Why I Can No Longer Teach U.S. Military History

David Culter for The Chronicle

September 18, 2011

This past August, I wrote a letter to the chair of my department explaining why I am no longer willing to teach U.S. military history. Although I taught the class regularly and, I believe, successfully for nearly 30 years, a situation I encountered last semester makes continuing to do so untenable.

It wasn't a classroom-management problem: In spite of my gender and lack of military service, asserting authority in the classroom has never been a problem. And over the years, student evaluations and university accolades have suggested that I am an accomplished teacher.

No, the discomfort I endured last semester was something new. From the start, I realized that many students in the class were not as interested in exploring the seminal issues of U.S. military history as they were in finding solace, seeking closure, or securing an understanding of their own—or, in many cases, their loved ones'—recent military experiences.

Although I never asked students about their prior military service, and never would, most made that information public as they expressed their opinions about historical events, or discussed issues based not on ideas culled from assigned readings, but rather on their own recent military experiences or the anecdotes of others. It turned out that more than half of the class, which began with 56 students, were either ROTC students, members of the National Guard, students who would soon enlist, retired "lifers," veterans from the first Gulf War, veterans of one or several recent overseas deployments, or loved ones of service people. One student's husband had died in Iraq.

Although my course description clearly states that the class is concerned with military history through the Vietnam War, student veterans or their loved ones came to the class primarily to work through personal issues originating in more recent conflicts. Whether the day's discussion centered on the 17th-century European heritage of the American military, or the managerial revolution of the Progressive Era, it became disturbingly evident that many students could only consider historical questions through the lens of their own personal experiences. I do not blame them one bit, and occasionally their personal insights were relevant. But the emotional needs of those students unrelentingly pushed the class in a direction I was not comfortable with as a historian.

As the semester progressed, it became increasingly clear just how unprepared universities are to deal with the needs of these student veterans or their relatives. As a historian, my pedagogical goals focus on honing cognitive skills through the tool of history. These student veterans and their loved ones were seeking something my class could never provide and that I was not trained to offer.

One student veteran wrote me a harsh e-mail because an assigned book refuted the popular idea that colonial militias defeated their European adversaries by adopting Indian tactics of irregular warfare, especially sniping. That could not be true, the student angrily insisted, because of his own success as an Army sniper.

The student whose husband had been killed in Iraq indicated she had enrolled to "keep a foot" in her deceased husband's "world." Another woman admitted that she had enrolled in the class to learn how to cope with her sister, whose experiences as an Army medic had led to a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some students admitted privately that they themselves were suffering from PTSD, but for various reasons had rejected available help. As we approached the anniversary of the Oklahoma City bombing, a retired Air Force officer asked permission to recount his experiences searching for bodies in the rubble because he had been advised that it would help with his post-trauma disorder.

One student, a veteran, explained that he had been deployed six times and was now at the university in order to attend aviation school and thus avoid another deployment. Another student, one of several who seemed to be suffering from anxiety, frequently talked of all the guns he had purchased since he had returned. One had just returned home in December and had immediately begun classes in January, but confessed he simply could not relate to other students. Two dropped out because of combat wounds that required attention.

Enlisted veterans spoke disparagingly of officers commissioned through ROTC; veterans who had been commissioned through ROTC spoke disparagingly of military-academy graduates; "lifers" made clear that they, alone, could really understand military-history issues; veterans of one branch of military service made derogatory comments about members of other branches—and not in a teasing way. There was a noticeable edge to their class contributions that wasn't present in my other classes.

What these students needed was personal catharsis, but I am not a trained psychologist. What these students craved was the opportunity to express their anger or pain, but my class was not the place to do it.

Student veterans are not a homogeneous lot, and I would never use a broad brush to paint them all as unstable or troubled, but any reasonably observant person could see that beneath their quiet demeanor, politeness, and deference, some were visibly scarred. Students find me accessible, and I listened sympathetically to each one. I feel for these young people and what they have endured. Many shared photos and stories with me, and some showed me their physical scars. My heart goes out to them, but a course in military history is not an appropriate place for a therapy session. Since I foresee no diminution of this problem, and indeed believe it will intensify significantly over the next decade, I have decided that I can no longer teach the course.

My classroom experience suggests that universities must intensify their search for ways to help our student veterans and their loved ones confront their emotional distress rather than leave those tasks to academics who lack the appropriate professional training. I can't imagine a more important university priority.

Joyce S. Goldberg is an associate professor of history at the University of Texas at Arlington.