The Chronicle Review

Teaching Military History in a Time of War

Pat Kinsella for The Chronicle Review

June 27, 2010

Teaching military history when there are veterans in the classroom requires a greater sensitivity to the impact of language than may be the case with other students. I learned long ago to never insert words like "just" or "only" before giving casualty figures, for few veterans who have been in combat consider the death of a comrade as "only" one. In combat, all casualties taken by your unit are tragedies.

At the same time, military historians all know the danger of accepting eyewitness accounts. It does not matter if the soldier was a frontline grunt or a rear-echelon officer: He saw only one part of the action, often under the most stressful conditions, and has constructed a narrative in the years since. Every military historian I know has learned to respect a veteran's insistence that "I was there, and that's not how it was," while integrating those personal memories into a larger portrait of the battle and war.

These are issues with which I have long been familiar, but I must admit that I had never fully considered the effect of military history on students who have never served in the military. I have been guilty to a degree of accepting the view of my student veterans that the nonveterans are soft and generally spoiled, unfamiliar with both service and sacrifice. Yet the reality of teaching in wartime, most particularly at a working-class college such as Central Connecticut State University, is that war has touched the families of many of our students, and it is a tragic error to think that they have not experienced the staggering blow of loss and personal sacrifice.

That lesson came home to me with great force this last semester. Over the past few years, I have had veterans and active-service members of the National Guard in my classes, with several of the latter going off to Afghanistan or Iraq as soon as the semester was over. I have also had many students with family members serving overseas, and I make it a point to talk regularly with those students about their brothers and sisters, fathers and, in one instance, a mother, who were in harm's way. On the first day of my military-history class, after a discussion of the concept of democratic warfare, I asked my usual question about veterans or National Guard members present, and if any students had family members serving in the military. Ernesto (I have changed names out of respect for this family's privacy), a shy but exceedingly bright student, smiled with evident pride as he mentioned that his brother Javier had recently enlisted in the Army. We discussed his brother's reasons for enlisting, which mostly focused on a sense of gratitude to a country that had given their family refuge.

Two weeks later, the class discussed Baron von Steuben's training of the American Continental Army and the creation of the "community of the line"—the intense loyalty common soldiers developed as they served together for the "glorious cause of liberty." Afterward, Ernesto told me that his brother had been sent to Iraq. He admitted he was worried about Javier's safety, but had read several articles indicating that the war was winding down.

Then, after a class in which we examined the decision of the United States to invade Mexico and Abraham Lincoln's objections to that war (which he said was based on lies from President James Polk's administration), Ernesto told me that Javier had called him the day before and described his first encounter with enemy fire, which had been chaotic and without consequence. A few days later, Ernesto gave an amazing paper on a woman who had disguised herself as a man so that she could join the Union Army and fight to preserve her nation. He made striking parallels between the resistance to allowing women to serve and our "don't ask, don't tell" policy. In the minutes before the very next class, during which we explored Ulysses S. Grant's strategy of attrition, Ernesto came to me and said that he could not attend class, as his brother had been shot in the head by a sniper and was in critical condition.

Sorrow was written across Ernesto's young face. Here was a student I relied on for an astute observation and a ready smile; now he looked on the verge of tears. I told him to give no further thought to the class, but to devote himself to his family. Ernesto missed the wars against the Plains Indians and the Spanish-American War, but showed up in time for the Philippine Insurrection. I hoped that Ernesto's presence meant that his brother had recovered, only to be surprised to hear that Javier was still in danger, his condition so serious that the doctors feared moving him to the military hospital in Germany. When I asked him why he had come to class, Ernesto insisted that he hoped his studies would take his mind off his worries for his brother.

That afternoon I asked my teaching assistant, a Marine veteran named Joe, to talk with Ernesto. Over the next several weeks, as we traversed the terrain of the 20th century with the two world wars and Korea, Joe spoke regularly with Ernesto, advising him on his final paper and on dealing with the military bureaucracy. Over those weeks, Ernesto never spoke in class, cut his hair short, and began wearing military boots and fatigue-style clothes. His identification with his brother was obvious, and he appeared to age several years in those few weeks. And then, just as we were coming to the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution, which allowed President Lyndon Johnson to send combat troops to Vietnam, I received an e-mail from Ernesto letting me know that his brother had died.

Not surprisingly, Ernesto's attendance became erratic, and he skipped entirely the discussion of our current wars. Every time I saw him, his grief was palpable. It pained me to witness his loss and to imagine what his family must be going through, yet all I could do as a teacher was to be present, listen, and give every consideration to the circumstances.

For our final class I asked my teaching assistant to talk of his experiences in Iraq. Joe closed our circle by talking about the camaraderie he found in the military, even under the worst situations. He did not minimize the horror of war—one video he shot of a building his unit blew up included a body flying through the air—but his video also showed the democratic nature of our military and the wartime community that soldiers create.

Joe surprised me at the end of the class with a simple observation. He had been attending a funeral of a comrade when it occurred to him that even the "bad guys," as he called them, whom his unit had killed in Iraq, had families. He felt no regret for having played his part in the war, but he did not re-enlist, because he just did not want to be responsible for any more funerals. I glanced over at Ernesto; his head was bowed.

It is so much easier to teach military history in a time of peace. Sadly, we have not known that condition for nearly nine years. When we read in the paper that President Barack Obama has ordered the deployment of more troops to Afghanistan, we should see more than just a number; we should see families beginning their long, anxious vigil until these men and women return home. As I remind my students, any of those soldiers could be the person sitting next to you in class, or your sister or brother.

Editor's note:

The Chronicle has looked into questions raised by commenters and bloggers about this article.

We talked to the teaching assistant for the course, who confirmed Mr. Bellesiles's account of the student's story. According to the teaching assistant, a Marine veteran, the student told him that his brother had been shot in the head and later died from his injuries.

The Chronicle also spoke with the student called "Ernesto" in the article. The student said the soldier who died was his half-brother, was a member of the U.S. Army, and had died in Afghanistan in November. The student declined to provide further details because of unspecified "issues."

At The Chronicle's request, an Army spokesman searched a database of all U.S. military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan using the name the student provided. There were no matches. The Chronicle's own search of Department of Defense news releases turned up no casualties under any name that matched the student's description.

Subsequently the student told us that he had fabricated several details in the story he had told Mr. Bellesiles and The Chronicle. The student said he knew a soldier who he believed had died in Afghanistan, but he said the person was not his half-brother. The student had no explanation for why the name was not on the military's casualty lists.

Asked for a response, Mr. Bellesiles said he was saddened that his student had altered the details of a personal tragedy and that he regretted that he had unknowingly passed on a story that was not accurate. "But I hope that no one mistakes the point of my article in calling for greater sympathy and support in our colleges for veterans and the families of those who have suffered loss in our current wars."

Michael A. Bellesiles is a historian and adjunct lecturer in history at Central Connecticut State University. His most recent book, 1877: America's Year of Living Violently, is forthcoming next month from the New Press.