Sunday, November 11, 2007

Stranger in a Strange Land

William Quinn is a very fine young man who began his studies at Georgetown last year after having served several years in the Army. He was in a freshman class I taught on political thought (I'm the unnamed "philosophy professor" in the article) and is an active student fellow in the Tocqueville Forum which I direct. Among his assignments was interrogator at Abu Ghraib in Iraq, a duty he relates that he performed without committing violence toward detainees, in accordance with regulations and his own deeper principles. He has written a number of pieces in the Georgetown student newspaper "The Hoya," and as a result was invited to write a lengthier essay for the Washington Post, which appeared in today's edition. In the essay he describes the strangeness of being a veteran and a student at one of the nation's leading universities where the war is often unmentioned and where he has even been given the advice to stop talking about the war and "be shallow sometimes."

Will's presence at Georgetown is a constant reminder of the chasm that exists between our upwardly mobile elites and soldiers serving our nation who help ensure that upward mobility remains viable. This is a wholly new phenonemon: an earlier generation of college students went on extensively to serve in the military, and thus understood its culture and the underlying motivations of such service. The change in our college culture reflects a deeper change in the culture at large: as we have become ever more consumers, and ever less citizens, the reasons for military service have ceased to be a serious consideration. What were once seen as among the primary forms of human excellence, or virtues - duty, patriotism, self-sacrifice - are now seen as ways of living that might be borne by unfortunate sops. Our meritocratic age has no space for such animating virtues: our motivations are now success (defined materially and financially) and self-fulfillment. It's difficulty to find sufficient cause to join the military with those sets of motivations. And, I am not for an instant blaming the students: they "take their cues" - they are educated to value certain things over other things - by their elders and the broader culture. Military service is now increasingly for those who don't have better options.

When I taught at Princeton, I would almost daily buy my coffee at the cafe in the Student Center which was adorned with old photographs drawn from Princeton archives. One reproduction never failed to arrest my attention: it was a photo of an old telegram from Princeton's President to Franklin Roosevelt sent mere days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, pledging that Princeton's young men stood ready to serve the nation in its time of trial. I would compare the Princeton of then to the Princeton of those days following 9/11 where - other than a few solemn ceremonies and a garden that was planted in honor of the alumni who fell on that day - nothing changed.

During my time at Princeton I wrote a few editorials of my own (never altogether advisable for assistant professors, but what can I say?), a few of which sought to address this discrepancy. One was a criticism of the current Princeton President Shirley Tilghman for omitting military service as worthy of mention in various speeches she was giving in support of Princeton's modified motto, "In the Nation's Service and in the Service of All Nations." The other was a reflection on the neglect of the display of a book honoring Princeton students who had been killed in action.

What I wrote about Princeton is no less true of Georgetown and all of our elite institutions. But, on this Veteran's Day 2007, we do well to acknowledge and honor the presence among us of such fine and admirable young people as William Quinn, whose editorial I strongly commend to your attention.


Anonymous said...


Good thoughts, and great piece by your student. One of my former students, back home on leave during his second tour, had similar thoughts about all of us. He didn't have much to say about the students, as he wasn't on campus very long, but he was impressed and depressed by our lack of contact with what he and his fellows were experiencing in Iraq.

Anonymous said...

"he was impressed and depressed by our lack of contact with what he and his fellows were experiencing in Iraq."

Maybe we need to have more journalists, especially the non-embedded variety, covering the situations there? An interesting fact is that Fox has been giving the LEAST coverage of the war of any news network over the last year (or so). But then, I guess that should be considered a blessing...

Anonymous said...

I agree with the point of your post, but let's face it, 9-11 is no WWII.

Black Sea said...

I wrote a post relevant to this topic some time ago. Rather than repeat myself, Ill simply provide the link:

A Dying Way of War