The Longest War

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The War on Terror broke over Bethel’s campus during a time of heightened social and political conservatism. Beginning in the mid 1970s, Bethel emerged from the Vietnam War and plunged deep into the New Right, participating in the sea-change in American religious life which saw evangelicals wed themselves to the Republican Party and conservative politics. The new climate was sustained by the culture wars of the 1990s and early 2000s, so that when the September 11 attacks rocked America, Bethel students were ensconced on a campus where the largest student group were the College Republicans. The political climate imparted a rancorous tenor to the ensuing debate as the tiny contingent of Bethel’s moderate and liberal students (and professors) fought against the claims and policy preferences of the vast majority. As a result, Bethel’s debate over the War on Terror assumed an intensely partisan dimension.

"Pray for Peace" signs that appeared at Bethel, 2003

“Pray for Peace” signs that appeared at Bethel, 2003

With that rancor in mind, it is remarkable just how quickly debate about the war vanished. The war in Afghanistan scarcely saw debate at all; the only items the Clarion published pertaining to that aspect of the War on Terror were a pair of editorials three weeks after 9/11 — one arguing for a vigorous response, the other urging caution, but ultimately accepting the necessity of invading Afghanistan. Beyond these editorials, no record of debate about Afghanistan remains. The Iraq war was scarcely debated longer, particularly relative to the protracted length of that conflict. The first editorials about Iraq appeared in October 2002 and initiated a semester and a half of intense, combative debate — often extending no deeper than partisan mudslinging about the President and incurious questioning about an opponent’s patriotism. But by December of 2003, barely six months into the growing Iraqi insurgency, Bethel students abandoned the war as a topic of discussion. With few exceptions, students never discussed the war in the Clarion again. (In 2015, the newspaper ran several articles about ISIS, but these were hardly organically connected to the issues of the 2003 invasion.)

The abrupt truncation of the debate may be due to a source issue unique to the War on Terror. While the other wars this project has examined generate some amount of hard copy material, the War on Terror produced little; too much of the school’s apparatus had transitioned to digital recordkeeping. But more probably, this was a result of the normalization of the War on Terror narrative. During the period that Bethel students wrestled with the war (September 11 through December 2003), two lines of discourse are evident. The first accepted the U.S. government’s construction of the war on terror, and invoking historical comparisons (however flawed) to Pearl Harbor and the Cold War, bought wholesale the argument that America needed to invade Afghanistan and Iraq to ensure its safety and ‘way of life.’ This line of discourse dominated throughout the period, although in the earliest campus writings after 9/11 some hesitation about the validity of this discourse was evident; to an extent, this hesitation may be ascribed to the still-evolving nature of the War on Terror narrative in September 2001. The second line of discourse on campus questioned the validity of the government’s explanation of the War on Terror. It criticized the notion that America needed to act militarily across the world to fight terrorism, and suggested that the War on Terror was merely a pretense to achieve long-standing post-Cold War geopolitical objectives — such as securing Iraqi oil.

President Obama announces troops to remain in Afghanistan, 2015

President Obama announces troops to remain in Afghanistan, 2015

By about May 2003, this second line of discourse had perceptibly faded in favor of the first. Whether or not the contrarian arguments students advanced were correct, the eventual disappearance of this discourse suggests that students eventually came to adopt the fundamental framework of the War on Terror. In other words, the first few months after September 11 were a uniquely malleable period in which the boundaries, norms, and assumptions of the “War on Terror” could be fixed. The War on Terror framework — defined by notions of civilizational clash, a wounded and embattled America, and a righteous cause — advanced by president Bush and the U.S. government won; the alternative framework — in which the 9/11 attacks were criminal, not military, actions — lost. In the years since the initial debate, students have occasionally addressed aspects of the War on Terror, yet none of these discussions has ever contested the fundamental framing and assumptions of the War on Terror itself, i.e., student may have critiqued particular events within the War on Terror, but they ceased to question the reality of the War on Terror itself. And in spite of the eventual shift away from “War on Terror” to “Overseas Contingency Operations,” president Obama has continued to largely work within the narrative established by his predecessor. After fourteen years of America’s longest war, Bethel students have largely ceased to think about the War on Terror.

— Fletcher Warren

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¹ Selective Service System, Induction Statistics.

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