"A New Year's Letter to Students"
January 14, 2003
In this letter addressed to his students at the University of Vermont, US, the writer makes a strong case against the Bush administration's planned attack on Iraq, arguing that the action will put a premium on the doctrine of pre-emption as a cover for military offensives by countries, big or small, against their perceived adversaries in disregard of international law and morality.
In the course of thirty-two years of teaching I have never written a letter like this. Deeply troubled by the looming war with Iraq, I am particularly concerned with what it may mean for you, as you look forward to a life I hope will be full, exciting, and rewarding.
Fifteen months ago at the start of a class in modern poetry, a student reported she had just heard that a plane flew into one of the towers of the World Trade Center. At that moment it seemed a small event, an accident; I remember thinking that it was probably a small plane, flown by an amateur pilot. An hour later, when the class ended, we discovered what people the world around were also discovering: a terrorist attack had badly damaged both towers of the World Trade Center. Like you, I watched in horror as television revealed, at the moment of its happening, the collapse of first one tower, then the other. Few moments can be said to be seared into a nation’s consciousness. This was certainly one.
We in America have come to understand that we live in a less certain world, a world more prone to violence, than existed for us heretofore. The threat of terror is now taken as a fact of contemporary existence: if it does not reveal itself in our everyday activities, we suspect it lurking just beyond the boundaries of the ordinary. Terror intrudes on our dreams and gnaws at our hopes for the future.
In a world made more dangerous, more precarious, by any sort of threat, one’s first reaction is to build defenses. Thus, shoes as well as baggage are inspected when one boards a plane. Terror alerts appear on television in the same fashion as hurricane or flood alerts. Sadly, the fear of terrorism has led those in power to suspend some of our traditional civil liberties. They propose curtailing more.
As part of the need to find ‘solutions,’ to confront the menace openly, it is understandable that we seek to follow Hamlet’s advice to himself and “take arms against a sea of troubles, and by opposing, end them.” (Though Hamlet, I might remind you, is contemplating suicide when he says these words.) President Bush, who like every one of us is impelled by a complex web of motivations, surely has in mind that attacking Iraq is a way to secure our nation from one of the threats looming up in that shadowy thing out there that we call ‘the world’. (I think he has other agendae in mind as well, but I do not mean to engage in politics here – or only politics of the largest sort.)
Precisely because attacking Iraq seems such a simple solution to the complexity of the contemporary situation, we need to examine the idea that using American military might against those who do not love us is a proper way to protect our imperiled security. For we – you, your classmates, I – are in a university precisely to examine things, to subject every concept and every human activity to scrutiny by reason. The very first university, Plato’s Academy, was based on Socrates’ core belief that “the unexamined life is not worth living.”
When I myself was a student, four decades ago, the American involvement in a war in Vietnam was just beginning. For me, that involvement brought me face to face with questions about ‘just’ war and pacifism. Can an ethical life countenance, in any circumstance, the use of destructive violence against other human beings? I had before me two great twentieth century examples of nonviolence. One was Mohandas Gandhi, who took on the world’s pre-eminent imperial power and brought independence to India through nonviolent action. The other was Martin Luther King, who was in the process of bringing a greater degree of racial justice to the United States, also through a campaign committed to nonviolence.
I wish I could tell you that I fully resolved the question of nonviolence and pacifism, then or after. It is a hard truth that the largest questions facing us as humans are not always resolvable: though we think, and think some more, most of us do not ever come up with definitive answers.
Even though I have never fought in a war, I have read and thought about war for almost half a century now, and I am certain of one thing: war is brutal, bloody, destructive. In war, people die, children are left without parents, homes and towns and even whole cities are shattered into rubble. War, I believe, should be – if it is at all – only a last resort. It must be the final alternative, to be pursued only when a situation is truly dire, when there are no other ways to protect oneself or other people. And I am not even totally sure of that: pacifism is a strong position, and time and again it forces me to reexamine even the notion of war as final resort. It is certainly possible that war is worse than its alternatives, and there can never be a ‘just’ war.
So, like a sizeable majority of Americans, I am extremely uncomfortable with a policy that would make war on Iraq before alternatives are explored, and before those alternatives fail. It is not my sense that caution is dangerous, that if we do not act tomorrow morning, tomorrow afternoon Saddam Hussein will explode a nuclear weapon – or loose a huge aerosol of anthrax – in New York or Los Angeles. There is time for thorough inspections, under the auspices of the United Nations, of what the government of Iraq is preparing to do. There is time, should those inspections reveal weapons of mass destruction, to eliminate those weapons, not by making war, but through the auspices of U.N. inspectors and an international effort under U.N. control.
