Warfighters Extend Welcome <br>To Journalism Students<br>In an Eye-Opening Encounter

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The grass at West Point has borne the weight of visitors beyond count. Annual markers — graduation in spring, home football games in autumn, Veterans Day in November — spike the tally. Sightseers from across the nation and around the world show up daily.

Once a year my own graduate students make the two-hour bus journey from our Times Square campus to the military base. There we break bread with male and female officers serving three-year rotations as instructors of history, international relations, law, English and other specialized disciplines in addition to their shared skill, warfighting. Civilians who chance upon the latter term sometimes flinch.

“So they really call themselves that?’ my students ask. They really say ‘warfighters’?”


They do, though seldom in so many words. Rather, the officers suggest it when they answer questions from my group to say an always goal is stay in the fight, or get back in the fight, or come to the aid of comrades in the fight. To my students the language is foreign, aggressive, martial.

Their surprise reflects a certain lack of diversity that in other forms and measures is trumpeted on campuses across America. How many of you, I ask them, have past military service? Almost always the answer is none. How many know someone who wore a uniform? Most times the answer is the same.

The juxtaposition is jarring. In recent times — as with comments by White House Chief of Staff John Kelly, a retired Marine general — the civilian-military gap is at the root of a divide. General Kelly’s son, a Marine lieutenant, was killed in action in Afghanistan in 2010, a death about which the father almost never speaks in public. At a White House press briefing, General Kelly addressed the societal division between those who have worn their nation’s uniform and civilians who have not.


The general spoke of Gold Star mothers, women of the sort memorialized in popular culture such as the Iowa farm wife seen in “Saving Private Ryan,” who collapsed on her porch as she watched a local religious leader and a military officer arrive to tell her of the deaths of all but one of her uniformed sons in World War II’s many theaters of operation. (Some say the movie is based in part on the real-life deaths of five Sullivan brothers from Iowa who perished aboard a light cruiser, United States Ship Juneau, that was torpedoed by the Japanese in 1942.)

At issue in the general’s remark was the question of service to country. Uniformed personnel in the nation’s military unquestionably serve, the vast majority with distinction. The rare outlier is dishonorably discharged. It is worth saying that in civilian life, opportunities for service to one’s country also abound: as clergy, an emergency room doctor, a rancher, or a grade school teacher. The list is endless.

At West Point last spring, my seminarians — nearly all of them supporters of Secretary Clinton or Senator Sanders in the 2016 election — were initially silent and watchful: a good sign for would-be journalists making their first foray into unknown territory. These are cadets, I told them. Those are officers.


“How do you know the difference?” someone asked.

We met our host, Major Chad Fitzgerald, a red-haired Texan trained as an artilleryman who taught international relations. “Welcome to West Point,” he told us. He ignored a softly falling rain. So my students ignored it, too. Off we went on a walking tour that included the famed dining hall that seats 4,000 cadets at once, library, parade ground where cadets drill and helicopters land, and statues of famed Army officers Douglas MacArthur, Dwight Eisenhower, George Patton and more — not to mention General Washington.

“I’m tired of statues,” one of my cohort told me as we walked.

“The point is,” I said, “why do West Point people admire these guys?”

Our walkabout ended at the West Point Club where we bought sandwiches and mingled with officers distributed at Major Fitzgerald’s direction among four tables.

After lunch we moved to a roundtable discussion in a nearby hall., where the questions suddenly erupt.

“Does the military secretly assassinate people?”

“Does embedding work?”

“Do we invade countries for economic reasons?”

“Where will you be fighting in five years?”

“How is working for President Trump different from working for President Obama?”

This hour-and-a-half conversation was almost 90 minutes more than most of my students had spent talking with soldiers.

Back in Manhattan, I asked them what they thought. “Those officers were so smart,” one student told me. “I feel bad that I hadn’t expected that.” Said another, of a pilot who had flown an Apache attack helicopter in Afghanistan: “The one at our table was so good at listening and understanding and staying cool and responding, no matter what we asked her. I thought, ‘I need to learn how to do that.’”

Mr. Svoboda, a former Africa Editor of the Economist magazine, is an associate professor at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism

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