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Letter to the Editor: #ThinkAbtWar

11/4/15 4:15am

On October 22, we in the “Dear Rice Community” received an email notifying us that an Army Apache helicopter and Stryker armored vehicle would be on campus, inviting us to admire them and take advantage of the photo op. The idea behind this event, which coincided with a Rice v. West Point football game, was presumably to celebrate the work of the military in a time of ongoing war. As an anthropologist who studies the ramifications of war violence in the lives of American soldiers, veterans, and their families, I think acknowledging that hardship and labor, and thinking carefully about what it really entails, is extremely important. And this is exactly why I was profoundly disturbed by this stunt.  

Treating these deadly weapons as an opportunity to snap a selfie simultaneously erases and glorifies the violent power of war. Were we to think about what happens when metal meets flesh, we might not treat it so cavalierly. If we are going to make a space on campus for acknowledging the work of war, we must do so as part of a public conversation. And we must think carefully about the violence that is the heart of that work. A campuswide email enjoining us to celebrate a sanitized image of war’s power with a “go owls” chant shuts such conversation down.  

In this instance, evidence of this horrifying power is readily available. The notorious “Collateral Murder” videos released by Wikileaks in 2010 depict a 2007 US aerial assault in Baghdad in which at least 9 innocent Iraqi civilians, including a Reuters journalist, and dozens of others were grievously injured, including two children in a van whose driver was attempting to rescue the wounded. These videos were shot from onboard the Apache helicopters from Fort Hood’s First Cavalry Division who carried out the assault.

If the Apache on our campus this weekend was one of those used in the 2007 attack, would we still be happy to pose for a picture with it? And if it was not, why should we feel any different?

It is a disturbing irony that at the very same moment we are voicing our grave concerns, even our disgust, at the idea of guns on our campus, we seem willing to ignore, or even celebrate, the presence of these other weapons. In the campus carry conversation here at Rice, many have noted that weapons and the aura of violence they bring are incompatible with the environment of learning we seek to create. Surely, then, before inviting military vehicles onto our campus we would want to at least consider the effect of the presence of these behemoths armed with 30 mm and .50 caliber machine guns, hellfire missiles and rocket launchers.

What might the spectacle of weapons of war on our college campus signify to the members of this community whose diversity we prize? What terrible histories might this reenact? For our Egyptian or Palestinian colleagues whose universities have been specially targeted for military oppression? For members of our community involved in #blacklivesmatter, catalyzed both by the state-sanctioned killing of young black citizens and also by the militarized violence that meets their protests? For those among us whose lives are marked by the threat and use of military weapons on the Texas-Mexico border?  For those who remember all too well that mere decades ago, military weapons on American college campuses threatened and took the lives of students? Or for those who have themselves fired these weapons, who do not have the luxury of glamorizing their violent power, or who know in their aching bones what it feels like to be blown up inside a Stryker (a vehicle that might save you, but not your buddy, or might keep you alive and shattered at the same time)? 

We owe it to our community to think carefully about such things. And if the aim of this stunt was indeed to acknowledge the work of the military in this time of ongoing war, let us please think carefully about that too. Now, in anticipation of Veteran’s Day, we have an opportunity to do just that. Between now and November 11, learn something new about lived experiences of war in America today. Share something you know about it with other members of the Rice community. Ask your students to consider what the military weapons on our campus this weekend showed, and what they hid. Talk to your friends about what they think. Share this letter on social media. And tweet your thoughts with the tag #ThinkAbtWar. 

Zoë H. Wool, Assistant Professor

Department of Anthropology at Rice University

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