War should never be a first alternative. Never. That is the first thing I want to tell you.
Second, I want to tell you how fearful I am for your future, and for the world you will inhabit in the next quarter of a century. Most of your professors come to teaching not because of salary or prestige, but because they believe in learning, believe that by learning together with you they will enrich both individual lives and also the community of which we are all a part. Wordsworth, that most wonderful of poets, understood the deepest goal of teaching: “What we have loved,/ Others will love, and we will teach them how.”
But the love that motivates teachers is more than love of what we teach. We have chosen teaching because we care deeply about you, our students. We teach because we want you to live lives even richer than our own, and to inhabit a future of near-boundless promise.
It pains me deeply that the impending war with Iraq may jeopardize your future. In this regard, I feel for you as I feel for my own two children: This is not the world you should be living in, not the future into which you should be moving. You deserve better.
Partly, my fear is direct. For some, your lives may be at risk in the near term. Perhaps, impelled by patriotism, you will enlist in the armed forces. Perhaps you will be conscripted, by a military draft.
I know there is currently no military draft. That there isn’t is a political strategy, one framed years ago in Washington to make war palatable. After all, the poor and disadvantaged don’t have alternative career paths, and will thus serve as the large majority of our nation’s fighting forces. Meanwhile the children of the middle class – who do have other choices, and whose parents comprise the majority of voters, and who might strongly object to a war that put them at risk – are exempt from military service.
But wars are strange things. Once the genie of violence has been let out of its bottle, it is very hard to get it back in again. The limited and quick war envisioned by the White House may turn out to be long, and – a terrible thought – may expand dramatically. Although those planning this war do not want a draft, at some point they may have no choice.
But even if your lives are not directly at risk in the desert of Iraq, or in a possible retaliatory action precipitated by American aggression against Iraq, great danger looms for the world your classes prepare you to inhabit.
We live, every human being, in a social existence shaped by many boundaries. Some of those boundaries have to do with nationality, with race, with class, with religion. Each of us has an identity, partly born into, partly created, which is shaped by the boundaries of nationality, religion, class. These things make us who we are. But they should always be malleable boundaries: we should be able to transform them, move beyond them if we wish.
And, most important, these boundaries should not be used by governments – or others – to categorize human beings so that they cannot grow, flourish, fulfill themselves. We all have, in the words of America’s Declaration of Independence, “certain inalienable rights . . . among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” Boundaries should not interfere with these rights, not the boundaries of race nor class nor gender nor religion.
Let me share with you some words that are dear to my heart. In his 1855 “Preface” to Leaves of Grass, the poet Walt Whitman inserted, in his sprawling and seemingly undisciplined prose, a startling injunction: “This is what you shall do: Love the earth and sun and the animals, despise riches, give alms to every one that asks, stand up for the stupid and crazy, devote your income and labor to others, hate tyrants, argue not concerning God, have patience and indulgence toward the people, take off your hat to nothing known or unknown or to any man or number of me . . .re-examine all you have been told at school or church or in any book, dismiss whatever insults your own soul.”
Yes, yes, my heart responds, and in responding hears the echo of Robert Kennedy, like his brother John Kennedy assassinated (like Ghandi, like King), who said in 1968, “Some men see things as they are and ask ‘Why?’ I dream things that never were and ask, ‘Why not?’” Why not live with less limitations on women, the poor, the different?
But if there are boundaries that should be permeable, lines whose transgression we should encourage and applaud, there are other boundaries that we need to acknowledge and maintain. Boundaries that should not be transgressed. Rules of human behavior. When I was your age, I was impatient when asked to acknowledge this. I was impatient with the conservatism of those older than myself, and rightly so. Hadn’t previous generations given America slavery and then segregation, weren’t the ‘mature’ generals bringing both Americans and Vietnamese a devastating war on Southeast Asia? Aren’t such atrocities done in the name of protecting boundaries of one sort or another? They are.
Still, I see today what I could not see so clearly when I was young. Some boundaries and rules protect us from ourselves, from the dark forces which, whether we like to admit it or not, are an uneasy part of human nature. Some of those rules define what is called ‘civilized behavior.’ As I acknowledged earlier, all too often what is deemed ‘civilized’ is merely a limitation on those who are different. We need to question, and often challenge, those rules and boundaries. Still, and this is part of what being a student is all about, some boundaries on human behavior. make life better for all people, and it must be our business, even as we question all things, to have the honesty to recognize that there can be boundaries that support and defend human existence, and to identify which they are.
