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Purdue Students and Faculty Say No to War Criminals on Campus

Activists at Purdue will protest George W. Bush’s role in the war on Iraq during his December 6 campus visit.

Former President George W. Bush speaks during the Struggle for Freedom Conference at George W. Bush Presidential Center on November 16, 2022, in Dallas, Texas.

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On December 6, Purdue University President Mitch Daniels and former U.S. President George W. Bush will appear together on a Purdue stage at an event billed by the university as a conversation on “leadership and citizenship.” Daniels is completing a nearly 10-year term as Purdue president. Previously, Daniels served from 2001-2003 as director of the Office of Management and Budget in the Bush White House. The event is meant to celebrate both of their legacies.

Plans are underway for Daniels and Bush to be greeted that night by Purdue students, faculty and community members there for a different reason: to protest Bush and Daniels’s roles in the murderous U.S. war against the people of Iraq in the name of the “war on terror.”

As president, Bush ordered the invasion of Iraq, supposedly in retaliation for 9/11. As his budget director, Daniels priced the war for him at $50-60 billion. The subsequent U.S. onslaught produced devastation for the Iraqi people. More than 200,000 civilians died and more than 9.2 million Iraqis were displaced by the U.S. war. Kali Rubaii, a Purdue professor of anthropology, has documented high rates of birth defects in Iraq that may be the result of uranium and heavy metal exposure from U.S. weapons and burn pits meant to destroy the detritus of war. At least 800,000 Iraqi children were made orphans by the war. And despite Daniels’s original low projections, the U.S. has now spent approximately $2 trillion to date on the Iraq war, while more than 4,500 U.S. soldiers have lost their lives fighting it. All of this carnage against a country that had nothing to do with 9/11. Even U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell’s notorious allegations of Iraqi “weapons of mass destruction” were later admitted by Powell himself to have been the result of deceitful intelligence.

The Bush-Daniels summit meeting at a public university seeking to glorify and whitewash Iraq’s apocalypse might be seen as a parable for the rise of what Henry A. Giroux has called the “Military-Industrial-Academic Complex” (MIAC). In his 2007 book, The University in Chains, Giroux documented how since the Cold War the U.S. academy had been a recurring site for research, investment and collaboration with the U.S. military-state in proliferating war and war profiteering across the planet. This trend was massively jumpstarted by 9/11. The Department of Homeland Security, created by the Bush administration, distributed billions of dollars to universities to support national security research and programming.

In January 2006, at the University Presidents Summit, then-President Bush announced the “National Security Language Initiative,” funneling millions of dollars from the Departments of State, Education and Defense to promote the study of Arabic as a part of the state’s Islamophobic security apparatus. In 2008, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates launched the “Minerva Research Initiative,” providing university grants for social science research that focuses “on areas of strategic importance to the U.S. national security policy.” To date, the initiative has funded hundreds of university faculty projects intended to improve “our basic understanding of security.” Funded faculty projects include “Combatting Chinese Influence in Contested and Non-Contested Territories” and “Foreign Military Training: Building Effective Armed Forces in Weak States.”

For Giroux, the MIAC’s function has been not only to support the advent and advance of U.S. wars, but to link the privatization of public education to the eradication of critical thinking about the contours of U.S. political and economic empire. Indeed, Daniels’s reign at Purdue is a continuation of the university’s own long promotion of academic militarization. In 2002, it opened the Purdue Homeland Security Institute, one of the first in the United States. The institute partners with U.S. military branches, the Department of Homeland Security, the Indiana Department of Homeland Security and Indiana State Police to conduct research into topics like “active shooter” situations. It also offers no-cost graduate education to active-duty military officers.

Since Daniels’s arrival as president in 2013, the university has further muscled up its military bona fides. In 2019, the Swedish manufacturer Saab announced it would build the airframe for the T-7A Redhawk fighter jet at Purdue’s Discovery Research Park to help train the “next generation of fighter and bomber pilots.” Daniels extolled the collaboration as a chance for Purdue to lead in “protecting the security of Americans.” In February 2021, Purdue received Department of Defense funding to participate in a consortial research project into advancing the adoption of lead-free electronics in defense systems. More recently, in August 2022, Department of Defense Deputy Secretary Kathleen Hicks was given a tour of the campus’s research and development facilities, including its nanotechnology. “We are investing heavily in the infrastructure, human and physical, to design, test and develop the systems necessary to protect the freedoms Americans enjoy,” said Daniels of the visit.

Daniels’s enthusiasm for war-making in the name of empire is a grisly but logical evolution of his role preparing the budget for a national war his then-boss President Bush described as “Operation Iraqi Freedom.” But as Giroux has argued, the militarization of the American state and the militarization of the American university are symptomatic of other forms of racial, political and economic violence at work in the U.S.

Daniels, for example, earned himself the nickname “The Blade” while working as White House budget director for his alleged budget-balancing feats and commitment to austerity. Yet many students at Purdue, especially students of color, will tell you that Daniels’s weaponized nickname cuts in more than one way.

