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Poor Man's Fight

It’s not children of privilege who are dying in Iraq

By Phoebe Kosman

Spring has finally come to Cambridge. The air smells of lilac; flip-flops slap the brick sidewalks. Hemlines go up. Seersucker and madras glow prematurely, like early gladiolus. We are 19, or 20, or 21. During the day, we sprawl on patches of grass to sunbathe and complain about how much work we have to do, our voices floating to each other, languid, in the warm air. At night, music and laughter from formals drift from house courtyards out over the river.

And half a world away, American kids our age are dying in Iraq. Almost every day, below the headline “Names of the Dead,” the New York Times publishes their names according to the same stark formula: “The Department of Defense has identified 768 American service members who have died since the start of the Iraq war. It has confirmed the death of the following Americans.” And then the names follow, and the ages—18, 19, 20, 21—and the hometowns.

It’s the hometowns that are telling. The kids who are dying are from places like Arkansas, Nashville or Ayden, North Carolina. They may be members of our cohort, but they aren’t our peers, exactly—they’re less New York than we are, less East or West Coast. They’re Southern kids and Midwestern kids, kids for whom the army means a way out of their little town and maybe some money for college. They’re the kids for whom the army has set up the recruiting website goarmy.com, where you can download the “highly realistic” America’s Army game or play the Army Racing game (“satisfy your need for speed”). They’re kids who are shot by snipers or blown up by car bombs before they have a chance to spend the tuition money they’ve earned under the Montgomery G. I Bill.

Like the Vietnam and the Civil War before it, the conflict in Iraq has become a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight. The draft sending kids to Iraq may be an informal, economic one—but it is no less effective for that. During the Civil War, $400 could buy a drafted man a substitute to go to war in his stead. During Vietnam, there were deferments for men going to college, and exemptions for boys like our President, well-connected enough to wrangle a place in the National Guard. It came down, of course, to a class divide. My father, who grew up in Rust Belt northern Ohio, knew boys who died in Vietnam; my mother, who is from Brooklyn, didn’t even know anyone who went. During this war, the exempt are kids who are rich or those ambitious enough to clamber out of their little towns without joining the Army—or who are lucky enough not to hail from those little towns in the first place. And it is the names of the kids who weren’t rich or lucky that appear almost every day now in the New York Times, followed by their age and their rank and their hometown.

We, of course, are the lucky ones. If we hailed from little towns at all—and few of us did—we got out without having to enlist. We took Expos instead of basic training. And now, while the names of the dead fill newspaper columns, our biggest concerns are writing papers and studying for tests and finding a pair of shoes that will match the dress we want to wear to the House formal.

Should we feel guilty? I think so. Increasingly, we are haunted by the suspicion that we could have done something to prevent the mess that Iraq had become. Our protests against the war seem like inadequate liberal window-dressing when you think of the pictures of broken bodies, American and Iraqi, that increasingly burn from the pages of magazines and newspapers. It has been easy to think of, and to protest, this war without thinking of the soldiers who are fighting it. Both hawks and doves’ discussions of the war have taken place in a theoretical realm, invoking grand concepts—“regional stability,” say—without descending to consider the 20-year-old kids who are dying to enforce those concepts.

There is not an easy solution. I do not think it would be moral to seek martyrdom by enlisting to serve in a war we don’t believe in. Neither would reinstating the draft result in anything other than a demoralized armed forces and a renewed flight to Canada. And the Army cannot make itself less attractive to potential recruits. If there is a solution at all it is to provide 18-year-olds in West Virginia with better options: better jobs or a better chance at education. As for those of us at Harvard, we children of privilege: we must remember what it’s like to be 20. And in 30 years, we must not allow another generation of twenty-year-olds to be shipped overseas on the flimsiest of pretenses.

Phoebe Kosman ’05 is a history and literature concentrator in Winthrop House. Her column appears regularly.

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