May 24, 2012
It’s fine for a military office to play the role of professor — but not if that means allowing ‘special arrangements’ that corrupt intellectual freedom.
In 1951, American conservative William F. Buckley published God and Man at Yale. In his book, Buckley slammed Yale’s faculty for turning American liberal ideology into a religion and force-feeding it to Yale’s unsuspecting student body.
By the late 1960s, the left-leaning ideological mindset that Buckley criticized no doubt encouraged the widespread opposition at Yale to the Vietnam Conflict –opposition that turned out to be justified by the facts on the ground in Vietnam. During those days, any notion that an American four-star general involved in the Vietnam debacle, someone like General William C. Westmoreland, should teach a course on leadership at Yale would have been dismissed out of hand as utterly ridiculous.
Fast-forward to 2012 and reality has been turned on its head. Enter retired four-star Army General Stanley McChrystal. McChrystal, who formerly led special operations forces in Iraq and Afghanistan and later became a senior American commander in Afghanistan, now teaches a class at Yale’s Grand Strategy Program, where he integrates his military experience with his studies on leadership. In the New York Times, McCyrstal is quoted as saying “the only reason I’m here to teach,” compared with “somebody who’s got a Ph.D., is because I’ve been through it.”
McChrystal must have been through something ominous because, according to Elisabeth Bumiller’s Times article, Yale University imposes restrictions on students who sit in McChrystal’s classes, demanding that they take notes on an “off the record” basis — i.e., not for attribution.
Yale’s extraordinary act seems drastically out of place with notions of academic and intellectual freedom. At the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, where I teach history, intellectual freedom is fiercely encouraged and protected. In addition, there is also accountability. No matter what I say in my history classes – either about history or my combat experience — cadets are free to tell it to the world, critique it, or reject it privately or publicly. Restrictions on cadets don’t exist even for an instructor with direct ties to the U.S. military. (I did two combat tours in Iraq, the second one in command of a combat battalion in West Baghdad at the height of Iraq’s Shia-Sunni civil war in 2006.)
Yale University’s readiness to impose special conditions — enabling a retired American four-star general with celebrity appeal to teach classes in its Grand Strategy program on his own terms — is puzzling. Why would Yale bend the dictates of academic freedom, especially knowing that McChrystal’s students have little personal knowledge of the true nature of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan, much less of the officers who’ve decisively shaped their conduct? Have at least portions of the Yale faculty have been seduced by the “better war” myth — the notion that to win wars of occupation inside the Muslim World, the trick is to put the right general in charge and tweak the tactics of counterinsurgency with clever political science theories that win hearts and minds?
This is not to suggest that former military officers should not be teaching at American Universities. On the contrary, there are many former soldiers, sailors, airmen, and Marines with the background and credentials to teach at the University level, and they should. But intellectual freedom should not be corrupted by “special arrangements” in order to draw a former general to teach a class at Yale.
Buckley’s warning in the early 1950s of the dangers of an ideological mindset, whether left wing or right wing in orientation, is still valid. Yale’s faculty and student body should heed the words of George Orwell, himself a former soldier: “During times of universal deceit, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act.”
Gian Gentile is a serving army colonel, a former Iraq War commander, and an associate professor of history at West Point.