Obama’s State of the Union on Tuesday tried to address every major problem facing the U.S. in one hour. He arguably succeeded, despite getting interrupted by applause every couple of sentences. While most of what he discussed was to be expected–creating jobs, reforming education, celebrating his administration’s triumphs (or disasters, depending on your point of view)–at the end he touched on a topic one hardly hears discussed at Stanford or in the media: the nation’s two wars.
The United States is nearing its eighth year in Iraq and tenth year in Afghanistan. Perhaps not so coincidentally, the Stanford community got a chilling reminder on Monday night about the realities of war from authors and Vietnam veterans Tim O’Brien and Tobias Wolff. O’Brien and Wolff, who teaches English at Stanford, discussed their memories of war, its conflicts with ethics, and the role of conscience in society before a packed audience in Cubberley Auditorium.
The novelty of what these authors shared reinforced how distant we have become from our country’s present conflicts. “All I recalled was generalized chaos,” said O’Brien. “War erases memory. Chronologies get scrambled…. I wrote about the aftermath, what I carried with me for the rest of my life.” O’Brien went on to write novels that would make him one of the most famous voices of the Vietnam generation, including the fittingly-titled The Things They Carried. Yet as O’Brien pointed out, he had to press his content beyond “the killing and dying.” His anger–at the chicken-hawk politicians who had drafted him and sent him into the conflict without putting their own bodies where their thoughts were, at the supposed heroism of his task in the wake of My Lai, at the way war sought to “divorce him from life”–pushed him to expose the “petty horrors of war” that had evaded the rest of his countrymen. Ultimately, O’Brien’s work sought to answer the following question: what is the role of conscience in society?
We talk about conscience like an existential notion that we achieve when we know ourselves. Yet how can we know ourselves when we don’t even think about the men and women getting shot and blown up overseas supposedly defending our way of life? Wolff admitted at one point that he left for war seeking a taste of adventure, a desire that deserted him as soon as he arrived. His misconception is mild compared to the ambivalent way we view the volunteers who serve us today, if we even think about them at all.
O’Brien pointed out that people do not bother to ask much why we are at war anymore. In the foxholes, he added, the soldiers complained that they weren’t winning a war, but creating more enemies. Today, the concept of an enemy is so abstract that when a catastrophe actually reaches us, we have no sense of how to react. We acknowledge the headline–hey, we Stanford students have to be informed, right?–but it doesn’t stick. Although the Stanford students with whom I am acquainted are by no means the best representation of the student body, I never saw one student actually pause to comprehend the plight of Gabby Giffords and the other Tuscon victims, watch Obama’s speech at their funeral, or consider the overall implications of the event in our national discourse. The people of Tuscon rallied together, but what did we do at Stanford? We worried about whether or not Andrew Luck and Coach Harbaugh would stay next year. Search the websites of The Daily and The Review, our two main outlets for political conversation on campus, for any mention of Gabrielle Giffords or Tuscon. Not a word.
When asked if he thought our society had become one that tolerates and encourages violence, O’Brien noted that violence is “born out of absolutism, the view that all issues are black and white.” Our soldiers are taught to be absolutists, he added. When he served, they were forced to chant ad infinitum, “The spirt of the bayonet is to kill!” The society that backs the troops assumes it is right, that it is on the good side, and only reinforces these unhealthy ideals, which O’Brien equated with “mental illness.” And Stanford? If we have a point of view on the present wars, it is casual and dismissive. We’re above discussing Iraq and Afghanistan outside of class because we “know” them already, because the topic is stale. We assume our fellow students share the same positions. Can’t get much more black and white than that.
As Wolff said, “a kind of corruption had crept into the everyday” during his service and after his return home. Back then Americans had the draft, so at least everyone had a stake in the war being fought. Now, as that task is delegated to those willing to shoulder the burden, the corruption is deeper, beyond the point of recognition. We hardly know ourselves.