Officer Education and the Humanities

Another excerpt from my (I hope) forthcoming book on how to think like an officer. I devote a great deal of space in the book to reading, not omitting the reading of military doctrine, theory, and history, but in this section I make the argument for reading broadly as an aid to thinking well, and perhaps especially under pressure.

IN its dependence on narrative, prescriptive, and lyrical language, in its historicity and close ties to questions of value, the military thought is both dependent on the humanities and has provided the humanities with some of its most valuable themes and texts.  The humanities are valuable to the officer in a variety of ways, in her roles as a leader, as organizer and warfighter.  This may raise the question of how broad a field an officer’s education should cover. After all, there are limits to time and energy, and enough to learn even in the purely military sphere. Is the officer also expected to be a cultivated person with some knowledge of art and history, or is this just window-dressing, even a holdover from the conception of the officer as an aristocratic dilettante whose social obligations outweighed his military duties?  For the forgoing reasons concerning language, values, tactics, and leadership, I would argue, not irrelevant at all, especially if one considers the importance now being discovered (or perhaps re-discovered) of the merging of disciplines and areas of endeavor as essential to “synthetic” thought. Related to the idea of “consilience,” the meeting of art and science, there is a growing awareness of the importance of not limiting oneself to a narrow field of knowledge.  The humanities may be said to provide the best bridge between the practice of any profession and its larger import and impact on the lives of men and women.  An officer may benefit from a study of economics, or mathematics, or a branch of science, but absent the humanities something vital will be missing.  The humanities round one’s view of existence.  Properly considered, they are an antidote to insularity and exceptionalism.  The humanities are a vehicle both to impart values and also for receptiveness to changes in values.  Narrative literature and poetry in particular focus on the individual, on her foibles and familiarity. All stories are alike in that they are made of words and are concerned with diverse but recognizable human concerns, but it would seem that we need a lot of stories to fully understand the human subject that is the basis for all systems of belief and governance, all professions and organizations, all public and private acts and interventions, all armies and armed conflict. Perhaps the most important function of the humanities, of literature in particular, is to hold up a mirror to ourselves.  As I discuss in much greater detail in the next chapter, self-knowledge is vital to an officer, lest her decisions and relationships be burdened by self-delusion, by posturing or lack of authenticity.

A succinct and convincing argument for the importance to officers of  a broad humanities education is made by Robert Kaplan in his editorial piece, “The Humanist in the Foxhole.”[iv] Kaplan holds up as an example of the “soldier aesthete” the recently deceased Patrick Leigh Fermor, whose broad reading and sincere interest in other cultures, even in obscure facts, places, and texts, lent depth to his ability to move among and to mobilize native peoples (on Crete in particular) as a special operations officer during World War II.  Another work in this vein is Josiah Bunting’s article “The Humanities in the Education of the Military Professional.” Bunting cites another special operations officer, Orde Wingate, in speaking of the “tyranny of the dull mind,” as a condition cured or challenged by a grounding in the humanities.[v]  Bunting also quotes another famous proselytizer for humanities education, Cardinal John Henry Newman from his The Idea of the University.  “It teaches him to see things as they are, to go right to the point, to disentangle a skein of thought, to discard what is sophistical, and to discard what is irrelevant.” Bunting concludes by siding with John Rosenberg, who told West Point cadets that a liberal arts education might make them more sensitive to the value of things they would have to destroy. Bunting adds that it may also make them aware of the value of the things that they defend, and that “military victory must not be purchased in ways that utterly defeat the purposes for which campaigns are undertaken.” Perhaps the most distinguished proponent of an humanities education was ex-officer Winston Churchill.  As Jonathan Rose, author of The Literary Churchill puts it, “For Churchill, literary and strategic creativity were inseparable.”[vi] As an antidote to what he saw as their general lack of imagination, he wanted all officers to read Plutarch’s Lives.  Rose calls Churchill the foremost poet of World War II, and so he was. His language, often allusive and metaphorical, helped to define for many the nature of the struggle and the hopes for the future. Often a master of hyperbole, Churchill had found in the Nazis and their evil cause a fit subject for his Augustan rhetoric.

Under the heading of the humanities, the canonical literature of the United States should be a part of the reading of an American officer.  Along with the foundational documents already mentioned, classic American literature has formed what philosopher Stanley Cavell calls “this new but unapproachable America.”[vii]  Two of the giants in this field are Herman Melville and Ralph Waldo Emerson.  Moby Dick likely remains the one great American novel, and the Pequod is, as critics from D.H. Lawrence have noted, a metaphor for America, with its themes of capitalism, uprootedness, racial difference, and religious belief. For the officer-reader especially, Moby Dick is about hierarchy and command, their rituals, use and misuse.  With his essays, Emerson declared the intellectual independence of the young republic.  His work does not define so much as track a course, from the ebullience of “Self-Reliance” to the sadness and knowledge of “Experience,” a path that many officers may take during a career,

