The region in which I teach is dominated by a military economy and culture. Many of my students come from generations of military families. It is not unusual to see students in the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps, in their army uniforms, running in formation through campus with a unit flag waving in the early morning air.
How, then, in the classroom can we fairly question the wisdom of the foreign wars since 9/11? Or examine recent corruption and mismanagement in the US Department of Veterans Affairs?
One way I found to broach these topics is to share compelling stories that highlight and affirm certain values such as patriotism, but at the same time require deeper scrutiny. In doing so, I follow Tomas Tranströmer’s often quoted Preludes:
“Two truths approach each other. One comes from within/one comes from without – and where they meet you have the chance/to catch a look at yourself.”
J. Gregory Richardson, a retired navy lieutenant commander, is one such story – one that I and others have researched and written about. A 30-year veteran who enlisted at 18, he has volunteered to deploy four times since 9/11. Prior to deployment in 2011 to Somalia, he heard a pop in his back when reaching for body armour during a drill. Six months later, while on a mission, his right leg suddenly went numb. A physician revealed that he has two herniated discs, along with multiple serious medical problems that military doctors failed to diagnose.
When he returned to the US, nothing prepared Lt Cmdr Richardson for the systematic neglect that he encountered, according to his account. Only after multiple lawsuits did he finally receive a 100 per cent medical disability pension from the VA. But first he was fired from his job as an intelligence analyst at Customs and Border Protection Internal Affairs, a job that he says he could have performed well if provided with support. To this day, he remains entwined in a bureaucracy that is draining his financial resources.
My students question me in detail about attenuating facts, but the more they learn, the more they become dismayed. My students confront Tranströmer’s next lines:
“Noticing what is about to happen, you shout desperately: Stop!/Anything, anything, as long as I don’t have to know myself.”
This story raises questions for students because it is fundamentally about the breaking of government promises to a wounded patriot: the same thing that may have happened to their brother, sister, best friend, father or grandfather. Ultimately, it is also about not being allowed to feel that you have ever truly, in Lt Cmdr Richardson’s own words, “come home”.
It is an educational mistake to hide students from the world in which they live, to pretend that issues such as foreign wars, global warming, racism, wealth inequality or campus sexual assaults all have Hollywood endings.
I never tell students in my classroom what to think. But I do have faith that when I tell other truths, students frequently reconsider their own values and beliefs.
Education can be enlightening, monotonous, sometimes even joyful. When “two truths approach each other”, it may also be painful. This train wreck of facts, however, can provide an intellectual opportunity increasingly rare at many American public universities.