Academic Category Error

People in my academic discipline sometimes conflate “military” and “war.” From what I’ve seen of the broader scape of academe, that’s not uncommon. In listserv discussions, interactions at conferences, calls for proposals, and hallway conversations, there’s a common assumption that any association with the military must commit one to a monolithic and intolerant ideology supporting all war, always, in all contexts.

Two nights ago, on Monday, Eugene Jarecki showed up on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart promoting his new book. (Jarecki wrote and directed the award-winning 2005 documentary Why We Fight, which — while voluminously researched and attempting to provide the appearance of scrupulous fairness — mostly did a very good job for 99 minutes of proving that Jarecki agreed with the cautions offered in Eisenhower’s “military-industrial complex” speech: to paraphrase a number of critics, the movie was an op-ed piece, not investigative reporting.) He had some good things to say about today’s links between the defense industry and American foreign policy, and with Stewart’s prompting and assistance, he made a number of solid points fully and clearly in the nine minutes or so that he had.

Stewart’s a breezy interviewer, and I think Jarecki would have fared better with a more deliberate pace, perhaps even with being asked to read a passage from the book out loud, NPR-style, though that seldom plays well on television. (Would that it did.) I say this because Jarecki was invited here to West Point to talk to people — cadets and faculty — about his movie after its release, and accounts of those conversations have traveled, some of them making their way into his new book, and some of them making their way into our Dean’s annual address to faculty — all faculty, military and civilian — where I first heard them two months ago. I quote here from Jarecki’s book, The American Way of War, published ten days ago:

Located in wooded isolation some 50 miles north of New York City, West Point is very much in its own intellectual orbit, not entirely removed from the workings of the American defense establishment, yet not entirely in sync with them either. On my first drive there, I recall the incredulity with which friends and family reacted when I called from the road to tell them where I was going. They were surprised that a military academy would even show a film like Why We Fight, let alone invite a self-acknowledged critic of U.S. defense policy, to address its best and brightest.

As it turns out, this incredulity reflects a prejudice that sweepingly and mistakenly equates bad foreign policy with those entrusted to implement it. While soldiers come in all types and no single generalization can be made, one finds inspiring abundance on West Point’s faculty of responsible thinkers who feel a responsibility not only to train their cadets in the military arts but to educate them more broadly about the strengths and weaknesses of the nation’s foreign policy system.

Jarecki’s words are a careful and instructive counter to the myopic conflation I describe above. When our Dean read those words, and conveyed them to the faculty with an argument about their importance, they helped me see something more about teaching at this place, and about why I’m teaching here and want to continue to teach here. The engagement with diverse and critical perspectives that Jarecki describes is something I’ve seen here far more than at any other college or university I’ve attended or taught at, and seen especially with a remarkable openness in the classroom.

It’s remarkable the things cadets are unafraid to say and the criticisms they’re unafraid to make, reasonably and professionally, and how calmly and precisely they’re able to disagree with one another on loaded issues, and then think nothing of it and move on to celebrate and support one another. (Mostly.) In my class, they’ve just finished a unit on multi-modal argument, with more than a few of them giving presentations on similar or identical topics in rapid succession, and the kaleidoscope of perspectives has been refreshingly more wide-ranging than some of the homogeneous arrays of ideological and rhetorical commonplaces I’ve seen elsewhere. And in many ways more liberally accepting; more embracing of what Benjamin Franklin called “all these scatter’d counsels.” That ideological diversity and tolerance strikes me as one of the most valuable assets that a democratic nation might promote in its military, and one that I wish I might see more of in academe’s broader scape.

Academic Category Error
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4 thoughts on “Academic Category Error

  • October 23, 2008 at 11:31 pm
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    Well said, Mike, particularly at the end during election year when the lines often get blurred between supporting or promoting one’s cause and infringing upon the civil rights of others and remember what democracy is supposed to be about.

  • October 24, 2008 at 11:31 am
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    Having been in the army, I agree. For all of any army’s problems, its military attitudes and desire or lack of desire for war are not equal. In my service, I never heard a commander be happy about having to fight. The rhetoric focused on the day we wouldn’t have to fight.

  • October 28, 2008 at 3:49 pm
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    I think I’m going to assign this post to my freshmen. We’ve been watching and discussing the various techniques in the Obama/McCain ads, and of course, Senator McCain’s military service comes up, as do discussions of Viet Nam and Iraq. Your post will help widen their perspective on the military.

    BTW–watching the ad videos is much like playing the believing/doubting game for me. I try to mask, or at the very least, point out, my own political leanings even as we critique both sides.

  • October 31, 2008 at 9:43 pm
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    Jeff — right on.

    Michelle, Joanna, you bring up a point that one of my students asked about, which probably tells you where I stand: “Sir,” he asked, “I know we’re not supposed to see it here, but can we do our essays about political bias in the classroom?”

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