NASHVILLE -- Seven buddies sit in the living room of their dormitory suite 12 floors above the classical orderlinesss of Vanderbilt University. They are the same age as many of the young men fighting in the Persian Gulf War: 20 and 21, on the cusp of adulthood. As privileged sons of professional America, their lives are not on the line, yet this is their war, too, and they sense that somehow it has changed them forever.
Perhaps the effect is not immediately obvious as they spend the day. They watch basketball at Memorial Gym. They eat pizza from Mazzio's and junk food from the Munchi Mart. They play baseball and racetrack Nintendo computer games. They retreat into their rooms to study English and political science. They listen to "Living Colour" and "Public Enemy" on their compact-disc players. They go to a dance or a movie.
But the change is occurring inside as they struggle with tough questions about who they are and what they are doing while so many of their chronological peers -- so alike, yet different -- sleep in trenches and drive light armored vehicles in the Saudi Arabian desert.
Here are the questions for these students: Should you fight in this war? Would you? Should there be a draft? Is it fair that you, white and middle class, are here while a disproportionate number of blacks and Hispanics are over there? Would you die if you went? Didn't your life seem so safe and comfortable for so many years? What happened? Does this war open up the possibility of one military conflict after another for the course of your life? Is that what you expected?
"No, this is not something we expected to face in our lives," said Mark Dusek, 20, a junior from Houston majoring in math and biology. On that point, all seven agreed. War was far from their minds as they entered college. They thought the world was becoming safer, especially as tension eased with the Soviet Union. Grenada and Panama did not seem like war to them. They could not remember Vietnam.
During the first semester, the television was used mostly to watch sports; now they tune in the war on CNN. From September to December, the only part of the newspaper read in their suite was the sports section, said Greg Anglum, 20, a junior economics major from Walt Whitman High School in Bethesda, Md. "Now we all read the front page."
This semester has been different from the day they returned in the second week of January. Mike Penn, 21, a senior communications major from Indianapolis, remembers driving back to school down Interstate 65 and seeing three big trucks hauling coffins from the Batesville Casket Co. "That's when it hit me that this was really happening and all our lives were changing," Penn said. "People were going to die."
Five of the seven agree with President Bush that the war is just or at least necessary. But not one wants to fight in it. All are opposed to a draft, though a few said one might be necessary as a last resort. They said they would gladly serve in non-military public service jobs.
"This might sound selfish, but I think it would be a shame to put America's best young minds on the front line," said Jason Bell, 20, a junior English major from Elizabethtown, Ky. "If we have to go, we have to go, but I think it would be a shame."
In one sense, these young men seem superfluous when considered within the war's urgent context. Yet they loom as potentially key players if war drags on and a draft -- despite Bush's pledge to the contrary -- is suddenly resurrected. Fair or not, it is then that the nation's support of the war might face its stiffest test, when the educated sons of influential white professionals are part of the equation. These seven understand that.
"If we get to the point where we need a draft, we should pull out," said Matt Pender, 21, a junior political science major from Ayer, Mass. Pender, editor of the campus newspaper, opposes the war. He and Penn hold the minority view among those in the suite, but that might change.
"If the ground war starts and they need more troops, who knows how the tide could turn?" said Bill Pierros, 21, a junior English major from Elgin, Ill.
Anglum, who worked last summer in Vice President Quayle's office, said he hopes there will not be a draft but would totally support one if needed. While he said he considers the war necessary, largely to protect U.S. energy needs, this is not a war he wants to fight. "I guess if I was trained to fight maybe I'd have a little different attitude," he said. "But I can't see myself shooting a gun. . . . I don't feel I could be an effective soldier."
None of the seven has relatives in the war. Only two have close high school friends in the conflict -- Pierros and Chad Sanchez, 20, a junior chemical engineering major from Gonzales, La., a working-class town west of New Orleans where the military is a routine part of life. "A lot of guys from home signed up with the Marine reserves or National Guard right out of high school," Sanchez said. "None of them, I don't think, ever thought about going to war, but that's where they are now. Back home at Christmas, a friend and I spent a whole night with another friend who was about to go. He was scared. He's a gunner on the front line."
If these seven were on the front line, would they come home alive? Sanchez said he has thought about that many times since war started. He has decided that he would get killed trying to help a buddy in trouble. Perhaps he will never know. The students also have pondered the question of color and fairness in the volunteer military. Yes, they said, blacks and Hispanics seem to be in the war disproportionately. But the only short-range way to even things out would be a draft, an unacceptable solution to them.
"What do they say? White man's war, black man's fight," Bell said.
"We're talking about the injustices of a whole system," Penn said.
As late afternoon shadows fell across their living room, the seven came to grips with how their insular lives had changed. Pender said the United States has started something that will be hard to stop. Anglum said he is afraid that there will be more conflicts. Sanchez said he has been thinking more about what it means to bring children into the world. Pierros said he fears for his relatives in Greece, scene of terrorist activity. Penn said he would not feel as safe flying from Nashville to Chicago.
They were safe, a world away. They did not want to fight. They would rather eat cold pizza or write a term paper on dictators. "War is something you played in the backyard," Penn said. "None of us knew what it really was." They still do not, but they are thinking about it for the first time.