Legacy 8: Stereotyping Soldier-Students (or, “The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Classroom”)

[I wasn’t going to post this one, because I don’t care particularly for the tone. But a comment on the earlier “Learning the Enemy’s Language” post made me think I should post it anyway. If I seem like I’m slamming veterans as a whole in my recent posts, let this veteran put that appearance to rest with this one. Especially if you deal with veterans in your classroom, this might help. I think people who’ve only lived school lives are particularly prone to the type of prejudice I describe below. I experienced it myself when I took post-graduate courses during and after my army service.

It’s no secret that schools generally fail to produce an informed citizenry. Military experience, on the other hand (or life, in other words, instead of books and teachers), has a funny way of suddenly making one want to learn politics, history, current affairs, and such.  That’s a preview of the below.]

*    *    *

Your script when you see a veteran may read something like this: This person is probably pro-war, thoughtlessly patriotic, Republican, Conservative, Christian, an unreflective robot, a racist, sexist, culturally deprived, unfeeling and uneducated individual.

I shared that script in my academic/civilian days. Then I challenged it by spending five years in the US Army. Based on that experience, here is my advice:

If you ever have veterans in your class (or anywhere else), their pacifism may surprise you. Don’t assume that you know about them based on their military background. You have only thought about what they have lived. You have never faced deployment to a conflict, never wondered if you would return from it to see your family, friends, and loved ones. You have never grappled on the ground with the political reasoning that put you there. You have never hopped into a humvee with a map showing you the suspected minefields you have to drive through to perform your mission. You have never experienced situations in which the unconscionable behavior of your fellow soldiers toward non-combatants or enemies perhaps transformed your value system on a deep cognitive-emotional level. You have never lost someone to war and wondered why.

Don’t assume your white male veterans are racist, sexist, or classist. You have probably never experienced as diverse, egalitarian and, yes, socialist a society as the US military. Men and women of all ethnic, regional, religious, and cultural backgrounds—even privileged ones—are forced on a daily basis to transcend their differences and bond into effective teams for their very survival. Soldiers’ stereotypes of those different from them are quickly shattered when they observe these others in action. Americans (and resident non-Americans) share quarters, classes, camps, duties, and recreational activities. Interracial relationships are common.

Don’t assume that veterans know less than you do about political and world events. What you have only studied, they have often lived—and, because they were living it, independently read about and studied – possibly as much as you.

Don’t assume that veterans are thoughtless patriots. The Vietnam generation is not the only one that emerged from military service critically politicized.

The Web Legacy Series So Far:
1. Fear and Trembling at Camp Joy: Unborn Again
2. The Hulk Leads to Hamlet: Reading Despite School
3. Of Jocks and Fags: The High School Bullying Years
4. In the Crumbling Temple of the Dead White Males: The Beatnik College Years, pt. 1
5. Human Sacrifice: The College Years, pt. 2
6. Learning the Enemy’s Language: The Army Years, part 1
7. Teaching Killing: The Army Years, part 2

16 thoughts on “Legacy 8: Stereotyping Soldier-Students (or, “The Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell Classroom”)”

  1. And this is why, as anti-war as I am, I also have to have a respect for the work that soldiers do. It’s an immense sacrifice, and walking past veteran’s hospitals and working with vets of all ages really gave me a different dimension of their work. We in this country still have a lot to do to truly honor our past and present soldiers, but for better or worse, they’re called to duty at the drop of a dime and at the will of our commander-in-chief. Well written, sir.

    joses last blog post..A Letter To A New NYC Teaching Fellow

  2. Clay,
    This post says so much about the assumptions we carry around with us, in this case about veterans, in others it could be about our students, the teachers we work with, or any other group of people. When we start to live by our assumptions, we stop learning.
    Good reminder. Good post.

  3. @Jose, Thanks for dropping by. FYI, I’ve been lurking on your blog since my favorite bitch, hellcat, and absolute doll, Taylor the Teacher, turned me on to it. My apologies for not being much of a commenter. I do enjoy your point of view.

    @Tracy, Your extension of this specific to the general habit of pigeonholing is so apropos. I should have closed with that insight. Thanks for adding it :)

  4. Regular and enthusiastic reader of your blog, and just had to comment on this post since I connected with it on very personal level – as a shameless long-time hard-core peacenik I was surprised to find myself suddenly and utterly in love with a career Air Force officer… we’ve been married several years now, and have learned A LOT from each other. We have real differences, but they are differences worth talking about, and the cultures we each come from both need to be challenged this way.

