Mids, 'Johnnies' Split On Views Of War

War In The Gulf

January 20, 1991|By Gary Gately | Gary Gately,Staff writer

Two sides of a street in one of the prettiest parts of the state's capital present a microcosm of sorts of a nation riveted by war. Witness the climate of campus sentiments, and what a difference a walk or even quick glance across the street can make:

On the one side of King George Street, at St. John's College, many proudly sported uncombed hair, unshaven faces and well-worn, wrinkled clothing. The talk turned to unforeseen quagmires, body bags, a possible draft, morals, hypocrisies and contradictions.

Across the street, at the U.S. Naval Academy, midshipmen with stern soldier faces, razor-sharp creases in their pants and not a hint of stubble carried out their daily regimen with hardly a hitch. The little talk of war that could be heard among midshipmen came with unequivocal support for President George Bush, a necessary battle of good and evil and a U.S. military certain to succeed.

They stand at thebrink of adulthood, this generation that grew up on Ronald Reagan and for the most part never knew America at war -- only U.S. military actions that ended quickly and decisively, tailor-made for instant gratification.

And depending whom among them you talked to last week,their country now stands at the brink of quickly defeating an evil tyrant who threatens freedom itself . . . or at the brink of suffering a long, costly war few will support by the time it ends.

At St. John's, about 100 students gathered in a campus lounge Thursday, the day after U.S. war planes began storming into Iraq.

Harvey Flaumenhaft, acting dean at the 500-student liberal arts campus, had sent all the students a note suggesting they come together by a huge hearth and sort out their feelings about the war.

A somber, reflective mood prevailed -- one student reading Dante's "Inferno" said President Bush had just led the country into an inferno of its own -- as students sat by the fire or milled about, sipping hot apple cider and munching chips.

Many "Johnnies" said economic sanctions should have been given more time, while others suggested the United States never should have involved itself in the dispute to begin with.

Aaron Finkelstein, a 21-year-old sophomore with scraggly black hair, seemed to sum up the sentiments of many on the traditionally liberal campus.

"There just isn't anything worth dying for in this war," said Finkelstein. "And then there's the moral argument that we're there defending innocent people being exploited. That holds a lot of water, I tell you. Where was America during all the other human rights abuses in the world? America doesn't seem to care about them."

Not everybody on campus shared that view, though.

David Trimmer, a 20-year-old junior, paused on the way to his daily volleyball match to defend the American-led war and the president.

"We have a chance to do something now we've been trying to do since 1914 -- establish world order and make borders and laws mean something," he said.

That's a distinctly minority view, said Amanda Klein, co-editor of the independent campus weekly, The Gadfly. Klein, a 21-year-old sophomore, said students overwhelmingly oppose the war. Many, she said, fear the initial euphoria could quickly sour in the face of a protracted conflict, heavy U.S. casualties or a military draft, perhaps without student deferments this time.

Such fears could be heard again and again on the campus last week -- in somber lounges, on the well-kept lawns, in a classwhere students took a break from Thucydides to talk about modern-day warfare.

While the opposition has remained low-key compared with large-scale protests at some campuses, anti-war sentiments could be seen everywhere. Signs advertised a Washington anti-war rally that 50to 75 students have attended daily since Thursday: "Stop Bush's War.Bring the U.S. Troops Home Now."

In the campus lounge, site of Thursday's gathering, about 50 names of students' friends and relatives in the Persian Gulf covered one blackboard. Information on yesterday's anti-war rally in Washington covered another. Nearby, on a bulletin board, hung a copy of The Washington Post, with about 10 St. John's students in a rally picture.

You'll find none of the above across the street at the Naval Academy, of course.

First, you have to get past the two guards in combat fatigues who stopped every car and every pedestrian, even an elderly woman walking her dog.

While the acting dean invited everybody to gather and chat at St. John's, the academy urged midshipmen not to talk to the press, even forbidding it on campus.

The academy's superintendent, Rear Adm. Virgil L. Hill Jr., issued a statement that read:

"The safety of our friends and shipmates is foremost in our minds, and they, as well as all participants in Operation Desert Storm, are in our prayers. We know they are all well-trained, ready and will accomplish their assigned mission."

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