The Humanities in its relationship to officer thought might usefully be divided into two tracks, the narrative and the poetic.  Narrative is the basic form for much writing in the Humanities, perhaps history and literary fiction (the novel, play, and short story) in particular. The cognitive benefits of narrative are well-established.  Drawing on research by others, literary critic Terry Eagleton describes several distinct benefits, to include enabling readers to think beyond the here and now, to process information, to anticipate risks and opportunities, and to prepare for setbacks.[viii] Narrative is akin to diagnosis, to pattern-recognition and problem-solving. By the poetic I refer to works in the humanities which are not necessarily in the poetic genre, but which address various seemingly irreconcilable values and unanswerable questions. Many have to do with the human mortality, the gap between our limited earthly lifetimes and the limitlessness of our desires and aspirations. Both narrative and poetic forms relate to how officers must think, especially in wartime, when the demands on decision-making and resilience are the greatest, and when paradoxes of the kind addressed in a poetics become most acute and immediate. A poetics as well as a narrative is needed to address the fragile, even tentative endurance of the values for which soldiers fight, and the impermanence of the things and people we value and love. The analysis of narrative and poetics is akin to diagnosis and to tactics, to an understanding based on incomplete knowledge and partly dependent on abstract and ineffable values such as that of human lives and of future generations.

For examples, there is an abundance of poetical works to choose from, new and old, works about war and those that have nothing to do with war.  William Meredith was a Navy pilot in World War II who had a distinguished career as a poet and teacher until his death in 2007. In 1970 he published “Reading My Poems from World War II” in Poetry magazine.[ix] Meredith recalls the beautiful and gallant images he created out of war, not to reject them exactly, although certainly to complicate them. The young poet “dressed as a lieutenant,” “wears his insignia with pride, nevertheless/You feel something is wrong; he is rendered with all the compassion Velasquez reserved for his dwarfs.” Meredith says that his wartime poems “seem impelled by a moral purpose,” which is that we not “blame the men/Even transformed into beasts in a stylized chase.”  The figure of the dwarf re-appears at the end of the poem. His “eyes glitter as though in that whole scene/he saw no one worse than himself, and he prays for us all.”  The poem expresses through a variety of images the complex mixture of pride and guilt over complicity with war. The purpose of the chase is left in question.  The image of the dwarf reflects a diminishment of humanity, but it is the dwarf who sees the humanity of all involved in the struggle (“no one worse”) and who “prays for all.”  Perhaps along with a loss of stature the dwarf-lieutenant-poet has acquired a wry knowledge. Do his eyes glitter with amusement, or like those of the murderers in The Duchess of Malfi “dazzle” with tears?

The officer does not only make use of the humanities. Her profession is in effect a branch of the humanities, a union of fact and value, history and language, influence, allusion, and creativity. The language of soldiers is often derided as dry, evasive, even disingenuous, but it may also achieve a poetic compression and guarded meaning. The repetitiveness and metaphors of military-speak, of leadership in a military setting, can be unforgettable. In the hands of a veteran practitioner, it “comprehends all human tragedy,” as the officer and novelist Evelyn Waugh wrote in his Sword of Honour trilogy on World War II.   The soldier’s calling often calls for poetry, and it has not been lacking in this regard.


“Land of Song!” cried the warrior bard,
“Tho’ all the world betrays thee,
One sword, at least, thy rights shall guard,
One faithful harp shall praise thee!”

The Minstrel Boy[x]

[i] Ward Just, “Introduction,” in David Hackworth and Julie Sherman, About Face: the Odyssey of an American Warrior (New York: Touchstone-Simon and Schuster, 1989) p. 13 and Marcel Proust, Remembrance of Things Past. 1924, C.K. Scott Moncrieff, trans. (New York: Random House, 1934), p. 792-799.

[ii] Brian Holden Reid, “Commanding heights,” review of The Lords of War, From Lincoln to Churchill, Supreme Command, 1861-1945 by Correlli Barnett. Times Literary Supplement September 27 2013, p. 28

[iii] Jane Austen, Pride and Prejudice (London: Thomas Egerton, 1813).

[iv] Robert D. Kaplan, “The Humanist in the Foxhole,” The New York Times, 14 June 2011.

[v] Josiah Bunting, “The Humanities in the Education of the Military Professional,” in Lawrence J. Korb, The System for Educating Military Officers in the U.S. (Pittsburg, PA: International Studies, 1976), pp. 155-58.

[vi] Jonathan Rose, The Literary Churchill: Author, Reader, Actor (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), p. 351.

[vii] Stanley Cavell, This New Yet Unapproachable America: Lectures after Emerson after Wittgenstein (Alburquerque, NM: Living Batch Press, 1989).

[viii] Terry Eagleton, Review of  On the Origin of Stories: Evolution, Cognition, Fiction by Brian Boyd in London Review of Books, 31 (18), pp. 20, 22. Posted summary on blog Poiesis and Prolepsis by Allan Parsons, 13 October 2009.

[ix] William Meredith, “Reading My Poems from World War II.” Poetry Foundation website. Accessed 18 May 2017.

[x] Thomas Moore (1779-1852). Written after the Irish Rebellion of 1798.

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