The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The student newspaper of Washington and Lee University

The Ring-tum Phi

The things we forget in times of war

What does war teach us about ourselves?
American flags on the colonnade on 9/11. Photo by Kevin Remington

With rising conflict across the world, gory, heartbreaking and devastating pictures and stories make their way to our fingertips; on your phone, your T.V., in your classes. But life…goes on, we forget, we turn our eyes away, we shield ourselves. It sometimes feels like that is all we can do, but is it?

Last semester, I read a book for my Global Politics class called “War is a Force that Gives Us Meaning” by Chris Hedges. Hedges argues that in times of war, a country becomes artificially united. Political dissenters suddenly join the majority voice as the whole country bleeds into a rallying cry for patriotism. In war, leaders can easily abuse their powers, justify violence, and convince us of stark lines between right and wrong, good and evil.

Think of the American Homefront in The Second World War where prejudices and selfish ambitions took a backseat to national necessity and formed a united front. Or even Israel now. After months of political division, the invasion brought Israel’s parliament to approve a national unity government.

That is the reality of war: we are quickly overtaken by a collective sense of national unity.

But what does war mean to those of us at a distance? What has Ukraine and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict taught us? For those of us at a distance and without strong ties to the region, we can become apathetic or desensitized to the violence.

In times of war, we often forget there is war.

I am guilty of this too. During the first days of the Russian invasion of Ukraine or the violence between Israel and Hamas, I was attached to my phone, refreshing news sites for updated facts and numbers.

But, eventually, I began to forget. Tests, grades, papers, lockdowns and election cycles take up all of the space in my brain. While I am reminded of the conflict by flags on the academic quad or outside of houses or by the occasional social media post, my attention is diverted by the day-to-day life of a college student.

Some argue that forgetting about war is a good thing. These wars, they might say, are not ours to fight or win. We should live our own lives, focus on our own problems, laugh, and live on.

Part of this mentality might come from a post-Cold War sentiment that America should not be the world’s policeman—the lesson we learned from Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan.

Modern American culture, if not American foreign policy, is becoming more isolationist. We witnessed the Rwandan genocide, we became quickly desensitized to the invasion of Ukraine, and we now stand frozen in the face of a new humanitarian disaster. War and violence continue abroad, but our lives move on.

This all reminds me of a scene in my favorite T.V. show The West Wing. The show follows a fictional president, Jed Bartlet, and his senior staff through the daily political battles of the White House. The Clinton Administration was the main inspiration for the issues on the show and this particular episode is a commentary on the administration’s response to the Rwandan genocide.

With his second inaugural address looming on the horizon, President Bartlet becomes aware of a growing conflict in Kundu, a small, fictional, Sub-Saharan African country. Bartlet immediately asks if the Americans were rescued. Reassured by their safety, he swiftly moves on to other matters, but as the numbers and death toll begin to rise in Kundu, he begins to have a conflicted conscience which is heightened by his upcoming address that will preach isolationism.

“Why is a Kundanese life worth less to me than an American life?” President Bartlet asks rhetorically.

“I don’t know, sir, but it is,” his interim speech writer responds, leaving unspoken but it shouldn’t be.

We play into this very trap of nationalism when wars, conflicts, and even natural disasters happen abroad. We behave as if other lives are worth less to us than an American one. The media inflates the problem by reporting the nationality of those killed or taken prisoner rather than their names.

Why is any life worth less to us than an American one?

While the answers some will give are steeped in racism, islamophobia, antisemitism, or general prejudice, we must accept the truth; no life is more valuable than any other. Viewing death tolls as numbers, tallies, and percentages tied to nationality instead of names and faces dehumanizes the victims and desensitizes us to violence.

We should not reduce people to their nationality. More than their nationality, they are human: fathers, mothers, children, brothers, sisters, doctors, teachers, nurses, engineers, first responders, reporters, and so much more.

I think of this trope—the trap of nationality—anytime we memorialize 9/11. On this campus and elsewhere, we plant American flags to represent the lives lost. One might argue this is because it was an act against America and our values that caused Americans (along with many other people of different nationalities) to die. Al-Qaeda, we might say, killed Americans because they were Americans, thus we remember them as such. It wasn’t simply an attack against innocent lives, but an attack against our national identity.

But by viewing death tolls as numbers tied to nationality, I argue that we are diminishing the value of their lives. We do not mourn the victims of 9/11 only because they were Americans, or at least we shouldn’t.

We mourn them because they were our family, our neighbors, our friends, our co-workers. We mourn because they were innocent and human.

No life should be worth less to us than an American one.

It is important to note that apathy toward a foreign war or conflict is often a privilege. Students on campus who are from or have families in the war zones do not have the privilege to forget. Students who have identities tied to these conflicts do not have the privilege to be apathetic.

As we slowly slip back into our mundane lives, forgetting about conflicts and diseases that are taking innocent lives on a mass scale on a daily basis, we need to remind ourselves of the humanity that is going on in the world. We need to challenge ourselves to resist being desensitized to violence. Read the news, join the vigils, and reach out to your friends who are affected by daily violence. We should never allow ourselves to devalue human life.

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