One of the boundaries which I strongly believe protects us all is the one which acknowledges that a nation must not attack another nation. If we are attacked, we have a right to defend ourselves – which is why, at the moment, I think pacifism has its limits. But we – and I speak not just of Americans here, but of all nations – should not attack other nations.
Yet the newly enunciated Bush doctrine overthrows this principle that no nation should attack another unless it has itself been attacked, first. It overthrows the civilized boundary that ensures that every nation has a right to live in peace. It ignores the ethical understanding that offensive first strikes are wrong, and likewise ignores the practical understanding that beginning a conflict is often an irrevocable step toward expanded war and massive destruction.
“Preemptive action” is the name of the new national security policy of the United States. It provides what Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and Rice need, a justification for the President’s impending attack on Iraq. It introduces a whole new set of values into the postmodern world. For if we in the United States can declare that attacking first is justified, then other nations can as well. Russia can go into Georgia chasing Chechen rebels. China can go into Taiwan. Either Pakistan or India can cross the border to secure the entirety of the currently divided Kashmir for themselves. Egypt can go into Israel - or Israel into Egypt.
I fear that once the policy
of preemptive action is put into practice, the world will be a lot more
dangerous then, than now. It makes me profoundly sad to foresee you living
in a world where war is more likely to break out, rather than less. The
poet Robert Lowell wrote in 1965, at the beginning of the American war
Pity the planet, all joy gone
from this sweet volcanic cone;
peace to our children when they fall
in small war on the heels of small
war – until the end of time
He was prescient. In the last forty years our globe has had small war on the heels of small war, with huge casualties, casualties largely invisible to the rest of the world beyond the region where destruction rages. But if the United States attacks Iraq, current diplomatic and ethical boundaries, even if they operate poorly today, will henceforward be totally breached. Our globe can look forward to more wars, with even less to restrain nations from loosing violence upon one another.
I do not mean to minimize the current situation in Iraq. President Saddam Hussein is a tyrant and a bully; worse, if he develops weapons of mass destruction he could well deploy them with less restraint than one has a right to expect from nations and their leaders. He presents a threat to his region, and to some extent the world. In response the United Nations is taking that threat seriously. This is as it should be.
It is not the place of the United States to make war on Iraq. Unhappily, that war has already begun. In the name of ‘enforcing the no-fly zone,’ the United States has been bombing Iraqi military targets. A recent newspaper story reported that “instead of hitting anti-aircraft and missile batteries, the usual targets in a decade of patrols, the American aviators and their British counterparts now more often strike Iraqi command bunkers, communications stations and radar directing the attacks. Those costly, hard-to-repair facilities are essential to Iraq's air defense.”
Meanwhile, a huge military buildup is taking place, of troops, aircraft carriers, ships, planes, materiel. Every indication points to a joint American and British attack shortly after the U.N. inspectors, led by Hans Blix, make their first report. No matter what that report says. No matter whether the U.N. authorizes an incursion in the name of world security, or not.
The central concern of education is to enable us to live a good and humane life. It is not enough to read books, take examinations, prepare for a career. You must constantly ask – and develop resources to make your questions rigorous – what is required of you: required by history, by your obligations to the people you live amongst, by the people with whom you share the globe.
So transfixed has our nation become by the specter of terror that we do not sufficiently question, openly and publicly, what an American ‘preemptive action’ against Iraq will mean, and whether it is a good idea.
This is no time to remain silent, which is why I have written to you as 2003 commences. If the New Year is to bring peace and not war, you will have to step forward and tell your fellow citizens, and the nation, what you think is right. The future is, quite literally, in your hands.
I know this is a large responsibility. But that is what democracy means. You have a role to play, an active role in shaping not just the future of our American society, but the world. History is watching, as are the nations beyond our borders.
Question this impending war. Is it necessary? Is it just? What might its consequences be? And when you have come up with tentative answers – and, as your teacher, I acknowledge that your answers might not be the same as mine – act on what you have learned.
The author is Professor of English at the University of Vermont. A former Fulbright Visiting Professor at Calcutta University, he is the author, with US Representative Bernard Sanders, of Outsider in the House.With respect,