We asked a former West Point professor about teaching literature at the nation’s most prestigious military academy. What he told us revealed the truth behind the country’s most elite warrior caste – and how liberal heroes like Thoreau and the Beats inspire the next generation of “Runaway Generals.”
Greg, a tall, lanky, and unusually thoughtful cadet, waited for me after class. While most West Point “plebes” (first-year students) ran out at the end of the fifty-five minute period, Greg almost always lingered, wanting to further parse this or that novel, play, or poem.
He regularly and passionately participated in class discussions while large groups of the cadets dozed. He took unpopular positions when I ventured into controversial territory and sought me out for “A. I.” – additional instruction – whenever he wanted to discuss something above and beyond the curriculum.
But Greg was unusually silent that day during a debate about the value of “literature” and interpretation for our future military officers.
It hadn’t gone well.
“No disrespect, sir, but I think this poetry crap is pretty useless.” This was Troy, another very vocal cadet. Troy often sounded off about the worthlessness of “English.” English was his catch-all term for the humanities, social sciences, and any mode of intellectual inquiry without one “right” answer and some solid practical application, like building a bridge or blowing one up. He was not a fan of APL classes. APL is the official United States Military Academy acronym for Art History, Philosophy, and Literature: three separate disciplines all rolled into one department, ironically confirming Troy’s worst assumptions about their interchangeability.
Despite Troy’s many and frequent provocations in the classroom, I usually stuck to “facilitating debate,” in the bloodless lingo of the USMA. But that day, I took the bait and countered Troy’s swaggering declaration. He was, after all, talking shit about my vocation.
But rather than engage in Adornian jujitsu – agreeing that the humanities are useless and it is exactly their uselessness that is valuable – I instead reiterated the standard APL party line: literature is in fact very valuable for you, future wartime leaders, since it fosters empathy (or is it sympathy?) for various “others,” as you imaginatively identify with the escaped slave or invisible man.
Consider, young cadet, that you will be serving in very different cultural environments, such as Afghanistan or Iraq, which requires a more expansive kind of understanding. I could hear my inner critic objecting to this soft imperialist instrumentalization of literary study – a kind of weaponized sentimentalism – but Troy was satisfied, or at least silent.
Just then, the section marcher politely signaled to me that class was over. The cadets rushed for the door, but Greg stayed behind. His uncharacteristic silence in class and the look on his face told me something was bothering him.
“I agreed with a lot of what you said today, Professor Galluzzo,” he said. “But don’t you think there’s a difference between imaginary others and actual people you meet on the ground, in a place like Afghanistan? Can’t fantasies also reinforce stereotypes?” He articulated my own misgivings. I suggested he read Edward Said.
Although Greg didn’t know the book, his questions reminded me that Orientalism – a text and term often invoked by many of my West Point colleagues at the time as what “we” weren’t doing over there – is very much about the ideological misuse of imaginative literature in the service of nineteenth-century imperialism.
Impressed, I asked him why he didn’t participate in that day’s debate. Greg and Troy often went at it. Troy would voice his disapproval of some text or topic with a “hooah,” that all-purpose West Point exclamation. Greg would almost always counter with a thorough and levelheaded response.
They were a study in contrasts – lanky and thoughtful Greg versus stocky and insouciant Troy. Troy was loud, inappropriate, and always surrounded by a group of admirers as a result. Entranced by his outspokenness, they seconded his views in class while Greg was usually alone in his opinions. “I wanted to say something, sir, but I thought, after the ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ discussion the other day, I’d give it a rest.”
No one had vocally supported Greg’s liberal stance on dadt, while several cadets had echoed Troy’s opposition, and a few others had remained silent. Silence at West Point doesn’t necessarily entail indifference or disengagement; I know that Greg had his supporters. At the time, I drew the obvious conclusion – while Troy’s views were typical, Greg was challenging the conservative consensus of these aspiring Army officers and many of the leaders they will one day replace.
