Common Reading Experience: The War comes to UK

By Peter Berres, Guest columnist

On the day the class of 2016 began its educational journey, the Department of Defense released an update of the cost of war — in American lives — in Afghanistan, tipping the 2,000 mark — or about half UK’s record enrollment. At the same time of marked upswings in “friendly” attacks and deaths in Afghanistan, and tragic increases in suicides among veterans at home, first-year students have been reading Craig Mullaney’s “The Unforgiving Minute,” a fortuitous selection providing insight into the experience of soldiers, and bringing the war home — to campus.

Increasingly, a feature of academic transition, reading programs embrace various goals: minimally — a symbolic initiation to higher levels of education; ideally — an intellectual exercise which takes the reader deeply into themselves to explore traditional questions embodied in “general education” and establish a worthy framework for their entire educational experience.

Whether programs are effective in achieving their more noble goals depends – ultimately — on students seriously engaging the reading and associated (and … well … assigned) academic exercises in reflection, discussion and writing.

A particular book selection can contribute to a positive or negative outcome; UK’s earlier efforts with the CRE achieved positive, though significantly mixed, results. Previous books provided an adequate basis for a good intellectual experience. Well written, the timely, universal topics of diversity and ecology should have sufficiently motivated students to personal and social reflection about important issues in American (and world) life and politics.

Unfortunately, many students, not seeing obvious approximations of their own personal experience, or due to ideological resistance to topics of diversity or ecology, dismissed the readings as irrelevant, devoting as little effort, especially intellectual, as possible.
This year, you got lucky!

Why? Because no one, particularly college students — military-eligible and at the threshold of citizenship — can justifiably dismiss the topic of war, especially when it appears to be a permanent condition of your future. These current wars parallel your lives, serving as backdrop to your cultural development, and, thereby creating the danger of “normality” — potentially disassociating the most important questions of war from your intellectual and moral development.

Craig Mullaney’s “The Unforgiving Minute” offers an intellectual experience for deeper consideration of war both by taking us into the lives of soldiers preparing for and participating in the Afghanistan war, and by introducing foundational questions which we all must grapple with as soldiers or citizens.

In absence of personal exposure, being invited into a veteran’s experience can — especially in the hands of a thoughtful and skilled writer — provide sufficient insight to ponder some deeply important questions about war and related individual and social responsibilities. Early in his educational journey (and his book), Mullaney raises many complex questions about: “just war,” individual ethical behavior in combat, legitimacy of mission, effective strategies and tactics, but then elects not to address them.

That failure was, in my initial reading, disappointing. After some reflection, I now consider it the strength of the book and its major contribution to your education — leaving you with the questions and the need to explore and answer them — for yourself. These questions have long been pondered by countless veteran writers, as well as many of the greatest political and religious minds in history, without satisfactory answers, much less consensus. And, perhaps, that is how it should be, as ultimately each individual must begin to answer for themselves before finding a political voice. This is a valuable opportunity to engage these questions and begin, what is likely to be, a lifelong examination. (Which hints as to why Mullaney doesn’t address what he raises, it may take him decades of separation and more reflection to even approach an answer.)

Although the storyline of life as a cadet is engaging; airborne school — titillating; ranger school — an adrenaline rush; Oxford — seductively inviting; and Afghanistan — harshly real, making for an interesting and (on the surface) easy reading; these are not the reasons the book was chosen. The choice was made not due to his broad general education, but for yours.
You will read and hear a lot regarding “general education” and UK’s vision — as embodied in UKCore — of what intellectual abilities and sensibilities are necessary to “arm” you for life and work in a multicultural world economy and, the more historical purpose of higher education — citizenship in a democracy, which presumes and depends on a critical mass of its population to be literate, informed and capable of independent and critical thinking. For both goals, “The Unforgiving Minute” is the best selection UK has made.

The history of foreign policy in American political culture is one where citizens are encouraged to sit on the sidelines because it is too complex to understand and to leave it to “experts” to discuss and make policy. History is pretty clear: we do that at our own risk. It is the ultimate responsibility of citizenship (not to mention the best way of self-protection) to be tuned in, informed and engaged politically and personally. The costs in lives wrecked or destroyed (on both sides), the ecological degradation and, least, the dollars wasted, requires a lifelong involvement in learning about war and veterans. Use this book as a portal into the preeminent issue of our lives and our times, to begin the grunt work of gaining knowledge and perspective in order to responsibly and intelligently think and act.

Mullaney sets the table; it is yours to engage and consider. Don’t opt out because you don’t know enough — this is a valid starting point for entering into these complexly profound issues. But, don’t draw conclusions when the assignment is over, either, that is but the starting point in a lifelong responsibility.

UK has long aspired to top 20 status, the definition having morphed from academic ideals toward financial numbers and physical facilities. However, any chance of becoming a top academic institution rests, to a large extent, on providing sound educational goals and the means to assist the intellectual growth of its students. And, to a larger extent, academic excellence depends on students taking their self-education seriously. The Common Reading Experience has provided a meaningful assignment which can serve as a structure for your general education and promote your intellectual and moral development — the ultimate ideal of higher education.

Whether this “initiation” remains merely a symbolic gesture or a profound introduction to your education is ultimately up to you. Because military service is not shared in this country, it is our political and moral responsibility to be tuned in to what veterans face on psychological, emotional, physical and spiritual levels. Mullaney’s account and your reflection on it can build empathy and, hopefully, committed citizenship in meaningful support of soldiers and veterans.

This is the first of a three part series. The second looks at the connections between book content and general education goals. The third suggests ways in which the university can contribute to, and students can continue to learn from this reading experience.

Peter Berres is a retired assistant dean in the College of Health Sciences and adjunct professor in political science and the Discovery Seminar Program, as well as a Vietnam veteran who has taken UK students on trips to Southeast Asia. Email him at pnberr1@email.uky.edu.

Just one note: War Is Normal. The United States has never been at peace. There is a war and or military action in every decade since 1775. There are also social wars which have been declared: War on Poverty, War on Drugs, etc.,etc..

Thank you Peter for your insight, for putting the Common Reading Experience into a meaningful and important place in our thoughts and for prodding us all to be more invested in topics and events that we often want to hide from.