The Syrian civil war has been generating international interest after the American government was faced with the decision of whether or not to intervene using military force. Though national opinion polls show that a majority of citizens are opposed to U.S. involvement in the Syrian civil conflict, there is not much that the public, college youth in particular, is doing about it. Today’s youth are not as politically involved as they have been in the past. For example, public opinion of the Vietnam War played an important role during its occurrence in that it influenced government officials to end the war as quickly as possible.
In interviewing random sample of 21 students from 8 different colleges across the state of Virginia, the overall consensus seems to be that students are not as informed about the involvement of the U.S. government in foreign wars as they have been in the past.
“I feel that many college students are ignorant of issues pertaining to foreign affairs, myself included,” said Sade Moore, a Virginia Tech senior.
Statistics provided by Gallup, a company that conducts public opinion polls, show that a majority of students were opposed to the Vietnam War during its occurrence between 1954 and 1975. In 1971, Gallup sent out surveys to the public asking whether or not the United States made a mistake in sending troops to Vietnam. Close to 60% of individuals under the age of 30 voted that they thought entering the Vietnam War was a mistake. This is apparent through the anti-war demonstrations that were held throughout the country at the time. Students demonstrated their disagreement with the United States’ involvement in the war by protesting, holding rallies and hosting teach-ins. Today, polls show that students are more reluctant to become involved. A Gallup poll conducted in September shows that among the 51% who oppose military intervention do so because they “don’t think it’s our business.”
The Syrian civil war grew out of an uprising against the regime of President Bashar al-Assad in late 2010. The uprising consisted of numerous youth-led peaceful protests throughout the Middle East, which is referred to as the “Arab Spring.” Assad’s regime punished the protestors by sending them to jail and torturing and killing their families. Many of the protestors involved in the Arab Spring advocated for a pro-democratic country. The ongoing unrest in Syria intensified when it began to use chemical weapons against its citizens. The U.S. has since intervened and is attempting to rid Syria of its stockpile of chemical weapons.
What has changed that has caused today’s students to feel apathetic towards U.S. involvement in foreign wars? A reason William Whitworth, history professor at VCU, gives is that during the Vietnam War, students were directly impacted through being drafted to fight.
“They were young and afraid to go to war. Families feared their sons wouldn’t return,” Whitworth said.
Whitworth said that public opinion of the war was so influential that it drove president Richard M. Nixon and his administration to end the United State’s military involvement in the Vietnam War.
American involvement in the Vietnam War initially became significant in 1954 when President Dwight Eisenhower explained his “domino theory” that communism would spread if Vietnam fell to communism. Opposition to the U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War grew as many young people were drafted to fight. As a symbol of protest, thousands of young men burned their draft cards at anti-war rallies and demonstrations.
Today, college students do not face this same risk.
Students are not as politically active as they were and this may be due to a feeling of disconnect. Majority of the students interviewed felt that they didn’t know enough about foreign wars in order to form an opinion.
“To be honest, I don’t really know what’s happening in Syria and I don’t know what happened with the war in Iraq,” said Abby Welch, a VCU sophomore.
The Pew Research Center conducted a survey in February 2008 to determine the public’s attitude toward the war in Iraq. The proportion of those who said the decision to use military force in Iraq increased from 49% in 2007 to 54% in 2008. Though majority of citizens said that they were opposed to the United States’ involvement in the war, a March 2003 Gallup poll showed that only 5% of the population had protested or made a public opposition against the war. Political analysts have noted that protests against the Iraq war have been relatively small-scale compared to protests against the Vietnam War.
Welch said she hasn’t tried to learn about current international affairs and doesn’t plan to.
“I know it’s a horrible thing to say, but it’s the truth,” Welch said.“Besides, there isn’t anything I could do that would change the situation, anyway.”
Leslie Walden, a junior at the College of William & Mary, thinks similarly.
“I hear about Syria in the news, but I feel like since it’s been going on for so long, it’ll be hard for me to understand it,” Walden said.
In addition to a lack of knowledge of foreign affairs, students also don’t feel connected to foreign affairs because they don’t think that it’s an issue that they should be concerned with. The results of the Gallup poll mirror the opinions of the demographic interviewed in that more than half of the participants do not think the U.S. should get involved in foreign wars.
“I don’t think that we should involve ourselves in someone else’s civil war unless it has directly affects our country in some way,” Moore said.
Walden also think that getting involved in foreign affairs is useless.
“America has several internal problems that have yet to be resolved, yet we want to help other countries when we are the country who needs help,” Walden said.
Cameo Lenox, a junior at South University, said she doesn’t think foreign affairs affect her at all.
“Personally, it’s none of my business. I prefer to voice my opinions on things I know will affect me, such as laws on birth control, student loans and the medical system,” Lenox said.
Lenox said America should avoid becoming involved in all wars.
“Had America not entered Iraq, our soldiers would never have died in vain,” Lenox said.
Virginia Tech senior Linwood Moore said that he thinks that getting involved in wars only causes unnecessary consequences for the U.S.
“It causes us to waste money and forces us to get into situations that we should not have been in the beginning,” Moore said.
National polls conducted by CNN reveal that a majority of American citizens are opposed to the U.S. becoming involved with the Syrian conflict. Roughly 70% of Americans answered that they do not think allowing the military to strike in Syria will achieve significant goals for the U.S and that it’s not in the national interest for the country to get involved in Syria’s civil war.
Cadet Keslie Carrión, Virginia Military Institute senior, thinks otherwise. Carrión thinks the government should provide as much relief as possible to foreign countries in need.
“We cannot expect to leave Syria without a functioning and stable government and must make every effort towards assisting them towards constructing one,” Carrión said.
In addition to Carrión, VCU sophomore Monica Doreste is one of the few students interviewed who thinks that the U.S. should become involved in foreign wars. Doreste thinks relief organizations should hold the responsibility to provide aid to countries in need, rather than relying on government interference.
“We can’t only expect help from government because there are so many different ways to contribute,” Doreste said.
Out of all of the students interviewed, Doreste is the only one who said that she has taken some type of action to demonstrate her opinion of the war. Doreste is a member of United 2 Heal at VCU, a non-profit organization that ships medical supplies to countries across the world.
Compared to the 20th century, college students are significantly less concerned about U.S. involvement in foreign wars. In the past, during instances such as the Vietnam War, when the public disagreed with the government’s decision to participate, youth were active in leading anti-war demonstrations. While youth appear to have a similar opinion regarding the U.S. involvement in wars as they have held in the past, they aren’t as vocal.
Ayanna Ogaldez is a freshman at VCU who is torn between wanting to support the war and wanting to keep her distance.
“There is a part of me that aches at the thought of so many people being hurt and killed senselessly,” Ogaldez said.“But there is another side to my opinion, which is that I’m reluctant to get involved because I know this conflict isn’t going to be easy to resolve.”
College students are holding relatively pessimistic and uninformed opinions regarding becoming involved in foreign affairs.
“I feel that, in general, college students aren’t kept up to date with foreign and international affairs because they feel it doesn’t directly affect their lives,” Sade Moore said.