A new age of combat for a new
By Linell Smith
Originally published April 8, 2003
Thousands of U.S. soldiers serving in Iraq were in elementary school during the Persian Gulf war. Now they are college-age. As they endure sandstorms and maneuver on unpredictable battlefields, their 18-to-21-year-old peers back home on college campuses follow them via television and the Internet.
It is the first war for this generation. Whether or not they believe it is justified, college students recognize their peers are making their mark on world history. It's a strange feeling to be on a campus: While forsythia and daffodils bloom outside, the explosions of war continue 24/7 in student unions and dorm rooms. In 2003, college kids have to go out of their way to avoid running into a war happening halfway around the world.
Some do just that.
For those who are watching, however, genuine reality television feels weird, horrifying, exciting - and sometimes tedious. Operation Iraqi Freedom has also brought images they will not soon forget.
Brian Cox, an English major at Morgan State University, finds it difficult to imagine himself in "an unfamiliar place around unfamiliar people, shooting and fighting for freedom."
But he does recognize the expressions on the faces of two captured American soldiers, faces that have haunted him since the Iraqis released their photos.
"It's their look ... of defiance, of anger," the 21-year-old student says. It reminds him of Invictus by William Ernest Henley, a poem about the unconquerability of the human soul.
Standing in front of Morgan's student union, Cox recites all four stanzas of the poem that ends: I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.
But there is one line of this poem in particular, he says, that comes to mind as he thinks of his peers overseas:
My head is bloody, but unbowed, he says.
Many students watching the war wonder how they would perform under such dangerous circumstances.
"I wonder what the adrenaline must feel like to be in a life or death situation," says Brian Derr, a freshman at the University of Maryland, College Park. "I think it would be pretty cool."
Some of the most insidious images of the war are those that are imagined and re-imagined. For students who know soldiers, television coverage is an emotional minefield.
"I have a few friends with boyfriends over there," says UMCP student Megan Flynn. "When I watch TV, I can't help but look for them."
Morgan student Brian Mariano already has a mental picture of his 27-year-old cousin "lying down somewhere with no one knowing where he is."
Nia Wilkes thinks about the parents of servicemen and women who may be searching the television screens for glimpses of their children.
"I appreciate that we have a front-row seat to the war, but say that it's our child out there: You might see something happen to your child on uncut TV," says the Morgan senior. "I sometimes imagine my mother looking at me on TV and being able to do nothing."
She also realizes how easily she could have been serving in Iraq.
"I almost didn't come to college because I didn't have money," she says. "I was going to join the reserves. When I heard that you only had to go away for two weekends a month and ... I was like, 'That's going to be money for college? I'll do it,' with no intentions of going to war."
UMCP freshman Erwin Diaz says he considered enlisting in the Army after high school.
"Sometimes I do think, 'Jesus, that could have been me,' " he says. "I feel really horrible for guys that are so young to have to go to war. It's a horrible thing to have to take a life or to have to give your own."
Like many Americans, Jennifer Al-Naber feels pulled by two heritages when she watches the war coverage. Although Al-Naber, a senior at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, grew up in the United States, she has a mother who is English and a Jordanian father.
"I have this patriotic sense of, 'Yeah, I want America to triumph over evil and such,' " the 21-year-old says. "But at the same time, I have family over there. I see what the people are like, and they're not evil and heinous like people are saying that they are.
"If someone said, 'OK, you need to go fight now, you need to kill those people,' I don't know that I'd be able to do it. Who's to say that I would not be out there in the middle of the desert with a gun and someone across from me could be some distant relation of myself? Granted, most people who are fighting over there don't have that issue. But, you know, I would."
Some days, Morgan sophomore Larry Caudle merely finds it amazing to be alive, in college and a mentor to teen-agers.
"I can't say I'm scared about what's gonna happen [with this war]," he says. "I ain't afraid to die. If it's my time, it's my time. I live here in the Baltimore streets. I've been here 24 years where the majority of people I grew up with didn't make it past 16."
