The War on Terror: My Experience

Over the summer Fletcher invited Bethel alumni, faculty, and staff to share their memories of the War on Terror by completing a questionnaire. I want to join him in thanking those of you who have taken the time to write us. But I also want to step out of my usual role in this project and add my own personal observations, for this happens to be the portion of our narrative when I become a participant-observer.

So thirteen years to the day after the attacks of 9/11 and one night after Pres. Barack Obama went on national television to share his strategy for combating the group known as ISIS or ISIL (“This is a core principle of my presidency: If you threaten America, you will find no safe haven”), I thought I’d share my own responses to some of the questions Fletcher posed.

September 11, 2001 and Aftermath

How did you feel immediately after hearing about the attacks? In the days/weeks after? What sorts of emotions did you experience after the attacks?… Did you have thoughts of joining the military? Taking some kind of civic or charity action (donating blood, money, etc.)? What role did your faith play in your response?

The south tower of the World Trade Center on 9/11/2001

Creative Commons (Robert)

On 9/11/01 I was starting my last year of graduate school at Yale University. Here’s how I remembered that morning in a 2012 post at my personal blog:

Eleven years ago this morning I was in Hamden, Connecticut, waking up after a late night of dissertation writing to turn on CNN in time to watch the collapse of the World Trade Center’s twin towers. Those structures stood less than two hours’ drive away from my apartment, and I knew people who lived in or regularly commuted to New York. (I barely ever went to the city myself, but still called my parents after the towers collapsed to let them know I was safe.)

In retrospect, I mostly feel like I responded less like an emerging scholar of international history and more like a sheltered, self-conscious post-adolescent:

When I tell my own mundane story of 9/11, I tell of forcing myself to stop watching the TV, feeling the compulsion to do something but having no idea what that something might be. (“Should I give blood?”, I asked aloud in my empty apartment. I didn’t.) Of going to my pastor’s house that night to pray with others from our church, then driving back through a rough part of New Haven feeling absolutely safe — having deluded myself for the moment into believing that petty crime had been rendered impossible, that such a tragedy would inspire American citizens to come together in a revival of civic virtue. Or something like that.

Also in this vein… That next Sunday I was, as usual, playing guitar in the praise band for a Baptist church in New Haven. I spent far too much time that morning agonizing about whether my usual jean and shirt would be inappropriate to the funereal atmosphere I expected. I opted for my lone suit, but squelched an impulse to find a U.S. flag pin for my lapel.


How aware were you of the debate over whether Iraq should be invaded?… Describe how you felt about the war in Iraq. Was there pro- or anti-war sentiment on campus?… Were there any debates about the war on campus…?

I came to Bethel to interview for my present job early in March 2003, approximately three weeks before the American invasion of Iraq began. I wasn’t cognizant of the debates and protests that took place those weeks at Bethel, but I flew back to a Yale community immersed in war talk. And I had a front-row seat. Just a few days after the invasion, one of my advisers (John Lewis Gaddis) moderated a teach-in that featured my other adviser (Paul Kennedy).

As it happened, I was also serving as a teaching fellow in Prof. Mary Habeck’s popular course on American military history. Though I remember cringing as the angry majority shouted down a lone anti-war voice daring to question the Bush Administration’s casus belli, it was generally a rewarding teaching environment. Whether our weekly small group sessions ostensibly focused on the battles of Lexington, Antietam, Belleau Wood, or Guadalcanal, discussion inevitably turned to the questions preoccupying Americans in the spring of 2003. My favorite: Should we be disturbed that the Ivy League, like the Northeast more generally, was supplying so few graduates to an increasingly Southern and Republican officer corps that looked less and less like a regional and ideological cross-section of American society?

(And if so, should Yale have an ROTC chapter? There were cadets in the course, but they had to go all the way to the University of Connecticut or Fairfield University — at Yale expense — for training, since Yale didn’t return an ROTC chapter to campus until 2012.)

The insurgency was well underway when I arrived at Bethel for the Fall 2003 semester, and I’m pretty sure that new faculty orientation included some information from the library about the Patriot Act — which had raised concerns about academic freedom among many scholars. (Here’s a 2005 resolution on that legislation by the American Library Association.)

