The Place of the Humanities at a Military Academy

By Flammang, Lucretia A. | Academe, July/August 2007 | Go to article overview

The Place of the Humanities at a Military Academy


Flammang, Lucretia A., Academe


How do you make cadets better officers? Take them to the opera.

When I was a graduate student at the University of California. Berkeley, in tin' mid 1980s, the Army ROTC (Reserve Officers' Training Corps) building was set on fire. Several days later, an ROTC officer reported in a letter to the editor of the Daily Californian, the student newspaper, that the fire had consumed his copy of Chaucer and all his Chaucer notes. He wrote not to complain, but to explain himself. There was something of the ecce homo in his argument He might very well have said, "Here I am. a man who can study both the arts of war and the arts of humanity and find no contradiction in the acts."

If we, his readers, were stupriseli, we stood accused of both ignorance and bigotry. Alter all, the letter implicitly asked, why would we imagine that military officers are incapable of cherishing their copies of Chaucer, if indeed we imagined they owned a copy in the first place? The article forced an uncomfortable recognition in me. I. too. was an officer in the military, enrolled in the MA program in English literature, and yet even I struggled to reconcile the ROTC officer's position as both military trainer and student of the humanities.

Herein, I believe, lies the difficulty inherent in teaching the humanities at a military academy, In our culture circulates a belief that military service is incongruous with an appreciation for the arts, a belief to which I also subscribed until that ROTC officer set before me the ashes of his Chaucer. I Ip to then, I had seen myself as singular, not only because I wanted to study literature, but also because I was a woman in uniform, which at that time was con siderea outside the military norm. But, suddenly, I had to reconsider what the norm might he.

My own experiences provided plenty of evidence to refute any assertion that the norm precluded love of lhe humanities. I regularly talked about Shakespeare with my first operations officer, who had been an English major at the University of Connecticut Peers in the wardroom introduced me to Western and Eastern writers I had never heard of. When I was a senior at the Coast Guard Academy, I encountered two classmates who had read Thomas Hardy, whom I had only just discovered and whose novels inspired me to pursue advanced study in English literature. So where did I get the idea that military officers eschewed the arts?

Popular Culture

The answer to this question is complicated and derives in part from the prevailing cultural images of the military in the past three decades, which by and large have been produced visually in the popular media. In films such as Platoon. Casualties of War, and Full Metal Jacket, the audience is expected to identih with an Everyman who prevails against both a sadistic trainer and the enemy in combat. Sometimes morally ambiguous and always flawed, our hero nevertheless leads us through a labyrinth of military traditions and the chaos of battle, his masculinity tested and defined in every conflict In identifying with these men. the viewer comes to see them as indicative of the military. War demands aggressiveness and strength, and while Vietnam shook our faith in lhe nobility of men in war. more recent films, such as Stephen Spielberg's Saving Private Ryan, reassert the ideal of lhe good Everyman whose self-sacrifice for others stands as the highest ideal.

Notably, these films narrate stories of mortal combat, depicting masculinity in the most trying of human circumstances. Women are rarely represented exercising individual agency. They are understood as related to men, whether as mothers, wives, or sexual objects. When women are the center of the narrative, their characters reinforce, rather than challenge, the predominant image that associates the military with a particular form of masculinity. Goldie Hawn's Private Benjamin is laughably unsuited to military rigors; America's Sweetheart, Meg Ryan, demonstrates no authority despite the way she barks her orders in Courage Under Fire; and Demi Moore may be G. …

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