Caudle doesn't know anyone serving in Iraq. And he says he doesn't have much time to wonder about the soldiers. He's more concerned about helping young men in the city improve their lives.
"I gotta keep moving forward, doing what I'm doing over here," he says. "I can't stress myself out worrying about what's going on over there; I lose my focus. I'm trying to make it through school. The war started and we're still going to school. They [the soldiers] trained to do what they do, we're getting trained to do what we're going to do."
But there is one image that haunts Caudle: an Iraqi man, two daughters and a son running down the street with a tank behind them.
"They were running from American soldiers," he says.
Although many college students are opposed to this war, engineering student Tim Frame feels "100 percent sure" that this war will make the world a safer place.
"I'm so grateful that they're over there," the UMCP senior says. When he sees footage of the young soldiers, he can tell by their expressions how much the experience has matured them.
Goucher College freshman Josh Stober says he feels a connection with the guys he sees on television because they are the same age as he and also have experienced such life-altering events as the Sept. 11 attacks.
"But I grew up in a very liberal town [in Hastings-on-Hudson, N.Y.] with a liberal-minded family, and it's hard for me to relate to the idea of being in conflict," he says. "Going into the military was never a thought or option for me. But for a lot of 20-year-olds, it was the only way they could get an education."
His views of the war have become intertwined with his thoughts about how it is presented 24 hours a day. An image he considers particularly symbolic came during the first night of American bombing in Iraq.
"It was a TV shot of downtown Baghdad at 3 a.m. or 4 a.m. It's black, there's a traffic light and there's nothing going on," he says.
"A 4-year-old could have stood up and said [what the reporter said]: 'There's nothing moving in Baghdad. There's silence, no cars moving.'
"So I'm watching this, thinking, 'It's 4 a.m.! There's a reason nothing's going on!' [What sticks with me] is that idea of the over-analysis going on of a picture."
Some college students, like Morgan junior Melisa Hypolite, find the military coverage too alien to watch.
"Honestly, I just change the channel," she says. "Even though I should probably watch because it's current events, I still change it."
Goucher student Iris Oliver retains mental images of the war she formed reading a newspaper account about fighting near Basra.
"It was about how a huge wave of refugees from the city ran toward the soldiers while the paramilitaries started firing at them. The British soldiers were trying to control the crowd and fight against the paramilitaries at the same time," she says. "I got a very vivid picture of the confusion [of war], of trying to deal with civilians while saving their own lives at the same time.
"It never ceases to amaze me seeing how young they are - younger than me, and I'm 20."
"Being young, you're always used to thinking of the rest of the world as being older than you," points out Alec Dinsmoor, a political science major at Goucher. He considers one of the most "awesome" and "confounding" images of war to be a massive anti-war demonstration in an Indonesian city.
"There was a shot of the main boulevard, a straight street, six lanes wide on either side. All the way back to the horizon, the street was full of people protesting," he says. "I understand they're protesting what we're doing. But Indonesia's not exactly a stable country with a great human rights record."
Dinsmoor says he knows several people in the military. One of his friends recently joined the Air Force, a connection that brings him emotionally closer to the soldiers in action.
"I think on some level everybody says, 'Well, they're there and they're fighting for my freedom,' " says Goucher senior Shai Levin. "They're doing something that I know I couldn't do. I wouldn't do it, it creeps me out, but I think everyone owes them some debt of gratitude."
Levin is also haunted by the image of an American POW close to his own age.
"I don't know quite how to characterize the look that I saw in his eyes," he says. "I certainly don't know what he was feeling. I don't even know what I was feeling, but I'll say uneasy, to be conservative.
"That [image] sticks with me. It shows that this is war and that there's a new set of rules - if there are any rules at all."
Sun staff writers Molly Knight, Michelle Jabes, Anna Kaplan and Samira Tanedo contributed to this article.
Copyright © 2003, The Baltimore Sun
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