The day following Secretary of State John Kerry’s aggressive speech on Syria, Ian Hurd, a political science professor at Northwestern University, wrote an op-ed for The New York Times with the headline “Bomb Syria, Even if It Is Illegal.”
The headline disturbed me.
Hurd discusses the legal issue of chemical warfare in Syria with plenty of historical precedence to prove his point. But implicit in his argument is the mentality that one must keep one’s self removed from the pathos of war in order to make sound and diplomatic decisions. The problem with such news is that it placates the instinct we have that says war is wrong. It legitimizes death and suffering under the façade of legal and “rational discourse.”
For the past two weeks, I’ve been following the media’s coverage of Syria religiously, which is admittedly out of character for me. The callousness that Hurd and others have applied to the Syria case is not unusual.
I can’t tell you how many times I’ve read or overheard people say, as a point of pride, that the Vietnam War defined an entire generation of Americans. Surely, generations of Vietnamese people were defined by the war, too — by decades of famine, sickness and poverty.
Even worse, I’ve heard people say on more than one occasion that the U.S. and its allies should just “bomb the f–k out of the Middle East.”
It is what happens when you perceive war as a low-stakes game. When it comes to talking about foreign affairs, students also try to conceal their inexperience with extreme rhetoric, using the force of their language to mask the magnitude of their ignorance.
For instance, students can seem proud of their extreme, but poorly formed, opinions on international affairs and throw around details as small talking points, banter that serves their vanity alone. They dismiss the grave realities of warfare for the luxury of impressing their friends with a few one-liners, exchanging trivia for thoughtfulness.
There can be little confrontation with the true horrors of war when people are blindsided by their own bravado. There is little consideration to the way war affects civilians. Perhaps this mentality wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t the same mentality that informs policymakers and university professors, like Hurd at Northwestern. The way we learn about world affairs makes it difficult for us to synthesize the information we receive more thoughtfully.
I’m not sure if this ignorance is self-imposed or a matter of access to information.
While the death toll of soldiers and civilians is easily found, there is little coverage that does justice to the suffering experienced moments before death. On the other hand, inexperienced students keep only a small circle of news sources at hand and rely on political personalities to form their opinions. Surely, it is easier to stay emotionally distant from the worst of it all, preferring to stay comfortable, insulated and entertained.
Reach the columnist at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her at @ce_truong.