplanes being hijacked, I didn’t feel safe. The terrorist strikes had to stop. This is ‘the land of the free’ and we should feel safe here. I feel that this war needed to happen. We sat around for too long anyways, and I am glad we are finally standing up for ourselves. If we didn’t do anything, then what would make them stop? Although war is never good, we had no other choice.”

From a young man: “War with Iraq, right or wrong? So many diffrent posibilities and reasons that we are at war but the question I wonder is it a Bush thing or what? How come Clinton didn’t lead us to war, why did it take Bush Jr. to declare war. All this time went by and while we were pointing fingers and saying how Sadahm was getting all these chemical, and biological weapons time just past. If in fact he was, why didn’t we just go in before it got out of hand. So here we are and I feel lots of American lives will be lost before it’s all said and done.”

From a young woman: “I don’t exactly know how I feel about the war. In some ways I agree with it and in some ways I don’t. I do know one thing though. I sure don’t agree with killing innocent people that are just like us, but I do agree with protecting our country.”

From a young man: “First of all, Sadahm allready is prepared to lose, but not without a fight. He didn’t get all these weapons not to use them. They’re not there to just look at, he plans on using them we all know that, it’s just a matter of when and how.”

From another young man: “I do support Bush because it was about time we did something about it but, I just question him. S—t we still haven’t got Bin Lahdin and Bush promised that Bin would pay for what he did, yet he’s still at large. So what, were we going to distroy the hole country and Sudahm still won’t come up. I just don’t think we do things right sometimes.”

According to all the polling data at the time the war began, some 82 percent of Americans supported the action. More than half of that 82 percent believed that Saddam Hussein had a direct hand in the events of Sept. 11, an utterly false notion nurtured into majority consensus by Bush, Cheney and other administration spokespeople. My tiny sampling of student opinion mirrored the country’s support for the war almost to the precise percentage— 8 out of 10 of my students were strongly for going to war in the week the bombing began.

When I first read those student papers two years ago, I was discouraged by the responses. What, I wondered, could make my students accept the case for war so uncritically? Had they not been schooled in skepticism, taught by teachers from my generation, a generation grown cynical through a history of governmental duplicity from the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, through Watergate, and beyond? In the time-honored tradition of aging men everywhere, I wondered: “What the hell is the matter with young people these days?”

Isn’t it, after all, only natural for the young to distrust the old, for people in college to question the wisdom of their elders? Or, at the very least, is it not a simple matter of self-interest to withhold credulity from men empowered to shape and reshape the map of their lives?

But then my thoughts turned over. Faith in leaders is not unnatural, I thought; it’s the most natural of attitudes. People in a democracy should be able to assume that their leaders will tell them the truth, will not mislead them or deceive them; will not make a case for perilous action based on misrepresentations of the facts. What my students were sharing in their poor prose was little more than what they’d been told.

There is nothing unnatural in young people showing respect for the statements and opinions of national heroes like Colin Powell. There is nothing unnatural, even, about young people assuming that they need not pay heed to the news (or the spelling of evil men’s names or the countries we make war upon). After all, people far more knowledgeable are on the case, good people who have only the nation’s best interests at heart. There is every reason for a generation of young people whose entrance into the adult world coincided with a fierce and cowardly attack on their homeland to assume that the people in charge of defending them are wise in judgment and unambiguous in motivation.

Besides, these young people are rather busy tending to hormones, going to work and going to school, adapting to seismic life adjustments like learning to do their own laundry and buy their own groceries. They are engaged in the formation of their personalities and their characters. In an age of stultifying cultural conformity, there is no reason to believe that mostly underprivileged young people in a boondock community college would have cause to differ with the vast majority of their countrymen throughout the land.

Now, nearly two years later, with 1,500 young American and, by some estimates, as many as 100,000 Iraqi lives lost, it is clear that much of what my students were told by their leaders was not true, that the stated reasons for going to war were invalid.

Like my generation before them, these young people seem destined for disillusionment. Or, in the immortal words of the president: “There’s an old saying in Tennessee—I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee—that says, fool me once, shame on—shame on you. Fool me—you can’t get fooled again.”

If, as evidence strongly suggests, a crime has been committed against the sacred trust people place in their institutions, that crime will haunt the nation for a long time to come.