Monday, November 11, 2013

What it is like to be a US war veteran in philosophy

M’s note: I got this in an email a few days ago accompanied by a letter that strikes me as a bit too personal to print here. I don’t suppose it would hurt to tell you that the author is (was?) an untenured member of a philosophy department in the US. For those of you who do not follow academic philosophy blogs, he appears to be writing in the same vein as blogs like this, this, or this. (I don’t know why he didn’t send it to the latter blog, they have like a zillion times more readers than this one.) Anyway, this seems appropriate for Veterans Day, so here it is: 
What it is like to be a US war veteran in philosophy

For starters, and I know this is a cliche, if you were not there, there is a lot you will just not understand. It really is that simple. No amount of armchair pondering - no matter how smart you are, no matter how many movies you have watched, no matter how much philosophy you have written - is a phenomenological proxy for having been there. Having been through war is a transformative experience like love, poverty, or motherhood that you only understand after you have been through it.

When you are a philosopher and a US war veteran you never have to wonder what it is like to be an outsider in academic philosophy. Your colleagues will remind you. Men, women, and others will define you by what they think you are supposed to have done and by the way Hollywood and the news made them think you behaved. You are presumed to be dumber than most, you are presumed to be of a lower socioeconomic class than your peers, you are presumed to have made it through a PhD program on some kind of GI Bill affirmative action (sic), you are presumed to have sold your body for that GI Bill money, and above all else you are presumed to be the kind of person that has no moral qualms about what you have done and could do with that paid-for body (sound familiar ladies?). Being a veteran is to constantly be made to think that others are looking at you wholly in moral and physical terms, and not as the intellectual that you became writing and completing a PhD in philosophy - in a fairly difficult area of philosophy, no less.

Mind you, this is not akin to having been an accountant before you went into philosophy. In the US, in academia especially, veterans have been marginalized. Our experiences are pretty much written out of the canon of philosophy too. You will not hear about the way Socrates’ approach to justice was shaped by his years fighting in the Peloponnesian Wars, the way Descartes’ thinking about analytic geometry began by watching the trajectory of cannon balls, the way that the death of a fellow soldier in WWII was the catalyst for Rawls’ theory of Justice; nor will you read much about how Wittgenstein’s stint in WW I or Quine’s in WW II, was important to them and their work. These are at the very least, under-examined.

There is no hand-wringing about how to get more of you into the profession nor does anyone think that you could bring a diverse viewpoint to a philosophical debate, or any viewpoint for that matter. I guess it is hard for people who never had such an experience to understand how having gone through war can be as ontologically constitutive of an identity as the things philosophers normally take to be so.

In a way we are luckier than many under-represented groups I suppose, at least those of us who are not also women or non-white. We can usually hide an important part of our identities from people we meet and for a while anyway "pass" as “ordinary” philosophers. Of course that comes with a flip-side. We have no supportive community. I don’t have vet-dar to point out other veterans. We have no secret handshake or haircut. There is no group, no fora to complain to about what condescending sanctimonious civilians mumble to themselves as they read things like this. And, perhaps, most importantly, we are a very small minority.

I have been treated with derision, condescension, and pity (often simultaneously) of the type that would never be leveled by a professional academic to another with experiences far more ideologically and ethically precarious than most veterans have had.

I frequently get asked stupid questions, often about killing people (tip: NEVER ask a veteran if s/he killed anyone or could kill anyone, it is beyond rude, and the last person we want to talk to about this is someone as professionally judgmental as a philosopher). Less frequently people ask about how well I sleep at night (never asked out of medical concern).

We are treated as morally culpable for every military action any US administration has ever taken (no one cares about pesky distinctions between jus ad bellum and jus ad bello). We were all at Abu Ghraib. Every stereotype about members and former members of militaries is unselfconsciously presumed to be true. (Typically, a professor of mine once said, with a serious countenance in a graduate seminar something to the effect, that “soldiers, for example, are all automatons who just follow orders” immediately before she started to talk about Kant).

Beside the ethical stereotypes, the personal ones are also pretty well entrenched in our profession as well. It is presumed that we are all anthropologically speaking anti-social (voluntarily risking your life for fellow citizens notwithstanding), love guns (I don’t), support right-wing politics (lifelong fairly apathetic Democrat here), hate gays (few of us care) and have PTSD (thanks again, pop culture).

Sometimes, I suppose, being a vet is amusing, especially when our phenomenological experiences don’t match the received orthodoxy that philosophers tell themselves about what soldiers are like. I sat in a pretty full room a couple of APAs ago listening to a talk about virtue ethics and soldiers. The paper just made up what it is like to be a soldier, applied some generic theory of virtue ethics to the constructed “personality” and drew unflattering ethical conclusions. The author’s online CV tells me the paper is forthcoming. (Note: I happen to have met the author independently at another conference. He is a really nice, reasonable, guy.)

Veterans also learn some things the hard way: there are some things that must never be mentioned to philosophers outside the US. I have also not yet mastered explaining away a gap in my CV from the times I went to war. I usually lie and concoct an innocuous medical condition. Fun.

Finally, being a war veteran means you don’t put your name on something as public as this as you are paranoid that tenure, jobs, publishing invitations, and friendships will get that much harder. Putting your name on something like this means that you risk being called a moral reprobate, a troglodyte, war criminal, or know-nothing on popular philosophy blogs. And, seriously, we have enough personal stuff to deal with to add that to our list. I even deleted my facebook account out of fear that my “open minded” academic friends would see my “closed minded” military ones.

Some of us are braver than others. Some of us are “out” of this closet. Someone mentioned his military life in at least one published philosophy paper, another (from the Vietnam era) on the jacket of his book. Another graduated from a military academy, deployed a lot, and tells anyone who asks. A fourth . . . well, is there a fourth out there?

All of this regards how I’ve been treated. (Disclaimer: individual experiences vary.) I should say, in all fairness, that my academic friends have been supportive or perhaps at least very polite. And I am grateful for that and to them. It is largely strangers who have few qualms about being obnoxiously judgmental.

There is also the transition between war and academic life that is worth mentioning. If you moved between military and academic life as quickly as I did the adjustment is not easy. It is difficult for any member of any military to reintegrate to civilian life, especially a life as unstructured and hostile to the military as academia is. Some friends in the field have been a great help and I wish I could publicly thank them by name.

I frequently tell myself that I have had experiences that almost no one I work with will ever have - profound, life changing, meaningful experiences on a par with having a child or surviving a serious illness that informs one's philosophical background about many things. I do not regret neither my decision to be part of the military or to go into professional philosophy. Most days I teach, I read, I write, I grade papers, I interact with students, colleagues, friends, and loved ones. I really love what I do, but frankly, unless you feel like being supportive, I’d rather deal with this alone.

1 comment:

  1. See my list of over 400 veteran, semi-veteran and military-family philosophers, artists and thinkers.