The last U.S. troops may have left Iraq on Dec. 18, but this generation’s involvement with that country is far from over — whether they realize it or not.
Thousands of American private security contractors (read: mercenaries) remain on the Pentagon’s payroll — otherwise known as the taxpayers’ payroll. Tax dollars are still flowing, and Iraq’s stability is far from assured. For recent college graduates and those who will graduate in the new year and in coming years, the domestic financial aftermath of the war matters as much as the global security issues. The $1 trillion spent in Iraq means $1 trillion not spent at home — money that could have been used to benefit current and future students by forgiving college debt or providing low-interest student loans.
Discussion of the national debt has become at least as common on college campuses as in the rest of the country. That debt will need to be repaid; it’s not today’s leaders of today who will have to do it, but tomorrow’s: college students and their peers. They’ll be the ones in political office, forced to make difficult decisions about what programs to cut and whose taxes to raise. Those who aren’t making the decisions will suffer from their effects. As the recession continues, tax revenues will continue to remain low because it is hard to find work; there six times as many unemployed Americans as there are available jobs. The political discussion about where the missing money should come from isn’t going to get any less heated.
All students, whether or not they’re already picketing outside government offices or sleeping in tents, need to be conscious of the profound effect the war in Iraq has had on this generation. Students have grown up in its shadow. The current senior in college was 11 or 12 years old on 9/11. An endless state of violent foreign entanglement is all they’ve known.
The absence of a draft in this post-Vietnam era has made the war less visible to middle class and upwardly mobile college students whose peers have by and large not joined the military. Having a volunteer army means that the war is fought overwhelmingly on the backs of the poor, the working class and people of color. These are exactly the sort of people upper-middle class college students are disproportionaely unlikely to have contact with, making the war even more invisible in the day-to-day lives of college students.
Generation Y — the children of the baby boomers — is often criticized for its lack of political engagement. And it’s true, when compared to their parents, students often come out looking much less bold, much less principled. But as the high level of student and young graduate involvement in the Occupy movement has demonstrated, they still care. They may not be staring down the National Guard at Kent State, but many have faced the police in Zuccotti Park, in Oakland or at the University of California, Davis. They have camped out around the country or simply tried to make their voices heard any way possible.
Before writing off this generation as apathetic, take a look around. The Occupy movement may not be protesting the war specifically, but the problems it addresses — rising income inequality, unsustainable spending that hasn’t done enough to get the economy back on track and the continued sacrifice of the social safety net to provide capital gains and estate tax cuts that overwhelmingly benefit the richest Americans — are intrinsically linked to the financial excesses of our national adventure in Iraq. Many students are taking a stand already.
Graduating students will have to deal with this war’s effects not only taxpayers wallets but on the hands of politicians. There’s no guarantee that our involvement in the region is over, especially given our tenuous relationship with Iran, a possible rising nuclear power with a leader apparently bent on Israel’s destruction. No matter where Jewish college students fall on the conflict in Israel-Palestine, we can agree that Iran is a serious issue. Every stable country in the region adds to regional stability, but we don’t yet know how Iraq will fare in the years to come. College Jews with their sights on future Washington leadership positions should, and will, care about the aftermath of a failed Iraq.
Let’s not underestimate the effect this war has had — and will continue to have — on students.
New Voices editorials reflect the opinion of the New Voices editorial board.