Saturday, March 22, 2008

Students of History

In the spring of 2003, I was teaching a 2-D design class in Dallas. The noise from the Bush war machine was at its highest as the administration worked us and itself up to the level of madness necessary for a preemptive attack on Saddam’s Iraq. A few days before the first air strikes on Baghdad, one of my students asked me for permission to miss class so she could participate in an anti-war rally that evening. I have a strict attendance policy in my studio classes, but I also missed a lot of classes myself in the spring of 1970 (unbelievably na├»ve!) walking door to door asking for signatures on a petition to end the war in Vietnam.

Sure, kid, rally and demonstrate against this stupid idea.

Next week she was back in class, defeated. The war was on. She’d raised her voice in earnest and she’d had no effect. None. I’ve lost many political contests, but it was her first. I tried to console her, but my words sounded empty even to me. Somehow “you let them know what you think” doesn’t really work in the face of smart bombs and cruise missiles.

The previous fall, a student in my painting class told me he was leaving college at the end of the term. He planned to enlist in the army.

“Why? “

“It just seems like the right thing to do at this time in my life.”

It was an honorable decision, one that he’d arrived at reasonably. He would do his duty. His country needed him, and we answered the call like thousands before him. I never saw him again. I hope he’s alright. He was a good painter.

Last night, I saw part of a documentary about a young man horribly wounded in this idiotic war, and the sense of responsibility overwhelmed me. How could I have let this thing happen? How could any of us have let this thing happen? Was it inconvenient to stop the idiocy? Was it somehow a threat to our careers or our comfort? We have shirked our duty as Americans, and our debts to patriotic, idealistic young Americans like those students are beyond repayment.

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