College students grapple with the Persian Gulf War On Politics Today

Jack W. Germond & Jules Witcover

March 15, 1991|By Jack W. Germond and Jules Witcover

GREENCASTLE, IND. — Greencastle, Ind.

THE STATE of Indiana is famous for wearing its patriotism on its sleeve. From its two dominating war memorials in the center of Indianapolis to its array of American Legion and other veterans' groups across the state, Indiana reveres its military perhaps as no other single state.

So it was not surprising, on a short drive down Route 40 from Indianapolis to this small town that is home to DePauw University, to see flags and large yellow ribbons tied to telephone poles in every community along the way, augmenting elaborate signs that say things like, "We Support Our Hoosier Forces in Operation Desert Storm." Pride in the U.S. performance in the gulf seems especially deep here.

But that does not mean the war is escaping all critical reflection. On the DePauw campus, alma mater of Vice President Dan Quayle, a dozen politically focused undergraduates sat around a table the other morning and explored their feelings and ideas about the war and its aftermath. The comments reflected a mixture of satisfaction with the outcome and lingering questions about the wisdom of actions taken, the motivations behind them and the future.

A clear majority favored use of force. But Nate Boone, 22, of Sheridan, Ind., said sanctions should have been tried longer; that President Bush had ignored CIA projections that sanctions would be effective against Iraq in six months' time. He charged Bush with lying to the American people on how many troops were needed to do the job.

Others, like Stan McCoy, 19, of Alexandria, Va., and Mike Burton, 23, of Middletown, Ind., cited Bush's mobilization of the United Nations coalition as a necessary and positive element in the U.S. use of force, giving legitimacy to Bush's claim of a "new world order" for dealing with aggressor nations.

But Tim Goeling, 21, of Muncie, Ind., said it "seems like a very, very old world order" that "casts the United States in the role of policeman on the beat . . . the enforcer in the neighborhood, which I don't think is viable in the long term."

Stan McCoy noted that it is being said that in "the new world order" the United States "is the only superpower," with the Soviet Union in decline. He saw that as somehow "elitist . . . as if we're putting ourselves in charge of the world rather than sharing in a sort of co-equal partnership with the rest of the countries in the world." But creation of the UN coalition, he said, alleviated his concern in this regard.

Chris Stoll, 21, of Princeton, Ind., said that what was being seen as a Pax Americana was possible only because of the Soviet decline, and that without it any massive use of U.S. force would have been challenged by the Soviets.

Several of the students, in acknowledging that President Bush had "demonized" Saddam Hussein (with plenty of cooperation from him), said it was necessary to mobilize home front support. Erin Martin, 20, of Albuquerque said, "Americans needed a demon to focus their anger, their hate toward this individual" rather than rally for an economic reason such as protection of U.S. oil interests.

Tim Groeling said he thought Bush, "had a plan and . . . definitely wanted to go to war," but thought it pejorative to suggest that Bush had somehow conned the American people into their support by painting Saddam in the harshest terms.

Getting closer to their own lives, the DePauw students were asked about their attitudes toward a military draft, and the fairness of a volunteer army fighting a war. The consensus seemed to be that in a war only, a draft was legitimate, though some said they would favor some sort of national service, with military duty as one option.

Some suggested young people were lured into volunteering by high-powered advertising on self-improvement; others said they had made their choice and shouldn't have tried to wiggle out when war came. At the same time there was a clear sense that sacrificing was very uneven. "The only sacrifice I made," said Jamie Chapman, 20, of Denver, "was not watching prime-time TV during the first three days of the war." Stan McCoy called a suggested war tax "a great conscience-easier. . . . it's very easy to sacrifice with your wallet relative to sacrificing with your own blood."

Beyond all the flags and yellow ribbons in super-patriotic Indiana, these were some of the thoughts and concerns of young college Americans after a war that to them was not all as black-and-white as it seems to so many to have been.

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