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Against Apathy

By Samuel M. Simon

In the next few weeks, tens of thousands of civilians and troops will die. Or they won’t. After the bombing, hundreds of tanks will roll through the streets of Baghdad. Or they won’t. When the tanks withdraw, the Iraqi people will be left with a shattered humanitarian infrastructure, a ruined economy and an uncertain future. Or they won’t. The United States, and whatever allies it can muster, will be left with the price of the campaign and a staggering responsibility to build a democratic state from the rubble. Or it won’t.

The United States faces a decision that most members of the Harvard community have not seen before. There are dozens of legitimate arguments both for and against military action in Iraq, but one contention that has become disturbingly popular on campus is entirely indefensible: that American college students have no place in this country’s decision. Given the monumental stakes, American citizens of all stripes have a responsibility to participate in the debate over military action.

The first, unstated, reason for apathy on the issue of war is the general sense of remoteness from Iraqi suffering. Whether students believe that war will alleviate that suffering or exacerbate it, many are reluctant to spend their precious time worrying about the troubles of people they have never met. But President Bush’s willingness to go it alone puts a special responsibility on American voters. We are the only ones who can prevent or force a war. Demonstrators in Rome or Paris may be committed, but they didn’t elect the government that will make the final decision on Iraq, and they can’t get rid of it. Bush may not be a model of democratic decisionmaking, but he will listen to his constituents if they speak loudly enough.

A more common excuse for inaction in the face of war is the claim that Bush has made up his mind and any action will fall on deaf ears. But student activists have played an important role in foreign policy since the Vietnam Era and before. During the conflict in Vietnam, students dramatized the human consequences of the war and helped voters to understand a conflict that most had never heard of. Demonstrations and other forms of activism made headlines, and headlines turned a non-issue into the defining political question of a decade. Demonstrations still have the potential to put Iraq on the political agenda of American families more concerned with jobs and taxes than war on the other side of the world.

Of course, those who have not decided whether war is justified will understandably stay away from both the anti-war movement and the pro-war groups. But indecision should not be an excuse for inaction. Students who are uncertain about war should take advantage of the resources provided by both sides of the debate to learn about the issue. If study leads to a strong opinion, that opinion should serve as the basis for future action. If not, the honest pursuit of knowledge will contribute to the national debate.

The consequences of war are too overwhelming to remain uninformed and uninvolved. Aside from leading to the deaths of thousands, a conflict in Iraq has the potential to change the face of world politics. Advocates of war claim that it could provide a democratic example in the Arab world that will spread throughout the region. If this is true, it could reduce terrorism in the long run and put an end to the suffering of millions. However, if war in Iraq alienates America’s allies and radicalizes our enemies, we could feel the violent repercussions for decades.

War would also set in stone the Bush Doctrine of preemptive military action. This targeting of threats before they materialize will likely lead to a dramatic increase in military action abroad. Our generation will be asked to fight these wars: voluntarily or not. An increase in military action must also involve a switch in national priorities. If the United States chooses to spend more on the military, we must spend less somewhere else or face spiraling taxes and/or deficits. All the effects of war will be borne by our generation more than any other. We will pay the bills for increased military spending; we will be asked to bear arms around the globe; and we will be the victims or the beneficiaries of whatever changes come with this new doctrine of preemptive action.

A final excuse for inaction becomes more relevant as we move closer to war. Even those who are active now may be tempted to drop their efforts when the first bombs fall over Baghdad. This response is shortsighted. Most of the consequences of war in Iraq will play out over the long term. If war comes, the United States must still choose the manner in which that war will be fought and the level of commitment to freedom, justice and peace we will display after the war is over and Saddam Hussein is gone. Both sides of the debate over Iraq should agree that if the United States chooses war, we must be responsible for minimizing suffering and death, and building a new Iraq. It is the responsibility of the American people to ensure that the government makes good on its commitment to the Iraqi people.

If the U.S. is not justified in attacking Iraq, the human consequences of the invasion compel us to stand up against the march to war. If, on the other hand, the benefits of war outweigh the costs, then every citizen has a responsibility to push the country towards war. The conflict in Iraq is the defining choice for our generation. Differences of opinion are understandable; apathy is not.

Samuel M. Simon ’06 lives in Matthews Hall.

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