    I worry about the insularity of cultures these days, with people interacting more and more only with people who already agree with them (Farhad Manjoo’s True Enough nails that topic square on) – I wouldn’t have lasted a day in the military myself, but I have really benefited from learning about the military this way, with an insider perspective. For sure it has made me a better citizen, and I think my husband would say the same about what he has learned from my very different life.

    I know it’s also made me a better teacher, too, since I regularly get military students in my courses. Now I can connect based on some real knowledge, not just prejudiced assumptions…


  5. Each year, a few of the young men and women from the small rural school where I teach join the armed forces. For some, it is their only chance at seeing the world and making something of themselves, and they grab it. Most come back to visit, tall and proud in their uniforms.

    Both of my parents were WWII veterans; my husband served in the Navy during Viet Nam. As a peace marcher, and later as a mother, I was and am anti-war. But I have never been, never could be, anti-soldier.

    dianes last blog post..Dancing Queen

  6. Wonderful post, and Tracy’s coda may become a mantra in my classroom.

    I spent my first few years as a Marine brat; my father was a Captain, he flew off off carriers. He left the USMC with a sad heart as ‘Nam intensified–he loved the Marines, he loved to fly, but he could not in good conscience fight in that particular war. A few months before he died, crippled from multiple strokes, he wrote a letter to the POTUS offering to take a mothballed A-4 Skyhawk and fly directly into any worthy target that might harbor Al Quaeda.

    Two stories reflecting on the USMC:

    My father was by no means a pacifist. After he left, one of his buddies Chuck (the only adult I could call by his first name) came to visit. He flew choppers (and was not so good at it, my father would jest).

    Chuck brought my brother and I two toy aircraft carriers, marvelous structures with all kinds of moving parts. I asked Chuck why he kept going back to Viet Nam.

    I was too young to know not to ask the question, and Chuck was too kind to tell me so. He treated us like men. My Dad would have whomped me had he heard me ask.

    Chuck paused, then seemed to drift away. He told me (and I was about 9 years old) about the ones he left behind. His job was to pick up the wounded (and, I reckon, the dead, but he spared me that much). Under fire. And he felt he had to keep going back to get men who needed picking up.

    And one day Chuck stayed back too long, and was KIA.

    I miss Chuck.

    The second story reflects on the values of the USMC, and one reason my Dad was so proud to wear the uniform. Dad showed up in full uniform in the August, 1963, March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, led by Dr. King. Organizers saw him, and placed him in the front line of the parade.

    My Dad loved the idea that a military man had the right to be a free thinker in a democratic society; indeed, it was his aim to keep that kind of society, which is why he planned to make a career out of it.

    “Where else in the world can an inner-city poor boy get a chance to fly a million dollar machine?”


    Michael Doyles last blog post..Big Ideas: "One Living Filament"

  7. Michael, that’s one of the best comments I’ve ever received. I like your father very much. (I also like your blog, and wish I’d had you for a science teacher.)

    Thanks for taking the time.


  8. @Tracy, Michael’s a fine writer with a great, natural voice. I just came across him recently too, thank goodness.

    And I’m glad you like the theme. It’s nothing close to as dazzling as your blog, but it’s at least cleaner than the last mess I was using. (But to be clear – I really like this guy’s design. He’s a college student from Romania, and one to watch.)

  9. @Laura, Jeez, shoot me for not replying earlier. Life is hairy.

    Your story is good testimony, and actually reminded me of @Diane, one of my earliest e-friends, who also replied to this post. If you don’t know Diane, you should check her out. She writes from a perspective I sense you’d relate to.

    Thanks for the kind words, too. :)

  10. Hi Clay, for goodness sake, no need to apologize! That would be like me apologizing for the many many great blog posts I have read here but have not commented on. You are one of my Internet heroes – a lot of ed blogs I read because I feel obliged; yours I read for the sheer pleasure of it! :-)

    Laura Gibbss last blog post..Round-Up: August 8

  11. Awesome.

    I’m definitely a lot less closed minded having gone to the desert twice (Kuwait, so no claymores). I love my country (USA), but there are many things that I don’t like about it (we’re such bullies). Now comes the hard part … speaking up.

    (or militarily speaking, SK1 Smith, USNR)

See more? Say more...