Greg questioned many of the heroic values central to the West Point ethos and certainly rejected both the unthinking obedience and the thoughtless self-congratulation that I sometimes observed in the corps of cadets. In other words, he is the kind of critical thinker that the twenty-first century Army needs for America’s forever wars, according to its more enlightened spokesperson. And he is exactly what West Point has promised to the American public.
Back in 2009, before I ever set foot on West Point’s campus, I interviewed at the Modern Language Association Convention for an assistant professorship with the Citadel, the Military College of South Carolina.
The Citadel is an unforgiving military academy affiliated with the South Carolina Militia, rather than any of the US armed forces. The college gained notoriety in the nineties when its hide-bound leadership refused to admit women – twenty years after the volunteer military and its five service academies went coed. Shannon Faulkner, the prospective cadet denied admission due to her sex, sued the school and the case went all the way to the Supreme Court, where she prevailed. She was eventually driven out of the place by a relentless campaign of harassment, intimidation, and torment.
My interview with them was off-putting, to say the least.
Two civilians, a man and a woman, kept me waiting in the hallway of a San Francisco hotel for over an hour. They finally emerged from the suite after a friend stopped by with a bottle of champagne. We sat down for the interview. I told them about my dissertation while they kept asking if I was really okay with wearing the required military uniform. It clearly wasn’t the place for me and they wanted me to know it.
My first encounter with West Point couldn’t have been more different. The job interview was conducted in a large room in one of the many impressive granite buildings that comprise Thomas Jefferson’s military academy on the Hudson. I was to meet with the APL department’s most senior civilian professor, New Republic regular and recent Guggenheim fellow Dr Elizabeth D. Samet.
Although West Point doesn’t offer tenure, Professor Samet had achieved de facto job security. I read her 2006 memoir, Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, to prepare, and was heartened to discover that literature had value in what I still imagined to be the most pragmatically minded of American institutions.
Samet and Colonel Scott Krawczyk, the vice chair of the department, were waiting for me with another civilian academic, who, I learned, was an expert on modern and contemporary American poetry. Both Samet and her colleague appeared more Columbia than West Point. I felt at ease. Krawczyk, an imposing figure, is a military officer with a phd – which is required of the senior faculty – and some academic reputation as a romantic scholar. This is certainly not the Citadel, I thought to myself.
“We like to think that this is a liberal arts college. Which also happens to be a military school,” the colonel said.
Elizabeth followed, in a half-joking tone. “Like Bard or Sarah Lawrence. With uniforms.”
The mood lightened, so I confessed my leftist and antimilitarist convictions. I wanted to get it all out on the table. “Do you see this as a problem here?”
The colonel responded by saying that while officers are “obliged to avoid explicit expressions of political belief, the US Military Academy is an institution that prides itself on academic freedom in the classroom.”
Samet echoed her book in stressing the need for different, challenging, and even explicitly critical perspectives in military education.
I accepted the position, telling myself that I would voice those challenging perspectives and foster a different kind of officer in doing so.
Although these liberal character traits might seem unsuitable for a soldier, West Point is ostensibly dedicated to shaping “leaders of character” for an American Army that, in Samet’s words, “prides itself on the soldier’s ability to recognize immoral or unlawful orders: ‘I was just doing what I was told’ isn’t a satisfactory excuse. That is why the abuses of Guantánamo and Abu Ghraib, for example, have been such a crushing betrayal to military professionals, especially, perhaps, to those who teach ethics at West Point.”
But my student Troy was also very much an iconoclast, bucking authority in the approved fashion, showing his COs that he, too, will one day assume command. On the surface, Troy isn’t a follower, or in any way a good soldier-automaton, as I could hear in the forced – and often “fuck you” – tone of his “yes, sir – no, sir”s. He wore his rebellious streak on his dress grey sleeve, often bragging about how he shirked this or that duty and suffered the consequences for it: marching back and forth across a muddy field for hours on weekends, or losing privileges, including the passes he needed to leave “post” – the West Point campus. The campus, for most cadets, is little more than a grey, gothic prison on the picturesque Hudson River.
