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Princeton Diarist: Military Academy

A few weeks ago, Andrew Delbanco wrote eloquently in The New Republic about the strange silence of his university in this time of war ("War College," December 11, 2006). Most people don’t think of Columbia University as an island of stillness and detachment. In Morningside Heights, as in Israel, any four people usually have eight opinions and express them with articulate fury. Yet Columbia holds its peace about Iraq—and, according to Delbanco, shows few traces of its active participation in America’s other wars.

Princeton University, where I work, does feel like an island, "rising," as F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote in 1927, "a green Phoenix, out of the ugliest country in the world" — an idyllic haven, quiet and Gothic. At its best, it resembles the ideal college Lionel Trilling longed for, where students and faculty can ignore the present and study something serious and lasting, such as Linear B. At its worst, it’s a bubble—which is how the students often describe it.

Yet Princeton has always played its part in America’s wars. The Battle of Princeton left cannonball scars in the stone walls of Nassau Hall. In its entrance corridor, marble tablets record the names of Princetonians who have died in America’s wars (equal numbers, famously, died for the North and South). Bronze stars outside the windows identify the onetime residences of those who died in the twentieth century. We have a ROTC unit—a very good one. Our students have joined, and continue to join, the military. The 2005 salutatorian, a gifted and modest historian, did so. The Alumni Weekly carries articles not only about General Petraeus, who took his doctorate here some years ago, but also about undergraduate alumni who have flown fighter planes over Afghanistan and fought throughout Iraq.

Talk to support staff and secretaries, custodians and craftsmen, and you hear at once of loved ones in the military. Despite the stereotypes, the war touches professors as well. One colleague’s son, an infantry officer in the Marines, was badly wounded in Iraq. Another, who joined the Army as an infantryman, came back uninjured from a long period in the Sunni Triangle, where he saw—a lot. My son joined the Marines when he graduated from college in 2002. He’s a helicopter pilot, and, until now, he has served in Asia. But his friends from the Basic School have gone everywhere, including Falluja and Ramadi. Some of them are dead.

So what’s our duty, as professors, in this time of war? What should we say and do? We can vote for and support politicians who opposed it, as I have, if we think it’s a debacle. But now, and in the future, we will have soldiers and officers in the field—strange fields where they engage in asymmetrical warfare with populations they don’t know. Sometimes this will be the right thing to do. Can we help our soldiers do their job—and explain that job to their civilian bosses?

Those of us who have never served in the military usually don’t know a lot about it. In 1975, when I arrived at Princeton, many older members of the faculty had served in World War II or the Korean war. Nowadays, by contrast, few members of the faculty have military experience—and those who do are likely to be Canadians or Israelis. Of course, some scholars study the military, past and present, but the base of direct knowledge that most of us have is not very deep—compared with what we know about, say, the federal government.

I have tried to remedy my ignorance in the professor’s age-old ways: reading and asking questions of knowledgeable colleagues, including a former Army officer and an Israeli former student. Whenever I can, I talk to my son and his friends. I have learned a little. I know, now, that when politicians speak of war as something that can be clean and simple, that won’t demand terrible actions of those who fight and terrible suffering from civilians, they lie. But I’m still very ignorant, and most of my fellow professors know even less than I do. We who teach young men and women need to know more about what we ask some of them to do on our behalf and what it takes to do their jobs.

It wouldn’t hurt to ask how they and their commanders have done better than the university at some tasks that really matter for the United States. My son has taken a lot of orders from people of color—every color. The colonel who commanded the group with which he initially trained wore a size-24 flight suit when he met her, since she was pregnant with her third child. I can’t be the only old white male professor who would like to see universities look more like the military, in these respects, than they do now.

But I also suspect that the military needs us—especially those of us who work not in policy studies or international relations but in the humanities and soft social sciences. I don’t mean that we should become amateur pundits. One lesson of the last few years, surely, is that we should ignore pundits and listen to people who know what they’re talking about.

Well, we humanists know a few important things. We know that language is more powerful than any other weapon and that you can’t change the ideas of someone you can’t talk to. We know that local history and lived culture shape men and women in ways that no amount of violence can change. We know that many of our policies have not, in recent years, given foreigners good reasons for associating the United States with enlightenment and liberty. We need to make these things clear to those who fight and die in our name and to the civilian authorities who send them into battle. We won’t achieve that by pulling up the hems of our garments and refusing to have anything to do with them.

Recent stories suggest that important people in the military have grasped some of these points. It’s time, and past time, to start more conversations: time for each of these institutions, and its inhabitants, to learn more about the other. Above all, it’s time to find factual, substantive ways of talking about what the military can and can’t do and about how it could be more effective and less destructive when it must wage war. Here in Princeton’s bubble, where America’s wars are never all that far away, it seems possible that we could do this.