Here's another thing I remember from those early years. To my surprise, many of my students supported torture -- less as an interrogation method than as punishment for truly heinous crimes (torture, that is, as righteous vengeance). Terrorists should be tortured, some argued, as payback for 9/11, but perhaps because their own childhoods were still so near in time and memory, a number of them thought that those most deserving of torture were not political terrorists, but child abusers.
Just about all of them were certain of one thing: the men who flew the planes on 9/11 were Iraqis.
When Johnny (and Janie) Come Marching Home Again...
Eventually, of course, war veterans began to appear in my classes. They were older and in many cases more mature than the other students in ways that didn't just reflect their age. I often teach an ethics class in which students work with a community-based organization. One veteran chose to do this "service learning" with Swords to Plowshares, which provides services for vets. They'd helped him when he first got out, and he wanted to return the favor. "If anyone tells you they came back whole from Iraq or Afghanistan," he assured me, "they're either lying or they just don't know yet."
He was right, I think. One thing I've noticed over the years: like many survivors of war, those vets never volunteer to talk about what they've seen. Nor do their fellow students show much curiosity about it, and I don't ask directly. But some, like the young man who'd served five years as a sniper in Iraq and Afghanistan, are clearly in pain. He'd suffered a broken back and brain trauma when an improvised explosive device blew up his Humvee. He was bitter about the war and his own role in it, certain that he'd been lied to by his government. Since leaving the military he had learned a lot of history. Now, he sat in the last row of the classroom, back to the wall, one leg bouncing uncontrollably up and down. Usually he left early. The anxiety of being in a room with that many people, he explained to me, was more than he could endure.
Such veterans, however, are classroom oddities, rare exceptions to the general rule that the U.S. can fight an endless war on terror without pain, sacrifice, or even, in recent years, much attention at all. These days, my students live in a country that has been at war almost since they were born, and yet, as is true with most of their fellow citizens, the fighting could be happening on Mars for all the impact it has on them. Most of them no longer know people directly affected. Their friends and family, of course, aren't among the tens of millions of Iraqis, Syrians, Afghans, or Yemenis made refugees by those American wars and their consequences.
Most of them haven't yet realized that, if their government hadn't spent $5.6 trillion and counting on those very wars, there might have been federal money available to relieve them of the school debt they will carry for decades.
Those Who Fail to Learn...
It's not an accident that my students arrive at college with little understanding of U.S. history or, for that matter, knowledge of how their government works. Nor is it their fault. Education is crucial to citizenship in a democracy and, for many years, those on the right in this country have done their best to defund and dismantle public education. Under President Trump we have a secretary of education who makes no secret of her belief that, like other public goods, education is best left in the tender hands of the market.
The other day I asked my "Ethics: War, Torture, and Terrorism" class to name the countries where the United States is currently involved in some military action. They were able to come up with Iraq and Afghanistan. A veteran then added Djibouti, where U.S. Africa Command has a key base. "Syria?" someone wondered. A ROTC member mentioned Yemen. No one even thought of Somalia or Libya. No one had heard of the West African country of Niger, where Sergeant LaDavid Johnson died in an ambush set by an ISIS affiliate. (If asked, some might have remembered that when Donald Trump called Johnson's widow, he made news by struggling to remember her husband's name and suggesting that Johnson had known "what he signed up for.")
Nor could they name any of the other countries, 76 in all, affected in some fashion by their country's undeclared, never-ending "generational" war on terror.
The good news is that they want to learn.
The bad news: nowadays, they tend to think that the men who flew those planes on 9/11 were from Iran.
Rebecca Gordon, a TomDispatch regular, teaches at the University of San Francisco. She is the author of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes. Her previous books include Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States and Letters from Nicaragua .
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Alfred McCoy's In the Shadows of the American Century: The Rise and Decline of U.S. Global Power, as well as John Dower's The Violent American Century: War and Terror Since World War II, John Feffer's dystopian novel Splinterlands, Nick Turse's Next Time They'll Come to Count the Dead, and Tom Engelhardt's Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.
Copyright 2018 Rebecca Gordon