Troy was willing to suffer the consequences for his open defiance of the rules, even as he reiterated a certain version of “duty, honor, country” that endeared him to his peers as a rebel in the grand West Point tradition of “the Goat.”
The Goat is the name for the mischief-making cadet who graduates last in his class. Famous Goats have included George Custer and Dwight Eisenhower, while more recent luminaries like Stanley McChrystal aspired to the position, as one account of the great man’s time at the academy recounts: “McChrystal is a dissident ringleader on campus. One classmate, who asked not to be named, describes finding McChrystal passed out in the shower after he drank a case of beer he’d hidden under the sink. He viewed the tactical officers, sort of like glorified residential advisors at West Point, as the enemy.”
In The Operators, journalist Michael Hastings tells the story of one of McChrystal’s most elaborate campus pranks: “McChrystal and five others borrow old weapons from the campus museum, including a French mat-49 submachine gun and dummy hand grenades made from socks. At 22:15 hours, dressed in full commando gear and with painted faces, they storm Greg Hall. The main intent, says Barno (who didn’t participate in the raid) was to ‘create chaos.’” As the managing editor of West Point’s literary magazine, McChrystal subsequently published a short story about the raid with the title “Where Goats Dare.”
My colleagues at other colleges and universities found my reports of this behavior surprising, wanting to maintain the fantasy of perfectly behaved students somewhere, anywhere, at the very least in the Army. Yet this hooah flavor of disobedience is, in many ways, not inconsistent with West Point’s mission to produce “leaders of character” – in other words, to institutionally and ideologically reproduce the Army officer corps elite.
The military requires standardization, regimentation, and subservience to the chain of command, even as its leaders seek to groom the next generation of MacArthurs and Pattons, those exemplars of macho initiative who give orders rather than simply following them. Even the bureaucratic rituals imposed on cadets, which I initially understood in terms of breaking down the civilian and building up the soldier, nonetheless pale beside the orgies of affirmation and self-congratulation showered on the cadets by their commanding officers. This was a far cry from popular images of the sadistic, ego-demolishing drill sergeant apotheosized by Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket. In this way, West Point is like Sarah Lawrence or even the Ivies: “You’re the best!” is the dominant message to students.
The mandatory Dean’s or Super-intendent’s “briefings” that I attended with my students were exalted pep rallies – the leaders telling their charges how “excellent” they were, as they embodied the “excellence” of this most “excellent” of places. Cadets hooahing in raucous agreement, in what amounted to a collective high-five between current and future Army leaders. The faculty briefings weren’t much different, as we were informed that West Point is the “best liberal arts school in the country” ad nauseam, according to a methodologically dubious 2009 Forbes college rankings report.
This exceptionalist posture is curiously reinforced through institutional coddling, at odds with both the Spartan rigors of military training and the self-reliance presumably required in a war zone. While acting out is to be expected from teenagers in such a rule-bound environment as they react to an often misconceived and outdated paternalism, Troy’s hooah rebelliousness is a direct extension of the demeanor fostered by the leadership. Some cadets thus break or bend the rules they deem unimportant.
Most officers and cadets understand, usually by their third year, the overwhelmingly performative dimension of military culture: showing up and jumping through the hoops that you have to in order to get by. There is a deep vein of cynicism that reminded me of the Catholic Church of my childhood.
It is against this background that certain circumscribed acts of rebellion – signs of decision, acts of manly self-assertion – make sense. They mark the cadet as a future leader, willing to buck bureaucratic protocols if the exigencies of battle call for such a thing or even push back against a certain authority, insofar as that line of action is dictated by the nebulous imperatives of “honor.”
Those great West Point iconoclasts Patton, MacArthur, and Robert E. Lee best exemplify this phenomenon. All three of them are wildly popular among the West Point corps of cadets, as each represents in his own way an ideal-type of the warrior as rebel against elected executive authority, or, in the case of Lee, the Union itself.
