Blogs > Cliopatria > What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate (1 of 2)

Sep 23, 2011

What We Have Here is a Failure to Communicate (1 of 2)

At the CHE this week, a UT-Arlington professor describes her exhausting and untenable experience -- as she puts it, the "discomfort I endured" -- teaching military history to a class in which "more than half" of the students had connections to the military. I doubt whole sections of her account, but let's do this in pieces to keep it to a readable length.

The funniest part of Joyce Goldberg's essay describes the seething tension in and around the class. A former soldier sent her a "harsh e-mail" about an assigned reading; veterans from enlisted backgrounds "spoke disparagingly" about officers commissioned through the ROTC, in the presence of ROTC candidates; "veterans of one branch of military service made derogatory comments about members of other branches—and not in a teasing way." In short, "There was a noticeable edge to their class contributions that wasn't present in my other classes."

I'm laughing and sighing. I'm laugh-sighing.

A quick story: a few years ago, standing around with a group of infantrymen in the beautiful scenery of Camp Buehring, Kuwait, I watched another soldier walk up holding a plastic bag. Once a month, the camp hosted an open-air marketplace for outside vendors who drove in from Kuwait City with truckloads of cheap plastic crap and stupid t-shirts. Spc. Gutierrez had just been to the marketplace, and he dug into the bag to show us the hookah he had just bought.

One of the other soldiers, who was white, looked at the hookah and said, "Dude, count on the fucking Mexican to buy a bong."

"Fuck you, white bread motherfucker," the hookah-buyer helpfully explained. "Shouldn't you be out shopping for mayonnaise, you milk-white Wisconsin fuck?"

And then they laughed really hard, because that was a pretty good one, and went to lunch together. Really: they went to lunch together. Because they were good friends.

If you're an academic, you spend your working life around people who frantically examine every word they say. Are we being sensitive enough? Are our speech acts acceptable for what they convey regarding race, class, and gender? I sure hope that sentence didn't convey a heteronnormative subtext. Is my syllabus linguistically coded in a way that privileges socioeconomic power differentials?

While, on the other hand, the absolutely ordinary way to express friendly disagreement in the military, especially in the combat arms, is to say, "Dude, you're a fucking idiot, and let me tell you why." ("You really think that? What are you, fucking brain damaged? Did your mother smoke crack when you were in the womb? No way Old School was funnier than Anchorman.") This is how you talk to people you like. The language is different. It's understood differently, it's meant differently, it's launched differently and lands differently.

Second, take that "harsh e-mail" you got from a student veteran, walk it over to the ROTC cadre on your campus, and see if they detect harshness. My bet: they're going to look confused, because they won't have the foggiest idea what you're talking about.

I spent a few months in a training office at Camp Buehring, and fondly remember being CCed (as a distant observer) on a long email thread that followed a major's observation that a contractor wasn't providing the level of training they had agreed to provide. His email started the thing off. It began with the gentle words, "This message is directive in nature," went on to bluntly describe their failures, and concluded with something like, "Your performance is unacceptable, and your failures will be corrected immediately and entirely. We will not discuss the matter." Another major in a different office thought our major had overstepped the boundaries of his role by correcting a contractor that he didn't directly supervise; his email began with a warning that our office was acting stupidly and was going to get smacked back behind the line we'd crossed. And on it went. No one was diplomatic. No one worked to soften the edges of what they said. Every message was direct, plain, and aggressive in its claims of bad judgment and professional error.

Then they went to lunch together. It would never have occurred to them to express, or to have, hurt feelings. They were talking the way people in the military talk. So when you get a "harsh email" from a student who says the book you assigned about warfare in colonial America can't be true because it doesn't reflect his experiences in Iraq, respond bluntly and clearly. Feel free to copy and paste: "Your recent personal experiences are not germane to an examination of distant historical events. I expect you to address the historical material you have been assigned, and to do so in a factual and reasoned manner. This is the standard for the course. If you are unable to perform to this standard, you are to withdraw from the class." (Someone needs to develop an academia-to-military translation program, so we can add it to Babelfish.)

And I have still more fond memories, by the way, of the genuinely restrained and friendly way that my first team leader used to explain that I was doing it wrong: "Look, this isn't a big deal, but you gotta pull your fucking head out of your ass, because here's the thing..."

Finally, when "veterans of one branch of military service made derogatory comments about members of other branches—and not in a teasing way," they were doing it in a teasing way. The fact that it didn't look like that to you doesn't mean that it wasn't.

Every major city in the country has a MEPS -- a Military Entrance Processing Station -- that receives recruits and ships them off to basic training. If you enlist, this is the place you have your first real encounter with the military. The day I went through the Los Angeles MEPS, an army sergeant asked every single person who got on the bus for the Air Force if he'd remembered to bring his golf clubs. ("You went Air Force? Why didn't you want to be in the military?") I'm not even going to try to explain the joke my drill sergeant told (pretty much weekly) about the marine, the sailor, and the goat. Veterans of one branch of the military making derogatory jokes about members of other branches? As remarkable as photosynthesis in plants. It's how the machine is wired. You don't have to endure discomfort when you hear them do it, because they're not enduring any discomfort either.

I'm confident that Joyce Goldberg has discovered a crisis that doesn't exist.

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