Alumni Column: Wise Up on the Way of War

Ed Ryan '67

In 1967 I graduated from Colgate as a philosophy major, and reported to Officer Candidate School in Newport, RI for military training as a naval officer. Many Colgate graduates in the 1960s and 1970s volunteered or were drafted to serve in the military and many fought in Vietnam. Over 58,000 Americans were killed and over 300,000 Americans were wounded in Vietnam, and we all knew friends and relatives who were casualties of that war.

Why did the US fight a war in Vietnam? The US seemed to drift aimlessly into Vietnam. Once there, our leaders said we must prevent South Vietnam from being overrun by North Vietnam, a communist country. Under the “domino theory,” if South Vietnam fell, then more countries in the region might fall under the influence of communism, and ultimately the US would have to fight the communists in Hawaii or California.

Back then, the evening news brought daily images from the battlefield, and some events, notably the massacre of hundreds of unarmed civilians at the village of My Lai in 1968, that prompted widespread outrage and triggered a shift in the perception of the US role in Vietnam. College students led the way. On college campuses across the nation, professors and students held great debates on whether the war was “just.” Many of those who returned from Vietnam in the late 1960s were stunned to find that the American people had withdrawn their support, and some even blamed military personnel for engaging in that war.

Today Iraq is called the central front in the War on Terror. Last month, on the fifth anniversary of September 11, President Bush said “[this war] is the decisive ideological struggle of the 21st century and the calling of our generation,” adding that we “are fighting to maintain the way of life enjoyed by free nations.” Yet this “struggle for civilization” has not required military service from most college students, or sacrifice from most Americans. Opposition to the continuing US presence in Iraq seems to be growing, and Iraq is a key issue in the upcoming midterm election. Using phrases tested in focus groups, our leaders say the issue is “stay the course” or “cut and run.”

While most politicians and TV commentators focus on the military tactics and options and their political implications, college students should also consider whether the war in Iraq is “just.” Specifically, students should focus on both the cause of war (jus ad bellum) and the conduct of war (jus in bello). Most believe the object of the war in Afghanistan (to kill or capture Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and to remove the Taliban from power) is a proper response to the attacks on September 11, whereas many believe the decision to launch a preemptive strike in Iraq in 2003 does not meet the jus ad bellum criteria. President Bush has acknowledged that the Iraqi government had no responsibility for September 11, but contends that Iraq was developing Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMDs), including nuclear weapons that could be used by Iraq, directly or via a terrorist group, against the US or its allies in the region (e.g., Israel). To date, no WMDs have been found, but our military action has removed Saddam Hussein, a brutal dictator, from power, and Iraq is said to be making great progress in becoming a democratic state. Do these consequences support a conclusion that the US had just cause to attack Iraq and justify our continued presence?

There is also considerable debate on the jus in bello. In prosecuting the War on Terror, the Bush Administration seems to have authorized, explicitly or implicitly, conduct that many find abhorrent. At Abu Ghraib, prisoners were tortured and subjected to degrading treatment. In Europe, the CIA established secret prisons where suspected terrorists were subjected to “enhanced interrogation techniques.” The CIA also engaged in “extraordinary rendition,” in which suspected terrorists were transported to countries noted for harsh interrogation techniques. In Guantanomo, detainees have been held for years without a hearing to determine their status, in particular, whether they are indeed “enemy combatants.” Are these simply isolated and unfortunate aberrations that occur when a country is at war (as Secretary Rumsfeld said, “stuff happens”), or do they signify a fundamental shift in American values, given the perceived necessity to do whatever it takes to protect US citizens against terrorists, who follow no rules of war and engage in conduct that all civilized nations should find reprehensible?

If, as some allege, the Administration has been overzealous in its efforts to defend America, why haven’t other institutions of government – the legislature and the judiciary – exercised greater oversight via traditional checks and balances? And what should be the responsibility of US citizens? If their primary responsibility is to express their will by voting, have US citizens expressly ratified the Administration’s Iraq policy and conduct by reelecting President Bush? Or do citizens, particularly those who seek a change in policy, need to become more engaged?

As you can discern, I have many questions but few answers. Perhaps this is why I became a philosophy major. As another question, I’m wondering if the teachings of Plato, or other philosopher, have any relevance today. Plato believed that the overwhelming majority of citizens in a state are apathetic, ignorant and subject to manipulation. Does anyone dispute this? He argued that only Guardians, who have gained true knowledge through years of education, should be rulers of the state.

If Plato is right, then Colgate students should strive to become Guardians and should view their years at Colgate as the start of their own personal journey out of the cave of illusion and darkness, and into the light of true knowledge. There are many exceptional Colgate professors who can guide students willing to take that arduous journey. If you need a recommendation, look for the man walking around campus with the Plato hat. As a trained philosopher, he has made the journey to and from the cave many times, and, with his colleagues, can teach you to think rationally and make decisions based on logic and reason, not focus groups drawn from the mob.