This selective disrespect sometimes manifests as a troubling contempt for the American public and its political representatives which I observed among some cadets and even their Army officer instructors. To them, we’re a part of a flaccid civilian world at odds with West Point ideals of martial and heroic individualism. Several of my students were even offended by the “support the troops” rhetoric trumpeted by a jingoistic US media, which they saw as expressions of bad faith or guilt.
At the same time, many cadets – and several of my Army colleagues – pledge allegiance to popular American political viewpoints, such as libertarianism. This despite the fact that they are servants of the state at its most coercive, which feeds, clothes, houses, educates, and employs them in what is an admirably successful example of central planning on a mass scale. One former colleague sometimes indignantly invoked Murray Rothbard, the “anarcho-capitalist” who dismisses the state as an “armed gang,” or attacked public-sector workers and their pensions, without the slightest bit of self-awareness or irony. In Soldier’s Heart, Samet describes another institutionally approved form of iconoclasm.
She recounts a cadet’s report on Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience,” for which he deliberately showed up late and was subsequently punished for it, cleverly illustrating Thoreau’s method, while the principles that animated the antislavery and antiwar protests were reduced to “radical individualism,” without much further elaboration.
During my initial campus visit, I was asked to teach a few chapters from On The Road to the introductory literature class. I was, at the time, surprised by the cadets’ enthusiasm for this material. In retrospect, the appeal of Kerouac’s masculine and frequently adolescent vision of rebellious self-assertion makes sense in that environment. The course reading list for the class included Benjamin Franklin’s Autobiography, Thoreau’s Walden, Melville’s Typee, Kerouac’s novel, and Jon Krakauer’s Into the Wild.
The Colonel who designed the syllabus around American individualism and American individualists’ various “errands in the wilderness” later spent some time at the Afghan Military Academy, which is being organized on the USMA model. In one mandatory briefing, he concluded his own tale of adventure by mentioning that Emerson and Thoreau are just what the religiously-minded Afghans need.
The cadets’ reaction to Che Guevara’s “Man and Socialism” stood out, since the guerrilla’s vision is a martial and masculine one in which Cubans are asked to sacrifice for their new revolutionary society, which Che describes in language redolent of the battalion.
While the cadets knew they were supposed to hate this communist, his prowess as a fighter, his violent, self-sacrificing death, and the dangerous proximity of his rhetoric to their own elicited several begrudging and conflicted expressions of respect: “He was a bastard, but….” This class, chock-full of rebels in the mold of Troy, wrestled with the specter of the revolutionary fighter.
At West Point, the rebellious gesture is presented as nearly synonymous with the popularity of the abovementioned writers, so that confederate Lee joins hands with abolitionist Thoreau. Disobedience is ambiguous in its implications, since, devoid of any specific ethical or political content, the authority that is disobeyed could just as well be the democratically elected executive as the rogue CO who barks “illegal and immoral” orders.
In a chapter entitled “To Obey or Not to Obey,” Samet describes her own cadets’ disobedient behavior and iconoclastic impulses, which she automatically identifies with a critical moral outlook certain to reassure those readers who crave a more enlightened form of militarism.
She recounts the story of a former student who declares in an email that in light of his experience in Iraq, he wants to study military law in order to uphold the “laws of war,” informed by “humanitarian principles,” in the “murky wars” the United States will apparently prosecute in perpetuity.
We are made to recognize how this ex-student’s disobedient streak, as demonstrated in the classroom, is sublimated into moral awareness through an engagement with modernist poetry and its ambiguities, which, more than his experience in the Sunni Triangle, led him to this career choice.
Samet never fully considers how disobedience, which is not coextensive with critical thinking, moral scruple, or healthy irreverence, could produce “incidents” such as Haditha or Fort Nama, as well as prevent them.
Samet’s book is, among other things, a long apologia for the value of literary study at the military academy, which is described as providing an intellectual space for the cultivation of these critical and reflective faculties, a space for students like Greg. She presents the humanities in general – a marginal course of study that most cadets encounter in the form of the four required APL courses – and English Literature in particular as fostering those habits of mind necessary for the exercise of “moral courage.”