Student anti-war protest at Bethel in late February 2003

Clarion photograph of an anti-war protest by Bethel students in the Community Life Center, late February 2003 – Bethel University Digital Library

But my oldest clear memory of how the Bethel community debated Iraq comes from an April night in 2004, when I was one of three professors invited to reflect on the war to that point. The event was put together by the now-defunct Peace and Justice Committee (see this March 2003 cover story in the Clarion), so it’s probably not surprising that my two colleagues on the panel — ethicist Don Postema and my History department neighbor G.W. Carlson — had been staunchly opposed to the invasion. I was as close to a pro-war advocate as the committee could find — or was willing to invite — though I was really just one of one of the many still wrestling with the question of how American power could serve internationalist ends in the absence of the Cold War. (I’m not sure what the PJC folks would have made of Gaddis, who was about to publish Surprise, Security, and the American Experience and receive a National Humanities Medal from an admiring George W. Bush. To say nothing of the avowed neoconservatives among my fellow grad students.)

Until writing this post, I’ve refrained from revisiting my notes from that event, my first public presentation at Bethel outside the History Department. Indeed, time has not been kind to some of what I argued: e.g., I criticized the anti-war movement for falling back on “failed policies [sic] of economic and diplomatic pressure”; in light of my own research on the post-WWII occupation of Germany, where American policymakers at late as 1949 feared the collapse of democracy, I warned that it would be “hasty and unwise to judge [the occupation and democratization of] Iraq right now.” And I’m afraid that, coming out of the mouth of a 26-year old junior professor, my conclusion could only have sounded smug:

…an unjust peace is no peace at all – just a fiction that makes us feel more civilized even as it effectively condones enormous cruelty and violence.

If we had never invaded Iraq, that nation still would not have been at peace — just ask the Kurds, the Shi’ites, the Kuwaitis, and the family members of every single person starved, exiled, imprisoned, tortured, and murdered by the Saddam regime.

But I was also relieved to find moments where I tried to nuance the discussion: e.g., encouraging students to look beyond the Middle East before they dismissed Islam as being incompatible with democracy; suggesting that we stop falling into facile Vietnam analogies and instead look to the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902. And I stand by my affirmation of the importance of dissent and civil disobedience as patriotic acts, and my warning of the dangers inherent in American politics losing a “vital center.”

Broad Questions

How would you define the chronology of the War on Terror?… What macro changes (shifts in institutional culture, political activity level, etc) do you think the War on Terror provoked at Bethel?

Amy Poppinga

Prof. Amy Poppinga, who began teaching HIS212U Intro to the Muslim World in 2005 and joined our department full-time in 2012

In our department, I’m sure that it’s no accident that when we decided to expand our coverage of history beyond the USA and Europe, we were especially drawn to the Middle East. (We hired an alumna who had begun her master’s program in Islamic studies just days before 9/11.) And it may be that our growing emphasis of the ways that historical study helps make students more empathetic, hospitable to others, and comfortable with complexity is a kind of response to a period in American history that tended to discourage those traits.

But on the whole, I’m struck how tentative I am to explain any “macro changes” at Bethel as having been provoked by the War on Terror. I’m tempted to speculate that the war helps explain why more and more of our evangelical students and professors seem uncomfortable with their movement being seen as the Republican Party at prayer, or as being too cozy with American power, but I think there are many causes of that change, most of which were well underway long before 2001.

Perhaps it’s just that that “war” is still in progress — as last night’s presidential address, with its language of “homeland” and national “resolve,” underscored — and I don’t have the distance necessary to take a longer view of the war’s impact. But I think my hesitation here also reflects something I observed at that 2004 forum: that, unlike those that prosecuted the wars I’ve been studying for this project, the Bush and Obama Administrations have attempted to fight a global war without expecting any degree of sacrifice from most citizens.

I don’t mean to complain that higher education hasn’t been enlisted for the war effort in the way that it was in 1917-1918 and 1941-1945. But because this has been a war fought by a volunteer military (and private contractors), with civilians being told in every way imaginable that their lives need not be disrupted, perhaps we should expect to find much Bethel less affected by this conflict than the other three on our list.

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