"Tragedy," the late Robert Kennedy once said in a reference to the Vietnam War, "is a tool for the living to gain wisdom."
But the tragedy of the Persian Gulf War to date has provided more questions than wisdom for many college students, and so several hundred students were drawn to teach-ins last week at two Glendale-area colleges, where professors, analysts and activists tried to help them digest the meaning of the crisis.
At Glendale Community College last Friday, Prof. Sally Dungan told students the war against Iraq is "the cost of justice" in the world, seeking mainly to strengthen the role of the United Nations in world politics.
Prof. Carlos Ugalde said it merely showcased what he said was the Bush Administration's flawed and hypocritical foreign policy. Ugalde called on students to protest the war.
At Occidental College that day, Prof. Brice Harris and other speakers said they believed that Saddam Hussein's invasion of Kuwait should be challenged--but through economic sanctions, not war.
"We see ourselves as fighting against this cruel and repressive aggressor," Harris said. "What we need to understand is that many people around the world . . . think it's the other way around."
At both teach-ins, the predominant view among the speakers and students was opposition to the U.S. military action in the gulf. But only the speakers seemed adamant and decisive.
The answers to the dilemmas of the war did not seem as clear to many students who attended, but then, neither did the questions.
For some students--especially those who immigrated from the Middle East or other war-torn countries--the war has not been merely a kaleidoscope through which to study the complexities of the world. It also has been a mirror in which they have peered closely at themselves.
"There is a lot of soul-searching going on right now," said Stephan Potchatek, a religion and philosophy major who organized Occidental's teach-in. "This is probably the first time that most college students . . . have had to respond to these kinds of questions."
"There's not been a war, an American war, in the lives of these kids," said Harris after he spoke to students. "They don't remember Vietnam, they don't remember the draft. It's all a new world to them."
Here is a look at how the war has intensified, and in some cases confused, the usual college-age self-examination of four students:
Last Friday, Pedro Gonzales, 20, took a break from his economics studies and his two jobs to attend the two-day teach-in at Glendale College.
Gonzales questioned many of the lecturers, more often searching for guidance than challenging their opinions. As a Guatemalan who came to Los Angeles five years ago, he has found it difficult, he said, to decide whether to support a war waged by a country that has given him the freedom to speak out against it.
"I consider myself to be right in the middle of whether the war is right or not. I just don't know for sure," said the soft-spoken Gonzales. "I think that this war is wrong because war is not the way to solve anything.
"But if I said this in Guatemala, my family might be shot," he said. "If you say controversial things in Guatemala, you often risk your life and the lives of your family."
Lydia, a biochemistry and premed major, stood outside Occidental's teach-in last Friday, wearing a baseball cap, sweat pants and high-top basketball shoes, and tried to explain her dilemma.
The 20-year-old said she is a moderate Palestinian who is passionately opposed to the U.S. presence in the gulf. That presence, she said, is inviting Iraqi attacks against the Dhahran Air Base in Saudi Arabia--near which her father, mother and 11-year-old brother live.
"Dhahran was never meant for this. It is utopia. It is like Ventura, California," said Lydia, who talked freely and emphatically but refused to give her last name or allow her picture to be taken, saying she feared hostility from U.S. authorities and Israeli radicals.
She last saw her family at Christmas. The fields on which she usually rode her motorcycle were covered with U.S. Army tents, she said. She and her parents, who are also Palestinians opposed to the U.S.-led war, offered dinner and the use of their showers to U.S. soldiers stationed near the base.
"You know the way they wear fanny packs in this country?" she asked Friday, nervously fingering a crucifix on a neck chain behind a Palestinian pendant. "That's how my baby brother wears his gas mask. He can identify every type of plane that flies over our house. It's warping his head."
Lydia most recently talked to her family last Thursday night. She was at an anti-war protest in Westwood when she heard that Dhahran had been hit by Iraqi Scud missiles. She rushed to a pay phone and eventually got through to her family.
No bombs had reached Dhahran, they said. She wept.
Now, Lydia said, she is praying that the same troops to whom she delivered cookies and candy at Christmas, the same troops who she protested should leave the gulf, can protect her family.