She distinguishes moral courage from mere bravery, which “sometimes consists in speaking up, sometimes in stoic silence, sometimes in forging ahead, sometimes in circumspection, and sometimes in preserving nothing less than our humanity.”
Yet Samet’s account of the uses of literature in an officer’s education takes on a decidedly eighteenth-century character, recalling how certain defenders of the novel, among other genres, argued it was useful tool for the cultivation of readers’ moral sensibilities, massaging our sentimental capacities into such a state where we would more easily identify with the lowly, the alien, and, in this case, the enemy. Or at least the civilian populations, often indistinguishable from America’s various opponents, in counterinsurgency warfare.
This very old discourse overlaps with the counterinsurgency doctrine championed by General David Petraeus, among other prominent West Point alumni, and was all the rage at West Point when I arrived in the summer of 2009.
While Samet highlights the aberrant monstrosity of American militarism and takes issue with the troubling growth of evangelical belief in the service academies, the basic structure of American militarism and the heroic values she celebrates in a thoughtfully literary and thoroughly secular fashion remain uninterrogated.
Moral courage, and the questioning it entails, has its limits.
Colonel Gian Gentile, a West Point professor of military history – and an admirably scathing critic of the Petraeus doctrine – wrote recently that “at the U. S. Military Academy at West Point, where I teach history, intellectual freedom is fiercely encouraged and protected.”
Conservative critics have derided what they see as the growing influence of left-leaning civilian academics at the various service academies, exemplified for them by the Naval Academy at Annapolis, where half of the faculty is civilian and a tenure system is in place far exceeding the Clinton-era Congressional mandate to increase the civilian makeup of the faculty to at least 20 percent.
John Miller gives voice to this line of thinking in a 2002 National Review article on bringing “Babylon” to Sparta where he writes: “One of the aims of a general education is to teach students how to think on their own. A military education, on the other hand, requires officers-in-the-making to absorb the stern discipline of accepting orders without questioning them.” Against this narrow and reactionary perspective, Samet articulates a seemingly liberal position, which she also ascribes to USMA leadership, sounding almost like a former cadet: “The department doesn’t tell us what to think; it teaches us how to think.”
Certainly no one ever told me what I could or couldn’t teach in some crudely coercive fashion. But conservatives are often ineffective when defending their own institutions. West Point liberalism is, in spite of some genuine conviction on the part of several former colleagues, at least partly designed for public consumption. As David Petraeus once wrote in a policy paper that long precedes his counterinsurgency fame, “it’s not what happens, it’s what policy-makers think happens – the key is ‘perception.’”
West Point cadets have until the summer between their “yearling” (sophomore) and “cow” (junior) years to leave the academy without penalty. After that, they owe the Army several years of service for their approximately $300,000 education. Those cadets who would not rather be there than anywhere else leave, and a few former students did ask me for letters of recommendation.
Greg had already decided to transfer when he approached me for a letter.
He intimated that he’d been ostracized by many classmates when the liberal views he articulated in class were made known, which I had always assumed to be the case. Greg and the other dissident thinkers I taught always struck me as case studies in moral and intellectual courage, willing to suffer potentially greater consequences than a lost weekend pass or six hours worth of pacing to and fro across a muddy field.
He also informed me that neither tactical noncommissioned officers nor military instructors look kindly on a cadet with a reputation for intellectual nonconformity, and it is the military education that weighs the most heavily among the three pillars of the West Point experience, official claims to parity notwithstanding.
He recently sent me an email: he’s decided to take time off and is living in California. Greg and the many cadets like him whom I taught are as intellectually curious as any civilian students I have encountered. These cadets all report the same thing: their intellectual curiosity was stifled at USMA in myriad ways. Even while the Dean brags that “we’re better than Harvard, better than Princeton,” most cadets learn to “beat the Dean,” or do just enough to get by academically, with a wink and a nod.
I ran into Troy this past spring, at the end of my contract, when he told me how much he dreaded “EN 302,” that he looked forward to his “cow” year, and then ultimately graduation. He hopes to go on to Ranger school.
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