For example, in November 2019, Daniels drew national fire for telling a group of Black students that the university was recruiting “one of the rarest creatures in America,” a leading Black scholar. Daniels later apologized for the comment, but it reminded many students that the university leader had been conspicuously unsupportive when openly white supremacist posters were found tacked up on the university campus in the immediate aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. Daniels first said of the posters it was “not at all clear what they mean” despite their use of classic Nazi imagery. Demanding a stronger condemnation of the posters, students occupied the university administration building. When the president refused to meet with them, they remained in the building throughout the spring term.

Student vulnerabilities reflected the general rise of racist militarization on college campuses in the U.S., such as the white nationalists who began their murderous feats at the Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally in 2017 with a torch-lit march across the University of Virginia campus. Trump as a presidential candidate frequently invoked 9/11, then enacted a Muslim ban once elected. International student applications to the U.S. dropped accordingly.

Trump’s Department of Education sustained the Islamophobic project of 9/11 by demanding that the Duke-University of North Carolina Consortium for Middle East Studies (CMES) revise its curriculum or risk losing federal funding. A letter sent from the Education Department read, “It seems clear foreign language instruction and area studies advancing the security and economic stability of the United States have taken ‘a back seat’ to other priorities at the Duke-UNC CMES.” The letter also said that the CMES was inappropriately promoting the “positive aspects of Islam.”

Organizers at Purdue are using this poster (and its QR code) to spread awareness of the protest planned for December 6.
Organizers at Purdue are using this poster (and its QR code) to spread awareness of the protest planned for December 6.

Episodes like these are reminders that the MIAC is both a structural and lived experience, especially for non-white and non-Christian denizens of U.S. universities, and that a true legacy of the war on terror within the United States has been an increasing atmosphere of racial policing, surveillance and academic militarization. Indeed, rhetoric of academic diversity and liberal multiculturalism on university campuses now easily coexists with rising militarism. When Purdue and Saab announced their partnership to build fighter planes, both highlighted that the “Red Tail” design on the aircraft was an ode to the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviators in the U.S. Air Force Army Corps in World War II. The use of racial diversity to promote U.S. warfare is a mask for the human costs of war — for both its victims and those who fight it.

More senior students on campus worry too that Bush’s role in the war on terror and the war on Iraq itself have been erased from historical memory for the current generation. Paige Frazier, a Ph.D. student in Purdue’s American Studies Program who plans to protest, said:

Many in Purdue’s undergraduate class are too young to remember Bush as a war criminal. George Bush lied to the American people, spent trillions of tax dollars on an unjust war, and caused immeasurable pain and suffering in Iraq and here at home. It is appalling that Mitch Daniels and other Purdue leaders believe that George W. Bush’s presence on campus will be somehow beneficial for our student body.

In the meantime, the MIAC has become big business. U.S. News and World Report now lists and ranks “Homeland Security Programs” across U.S. universities while the Office of Homeland Security boasts an Office of University Programs which “harnesses the intellectual power of America’s universities to provide innovative research, development, and education to the Homeland Security Enterprise (HSE).College Factual meanwhile estimates that at least 7,000 degrees in Homeland Security were granted in the academic year 2021-2022, with an average starting salary of $52,000. Purdue Global University meanwhile offers an “Online Master’s Degree in Homeland Security and Emergency Management.” Purdue Global is itself a new Frankensteinian entry into the MIAC, a public online university built from Purdue’s 2018 purchase — for one dollar — of the for-profit online Kaplan University. Purdue Global is operated by the Purdue Board of Trustees and described as a “public benefit corporation.” It expands the MIAC footprint into a global market of thousands of virtual degree consumers both inside and outside of the U.S.

It is these sprawling conditions spawned by and through the war on terror — and its bedfellow Military-Industrial-Academic Complex — that activists, organizers and people of conscience will be protesting as George W. Bush and Mitch Daniels take the stage at Purdue. One faculty member joining the protest who requested anonymity for fear of retribution said of the event:

It is inappropriate for a man who deceived the American public to launch an illegal invasion, ignored the mass protests of his own citizens and sent thousands of Iraqis and Americans to their deaths, to be speaking at a public university that prides itself on integrity. We take this as an opportunity to do a teach-in to educate ourselves about the history and costs of militarism in our lives.

And said one local Democratic Socialists of America organizer who plans to protest:

George W. Bush and his administration represent corruption, lawlessness and militarism. This legacy is the complete opposite of the things a university should dedicate itself to. We hope that all members of the community will turn out to demonstrate their opposition to this ill-conceived invitation.

The organizers and activists will hold a teach-in and speak-out on December 6 as part of their protest. Their organizing efforts include this petition to protest Bush’s appearance and circulating the scannable QR code on the poster accompanying this story. The protesters’ rally will be in solidarity with other national movements to demilitarize university campuses, like the national Cops Off Campus Coalition and Dissenters, a group committed to reclaiming resources from the war industry. These movements align with ongoing battles to demilitarize K-12 education as documented in Scott Harding and Seth Kershner’s 2015 book, Counter-Recruitment and the Campaign to Demilitarize Public Schools. The protest efforts also fall under the broad banner of the contemporary abolitionist movement, which seeks restorative justice and a redistribution of public goods from death-making institutions like war and prisons to life-making activities like schools. Those protesting the Bush-Daniels summit will thus be fighting both in memory of those martyred by the U.S. war against Iraq and for a world that includes the right to live and build alternatives to state violence, racism and empire.