Teaching Military History to Those Who Make It
Bradley L. Carter, January 2013
Since 2006, I have been privileged to teach military history to those who make military history. As an associate professor with the U.S. Army's Command and General Staff College (CGSC) at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, I teach a seminar in military history to classes comprised of 16 army officers, typically holding the rank of major. Many have graduate degrees in subjects related to their professional fields such as medicine, law, nuclear physics, engineering, or aviation. This student mix not only includes those fields, but also highly specialized foreign area officers, chaplains, special forces officers, and West Point faculty, in addition to the expected mix of combat arms, signal, and logistics officers. They've served in the military from eight to fifteen years, and almost all of them have been deployed overseas to Iraq, Afghanistan, and other places multiple times.
The military's focus on professional educational development is striking. I am hard-pressed to name another profession that requires and provides as much structured academic programming for its members as the U.S. Army, which annually sends 2,000 mid-career officers into classrooms for months-long stints as full-time graduate students. As a CGSC professor, I work in an unusual space at the intersection of academic and military cultures. Moreover, as a civilian with no military service, and an academic background in both theology and American studies, I am constantly reminded that the study of military history is very different than the actual experience of making that history.
The students I teach are remarkably professional, disciplined, and engaged. Appropriately, the CGSC curriculum is built around an "adult learning model," largely drawn from Cyril O. Houle's The Inquiring Mind. Students are presumed to be self-motivated, choosing to learn what is most beneficial, personally and professionally. Houle's modified Socratic model values learning grounded in experience, reflection, and integration within a seminar of peers. And, on the best of days, in a classroom of motivated combat veterans cum adult learners, I've achieved the Socratic ideal of teaching as midwifery, of giving life to that which on some level was already known.
Moreover, the curriculum I teach is presumed to be useful to the students both professionally and personally. Helping students realize that utility, and motivating them to engage it, is perhaps the greatest challenge I face. The officer who is "voluntold" to attend a residential CGSC course is not always the volitionally present and motivated learner the adult learning model assumes. Some students simply do not immediately see anything useful in studying 19th-century military theory, Gustavus Adolphus, or Napoleon. The current CGSC common-core history course ends with the First World War, which puzzles those students who equate a usable past with recency; some would prefer a history course based solely on events since 2001. Despite the burnished patina of professionalism and disciplined decorum displayed by these doubters, the matter of student (dis)interest and motivation is familiar to anyone who has taught.
Unlike undergraduates in a required history course, the usefulness of this usable past can have life-and-death consequences for those who make military history. And as I remind my students, recency does not necessarily equal relevancy. Fortunately, the pragmatic and professional focus of the course provides ample opportunities to link a "so what" from the military past to current and future problems, questions, and operations. While I believe personally that liberal learning possesses great intrinsic value, and that utility is not the only metric by which education should be measured, much of the CGSC history curriculum is extrinsically valuable. Discussion of Clausewitzian concepts of "friction" and "fog" in battle are relevant and imminently applicable. So, too, are the insights students gain discussing the Great War poetry of Wilfred Owen and Siegfried Sassoon (or even Dropkick Murphys' recording of "The Green Fields of France" or the Pogues' cover of "And the Band Played Waltzing Matilda").
Moreover, in discussing the human dimensions of the Great War, I have discovered another element of history's utility that moves beyond the professional and into the deeply personal: military history provides a model of making sense of a past that can inform individual journeys to make integrative sense of their own combat experience. History is certainly not therapy—but it can model ways of thinking that are therapeutic. CGSC students are increasingly war-weary from multiple deployments. As soldiers in an army now at war for over a decade, they increasingly bring to the classroom the lived—and often life-changing and heart-wrenching—experiences that are the stuff military historians study. Readjustment and postdeployment issues, including mounting cases of post-traumatic stress disorder, directly affect the classroom.
The physical and emotional costs of war that these students pay sometimes show up in unexpected ways. While on a class visit to a Revolutionary War battlefield, someone noticed and killed a large spider. That sudden (albeit arachnid) death and the resulting viscera triggered a traumatic reaction in a student just back from deployment as a combat nurse. I have learned that using Randall Jerrell's poem "Death of a Ball-Turret Gunner" in a class of combat veterans is very different than using it with typical undergraduates. I was unprepared for its effect the first time I used it in a CGSC seminar. The poem's grimly evocative last line, "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose," echoed the experiences of too many in the room. Reluctantly at first, they began to share their stories of hosing out military vehicles, of washing out the remains of their friends wounded or killed. That unexpected discussion (and subsequent ones like it) underscore how the study of military history can help its practitioners connect to the past in ways that can bring meaning to even the most horrific experience.
Given those wartime experiences, discussing military history—especially this most human side, the "face of battle"—with those who have experienced combat creates a unique learning space. It is the poor teacher or student who cannot find something useful there. For these students, the study of military history can inform professional decision-making, and develop critical thinking and problem-solving skills. In making sense of wartime pasts it also offers one relevant model of the integrative sense-making that all who survive war's trauma have to deal with on a personal level. Encouraging—helping to midwife—those connections, that sense- and meaning-making, is often the easiest part of teaching military history to those who make it.
Bradley L. Carter is associate professor of military history with United States Army Command and General Staff College. He is an active member of the Society of Military History. A graduate of the University of Kansas' American Studies PhD program, he is a former seminary administrator and dean.
The Command and General Staff College (CGSC) occupies the upper mid-point of an educational pyramid that in true military fashion is known by the acronym "PME": "Professional Military Education." Founded at Fort Leavenworth in 1881, the college currently includes the Command and General Staff School, the school of Non-Resident Studies, the School of Advanced Military Studies, the School of Command Preparation, and the Army Management Staff College. All Army majors are required to complete the four month Command and General Staff Officers Course (CGSOC) through the Command and General Staff College in order to be eligible for promotion to lieutenant colonel. The CGSOC is offered in-residence as part of a 10-month program at Fort Leavenworth, and—since 2005—at satellite campus located at Fort Belvoir, Virginia; Fort Lee, Virginia; Redstone Arsenal, Alabama; and Fort Gordon, Georgia.
The views expressed here are entirely those of the author and not the Department of Defense, the United States Army, or the United States Army Command and General Staff College. This article is based upon a paper delivered at the 2012 annual meeting of the Society for Military History. Portions of this material appeared in Bradley Carter, "No 'Holidays from History': Adult Learning, Professional Military Education, and Teaching History," published in Military Culture and Education: Current Intersections of Academic and Military Cultures, edited by Douglas Higher (Surrey, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2010), 167–182.