Organized parental visitations have always struck me as somewhat infantilizing.
I remember my mother and father going to elementary school, even high school,
open houses, but they never met any of my college professors, nor did they know
the names of the courses they were paying for. Mine are not parents anyone would
call uninterested, but there was a stage after which it became unseemly to
manifest their interest on site. Yet my parents didn't drop me off in Harvard
Yard for freshman orientation with the fear that I might one day be returned to
them in a flag-draped coffin. One of my former students, Joey, while serving
with the Old Guard in Washington, D.C., routinely escorted such coffins from
Dover Air Force Base, and he has told me it is the most difficult assignment
he's had, more brutal in its way than was his tour in Iraq. The administration
of the Academy recognizes the deep-seated need of the parents whose children it
admits to see firsthand something of day-to-day operations. The opportunity to
visit with an English professor for a few minutes and to get a report on their
children's progress in class is therefore something, if not always enough, for
parents wrapped in apprehensions as tightly as they are in those black parkas.
Some trepidation must always accompany pride for the families of soldiers, but
the imaginings of those parents in October 2001 were far more desperate in view
of the fact that the stakes of American soldiering had suddenly been raised.
The stakes of teaching at West Point have also been raised by the events that
followed September 11. The institution always felt different from a civilian
college, but it used to be much easier for me as well as for the cadets to
confuse their chosen profession with just another career. The Army itself had
encouraged this kind of thinking in the 1980s with its "Be All You Can Be"
slogan and its emphasis on adventure and technical training over the deadlier
aspects of the military profession. The September 11 attacks, the War on Terror,
Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan, and, most important, Operation Iraqi
Freedom and the ongoing occupation have altered the perspectives of cadets and
forced them to consider more closely what it is they have signed up for. The
nebulous struggle against terror that we have now learned to call the Long War
has likewise forced me to reexamine what it means to teach literature to these
particular young women and men.
My association with the Army has persuaded some people that I am invested with
particular affinities, arcane knowledge, or special powers. When I give a
lecture or present a paper at a conference, strangers materialize to tell me of
past associations with anyone or anything military. They seek to forge a bond,
however tenuous. The most bizarre such encounter occurred at a convention in New
Orleans. After giving a paper about poetry and soldiers, I was approached by a
spectral figure, turned out in beret and cape, and carrying a silver-headed
cane. Following me through the French Quarter, he confided that Robert Graves,
the author and World War I veteran, had been his dear friend. Before "Robert"
died, he said, visibly moved, "he asked me to forgive him. You see, he had done
some unspeakable things in the war. But who was I," demanded my ghostly
confidant before wandering off down Royal Street, "who was I to absolve him?"
Others assume I have an intimate knowledge of long-range military strategy or of
the inner workings of the secretary of defense's mind. I am routinely asked what
"the Army" thinks about x or y. My ignorance about these matters no doubt
disappoints the curious. Also chagrined are those who assume that I've met
everyone in the Army, as if the entire organization were confined to one tiny
post. Most are keenly interested in the generals: "What do you know about Wesley
Clark?" topped the list of questions in 2004. Now it is General David Petraeus
about whom everyone is curious. Most common, however, are inquiries about cadets
or officers who have been assigned to West Point at some stage of their careers:
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