When the Iraq War began last March, hundreds of WSU faculty and students were overseas participating in international programs. Some of them faced inconveniences due to airport security measures or flight delays. For others, the beginning of the war affected them in profound ways. Here is a look into the experiences of several members of the WSU community who were abroad last spring.
Passionate opposition in Europe
Kari Wuotila, a communication major, was studying at Universidad Complutense de Madrid with the International Studies Abroad program. She said the Spaniards were passionately against the war and their president’s alliance with President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Even before the war began there were posters in her school stating the time and location for a protest march once the war began. Three days of classes were canceled either due to the marches or because professors canceled classes in protest.
Jessica VanderPloeg, studying veterinary medicine, was in Spain attending the University of Seville through the Cultural Experiences Abroad program. She said, “Banners and graffiti were present on the university premises all semester. Some called for peace while others were directly aimed at intimidating American students.”
Although many people were sympathetic to the attack on 9/11, they felt the U.S. invasion of Iraq was not for the right reasons or done in the right way. Enormous demonstrations were held in the major cities of Spain.
“There were instances in which American students in my group were singled out. One girl was spit on and some were jeered at just for being Americans,” VanderPloeg said.
In spite of these events, neither Wuotila or VanderPloeg felt they were in danger. “We were in Spain to learn Spanish and immerse ourselves in their culture, and we had very little reason to fear, if we did what we were there to do,” said VanderPloeg. She even took a trip to Morocco, which many people felt was risky, but she didn’t have any problems.
Outrage and accusations
Ben Gies was studying hotel and restaurant administration at the University Center Cesar Ritz in Brig, Switzerland.
Cesar Ritz is a school of about 200 students from a variety of countries. Many students were from the Middle East, and some of them were strongly anti-American.
Inconveniently, Gies’ dorm room television broke just as the war began, so he kept up with the news by watching the television in the school’s lobby. One Jordanian student was especially angry about the war and started a rumor among the students that Gies was enjoying the war. He misinterpreted things Gies said and started what Gies calls a “merry-go-round” of accusations. Gies tried to clear up the misconception but, he said, his reputation was never restored.
Birgitta Ingemanson, associate professor of Foreign Languages and Cultures at WSU, made a research trip to Stockholm, Sweden, in May. Even though the war was officially over by then, she said “feelings about the war were still very strong.”
People felt President Bush was “arrogant” and “ignorant.” They shared the opinion with Europe in general of complete outrage at the war and resulting innocent deaths.
Ingemanson’s research field is Russia. She sees many similarities between the dialogue that was taking place there in the 1930s and what is now occurring in the U.S. At that time Soviet citizens were told there was a great threat to their “homeland,” and that they needed to be more unified in their thinking. Fortunately, America has safeguards to prevent history repeating itself, she said. “I’m not President Bush!”
Becky Crosetto, a senior in genetics and psychology, was at the University of Stirling in central Scotland under the WSU Direct Exchange program. She recalled, “The Scottish and British people were very disappointed in Prime Minister Tony Blair and annoyed that America was bombing another country without U.N. support.
“Everyone seemed to assume that I supported Bush simply because I was an American. The Scots did not seem to be afraid to try to make me ashamed of my nationality.”
She felt she had to defend her own reputation, as well as that of her country, in the face of nasty stereotypes.
“Unfortunately, people had a difficult time realizing I wasn’t President Bush,” she said.
Sympathy in Asia
Fang Fang, a doctoral student in pharmacology at WSU, was in Guangzho, China, last spring preparing to come to Pullman. She recalled that the war in Iraq was something people talked about at lunch or dinner, but didn’t seem to care deeply about since it didn’t directly affect them. They thought there must be other ways to fight terrorism than to wage war in Iraq but, she said, “They saw it as being the American government at war, not the American people.”
Zhang Ling Ling, studying for her Ph.D. in communication, said people in Beijing are more politically minded and in touch with world news and events. Students in Beijing were sympathetic with America because of 9/11 but also were sympathetic toward the people of Iraq. Students there thought launching a war should be the last resort no matter what the reason.
“President Bush does not have as good of a reputation in Beijing as President Clinton had,” she said. Chinese students think Clinton had “personal glamour.”
Ling Ling says there was no threat to Americans living in Beijing when the war began because the Chinese people saw it as a war of the government. There was more real anger towards Americans when the Chinese embassy was bombed in Belgrade four years earlier.
Fear of attack
Bill MacLean, a doctoral student in education, was in Taichung, Taiwan when the war began. The local police sent armed policemen to guard the American school where he was employed.
“Sometimes, the guards fell asleep on duty because it was such a boring job,” he said. “Nothing threatening was happening!”
Though it was humorous to some of the students and teachers at the school, it was also a comforting show of support from the local police.
The Taiwanese people are very supportive of the United States, so Americans there didn’t face any hostility. However, there was a fear among the Taiwanese people that they would be attacked by mainland China while the U.S. Navy was busy fighting the Iraq war.
One current graduate student was in the Korean Naval Army at the time the war with Iraq began and reports a similar fear in his country. Koreans worried that the vacuum left by the U.S. Naval forces moving from Japan to Iraq would leave their country vulnerable to an attack from North Korea. His parents felt he and his family would be safer in the U.S., even during a time of war, than they would be in Korea.
Another Korean graduate student, Soon Il Choi, studying agricultural economics, was in Seoul preparing to come to WSU at the time the Iraq war began. His family also was not worried about him because, he said, “usually the American people fight in other countries.” He said Koreans thought Americans were attacking Iraq for oil, and they didn’t feel this was justified.
Information and support
Crosetto said the offices of Education Abroad and International Programs were “superb with their communication to us. It was a great source of support.” Wuotila and VanderPloeg, who were both in Spain, agreed that the International Programs office was very helpful and took care to convey important information.
VanderPloeg said her parents were “very worried about the situation, but they felt reassured by the extensive safety and emergency measures that were established by my program and the U.S. government.”