EPSHTEIN: A missed military opportunity

It’s clear now that a Department of Defense-funded center at Yale was never a serious possibility. But the real story here is no longer whether or not this center was ever going to be established, but the vociferous and knee-jerk reaction from some members of the Yale and New Haven communities. A particular form of fear mongering replaced genuine dialogue — it became clear that the divide between those who fight this nation’s wars, and those in whose names the wars are fought, has gotten dangerously wide.

It is not necessarily a problem that under 1 percent of American citizens serve in the army. But it is a problem that most Americans, particularly Ivy League students, lack even a basic understanding of military functions and the moral codes on which they operate. And this ignorance, as demonstrated by this most recent back-and-forth on the potential Yale-DoD partnership, engendered fear.

This fear led critics of the proposed center to oppose the training of these U.S. service members at Yale. It’s true that these soldiers might have to execute certain foreign policies that Yale students might find immoral. Yet it is equally true that many of these Yale students will take their diplomas and go off to create those self-same immoral foreign policies. Wouldn’t they be benefited by a better understanding of the people who are actually going to be putting themselves in harm’s way to fulfill the directives that many Yale graduates will spend their careers writing?

Sensationalist claims have quickly followed this fear. The most significant have sought essentially to mischaracterize Dr. Charles Morgan’s purpose in attempting to establish a special forces training center at Yale by calling it an interrogation center (à la “Zero Dark Thirty”). This is akin to Sarah Palin’s mischaracterization of Obamacare as providing for death panels. According to the original, now infamous, story in the Yale Herald, the system Morgan sought to impart to Green Berets would “promote a positive rapport.” The center then, far from seeking to teach soldiers how to do harm, sought instead teach them to how better to relate to civilians. Aside from saving lives (by ensuring that a misunderstanding didn’t lead to unnecessary violence), it appears that the purpose of this instruction was rather similar to that of Yale’s liberal arts education: teaching students how to relate to the “other.” What is the purpose of reading Buber, Hagel or even Sartre if not to learn about the many different ways that fundamentally different people can relate to one another?

In order to truly fulfill Yale’s mission — “to seek exceptionally promising students … to develop their intellectual, moral, civic, and creative capacities to the fullest” — community members have argued that it is necessary to limit the military presence on campus. Their argument then, appears to be that in order to protect Yale’s free-thinking environment, we must bar certain types of people and certain practices. The hypocrisy here is self-evident.

Far from putting Yale’s mission at risk, including more veterans and active service members in the student body would enrich our campus discussion. Over the past few years, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know a few veterans and to learn more about how the military functions on a practical level. These interactions have had an impact on my own academic and political interests and this impact has been all the more significant because it is unlikely that I will ever fight our nation’s wars. They’ve allowed me to better understand an institution that is an incredibly important part of the fabric of our country, and one whose culture is very different from the one to which I’m accustomed. Isn’t that the purpose of a Yale education?

What was lost in all the controversy over the U.S. Special Operations Command Center of Excellence for Operational Neuroscience was an opportunity to improve military-civilian relations and bring SOCOM onto campus, a place where it could grow in the sunlight of academic scrutiny.

Uriel Epshtein is a junior in Morse College. Contact him at uriel.epshtein@yale.edu .

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