On campus, returning war veterans find few courses on military history

Earlier this month I participated in a panel at Harvard University addressing the question of how life on campus had changed in the ten years since September 11.  After speaking with a number of students, faculty and other observers of higher education, I became convinced that the presence of 100,000 returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans at American colleges was one of the biggest changes. These young men and women have altered the conversation about American foreign policy from one in which faculty and professors can talk theoretically about American imperialism to one in which the whole student body and faculty must acknowledge and discuss the fact that some people on campus are risking life and limb for the safety of others.

I was caught short, though, when I read a piece in the Chronicle by Joyce Goldberg, a professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington. Goldberg explains why she recently wrote a letter to her department chair explaining that she could no longer teach military history. She says it is because of the veterans in her class. And the people related to veterans. They take the subject too personally. I was expecting, to be honest, that Goldberg's complaint would be one in which the military personnel and their family members and friends were challenging her knee-jerk liberalism. But that, at least according to her account, was not the problem. It wasn't a matter of content, per se. Rather, she explains:

Although my course description clearly states that the class is concerned with military history through the Vietnam War, student veterans or their loved ones came to the class primarily to work through personal issues originating in more recent conflicts. Whether the day's discussion centered on the 17th-century European heritage of the American military, or the managerial revolution of the Progressive Era, it became disturbingly evident that many students could only consider historical questions through the lens of their own personal experiences. I do not blame them one bit, and occasionally their personal insights were relevant. But the emotional needs of those students unrelentingly pushed the class in a direction I was not comfortable with as a historian.

She goes on to recount how students came to her describing their PTSD, how they complained in class about members of another branch of the military, how they were trying to avoid a seventh deployment, etc. etc. Goldberg's experience does sound heartbreaking in its way and I'm sure she's right that people mistook her class for a place to air their grievances and their emotional difficulties. (Of course, plenty of college courses have turned into exactly that. Students are encouraged to begin their contributions to class discussions with the words, "I feel...")

But I'm not sure Goldberg's refusal to teach military history is going to help the situation. For one thing, military history is being taught less and less and both our civilians and our military could use a lot more of this content. Few Americans have the slightest understanding of what it takes to plan a battle strategy, what our military budgets go to pay for, what life is like in the army, and what it takes for America to maintain its military dominance.

One of the panelists at Harvard the day before mine was a young man named Tom Cotton. I encourage you to read more about him here, but let's just say that his undergraduate and law degrees from Harvard combined with his service in the army in Iraq and Afghanistan put him in an awfully small minority. The Harvard audience listened with full attention to him describing military personnel, policies and equipment like they would hear out an alien describing his UFO.

It does seem people are treating Goldberg and her class like some kind of therapy session. I can't help but wonder whether veterans look around at a typical college campus and feel that this is the only place--a class on military history-- where they will feel at home. As many veterans as there are on campus now, they don't make up a critical mass at too many campuses. While they are surely being treated better than returning Vietnam veterans, they are also aware of the prevailing attitude toward the wars that we have been engaged in. Which is to say that most professors think the war in Iraq, the war in Afghanistan and even the war on terror generally are wars " of choice" launched by a blood-thirsty Republican administration. It doesn't exactly make our veterans feel like they have used their time wisely, let alone honorably.

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