October 22, 2003: Perspective
By Gregg Lange 70
Illustration by Chris Gall
Gregg Lange 70, a consultant to media companies, is a member of the Alumni Councils Committee on Princetoniana, and a trustee of WPRB Radio.
Last March, I stopped by the Frist Campus Center to visit Lou Russell 45. His family was there, and we spoke about Princeton, the then-new war in Iraq, and Lou. Lou wore his Marine officers uniform, and his siblings, including Norman Russell 43, were justifiably proud as they talked about him and his Distinguished Flying Cross and his one year at Princeton. Lou couldnt speak for himself because he died two days before his 21st birthday in 1944; his presence remains at Princeton in a photograph and in the massive World War II Memorial Book (then at Frist), along with 354 of her other sons.
This was the Good War, popular Brokaw-ish reminders of which have arisen often over the last year. The United States took its time getting in, but eventually we were attacked directly and fought with a sense of purpose. We had enemies who were demonstrably evil, and our government did a good workmanlike job laying out the cause, setting up an equitable military draft and convincing everyone that a trip to Florida wasnt really very important in the scheme of things, until the war was won.
Whether that was worth the lives of Lou and 354 other Princetonians is likely best left to those younger and wiser than Tom Brokaw and me. But the important point is that these Princetonians thought so. Most of them volunteered. Many, like Lou, earned their freshman numerals, then willingly paused to put their lives in danger. The essence of their resolve lies between the bronze covers of the Memorial Book, which on each page simply states, Alma Mater keeps in eternal memory her sons who laid down their lives for their country.
About 50 feet away from where the book was displayed, I once tried to stop the Vietnam War. The quaint offices of the Movement for a New Congress were buried in forgotten storage space in Palmer Lab. For six months following the upheaval of May 1970, a group of us acted as an organizational resource supporting antiwar congressional candidates around the country. This was not a spectacular success: Congress never said a word, Richard Nixon won by a landslide in 1972, then vanished in turn himself. Before leaving, he got rid of the politically incendiary draft and so defused the campuses. The 30-year-old umbilical connection between American 18-year-olds and their military was supplanted by the All-Volunteer Army.
But in 1970, everyone knew his draft lottery number. Emotions on campus ran high against a national administration that offered no pertinent justification to those it used as its instruments, and put in harms way. Kent State, crying out in the heart of Mid-America, typified the country in the Vietnam era the same way D-Day did in World War II. If anyone left Princeton early to volunteer for the Vietnam War effort, I never heard about him.
So from May until October 1970 I worked in the basement of Palmer Lab to change the government, mainly because my vested interest was immediate. Twelve months later, I landed at the gargantuan American base at Long Binh as an Army lieutenant.
This was the Bad War, and it was a grand adventure in governmental hubris. The U.S. was supporting an irrelevant regime in a land we knew nothing about, and by 1971 one week in country was sufficient to understand that. But we couldnt lose face with the Soviets and Ho Chi Minh and whomever, so we Americans stuck to our guns and alienated allies by the dozen and a generation of our own children. And 24 more of Princetons sons died for it.
They are suitably honored via inscription in Nassau Hall along with their fathers from World War II, their grandfathers from World War I, and their great-great-grandfathers from the Civil War. But Princeton has no Vietnam memorial book to display proudly. In contrast, inconspicuously located next to the Chapel is a jarring sculpture of Abraham and Isaac, originally created by George Segal as a memorial to be placed at Kent State. It was too effective a symbol ever to be installed there, so it resides with us.
Its difficult to sit watching live! the televised (Good? Bad?) Iraq war with a piece of designer pizza in Frist and consider these things. Youd like to think the immeasurable suffering of the 20th century its impact even on places so intentionally removed as Princeton would have given us wisdom as well as knowledge. Watching the watchers of the giant TV wall, however, leaves doubts. Youd like to think brilliant 20-year-olds would grasp the import of government acting in their name with the bodies of their contemporaries as pawns; but even a Princetonian poll done in wartime reflected fragmented and somehow pallid opinions. A few students demonstrated on Palmer Square in favor of the war; a few more demonstrated against it. The Class of 03 submitted its theses. No class members will be drafted, probably ever. How many will try to reform the government, or volunteer to defend the nation? How many will remain embedded with Iraq only via satellite?
If war amounts to a failure of reason and diplomacy, then it seems to be antithetical to anything that Princeton strives to represent. Think Armored strikes in the nations service. Yet from Witherspoon to Wilson to Rumsfeld we have been enmeshed in war. Now the nation appears to be at a crossroads where some potential paths to world stability require a military convoy, and we Americans have the only convoy in town. Almost anyone who has ever been to war finds this sickening; but what of a 20-year-old economics major picking up her mail at Frist? Does she see the brutality of armed conflict in Lou Russells page in the Memorial Book, in the Movement for a New Congress, or in the CNN images on the wall? Can she see the simultaneous relevance of all three? Do we have to conscript her into two years at Fort Dix and Baghdad to explain it?
The folks who thought up Frist wanted a campus center to be at the very heart of Princeton. Little did they know.