I have not yet figured out how to make this coherent in my own head. But I’m going to try, and probably fail, and maybe come back to this at a later point; I know I’m not going to stop thinking about it, and as I’ve already had to put my shoulder against my entire worldview and shove it a few inches to one side once this semester, I don’t imagine I’m going to come to any conclusions here that won’t undergo vast changes by the time I graduate. That’s okay.
The facts: I am an International Studies major. I am in a course this semester called Small Wars and Low-Intensity Conflict. I took this course because it was the only one left with spaces open that fulfilled a requirement I need to graduate in the spring. I am one of about a sixth of the class that is not current, former, or future military. I have no reservations about declaring, from any mountaintop, that I don’t know shit about war.
It’s funny! Because with an International Studies education, you really, really think, by the time you get to your senior year, that you know shit about war! I’ve written thousands of words about the differences between several prevailing theories about the most prominent cause of World War I. I’ve analyzed truly beautiful war poetry, standing at a blackboard in front of thirty people. I’ve read All Quiet on the Western Front, and Catch-22, and The Things They Carried. My second major – German – neatly divides the subject matter of every course, history and literature and politics and economics, into pre-war and post-war studies (and in Germany, you never ask which war). I’m getting paid to spend a semester researching post-war attitudes toward various past and ongoing genocidal conflicts among immigrant communities in Europe. Looking back after just a month in this class, I’m amazed at how much time I spend reading and writing about everything on the edges of war, and how little I have ever actually thought about war.
There is no poetry in this course. I keep a dictionary of military abbreviations and acronyms bookmarked these days, because I can’t get through a chapter in the four marine field manuals that are my assigned reading without using it eight times. I know what the western conception of conventional warfare entails now, and non-conventional, from the viewpoints of several different people from several different centuries – it was strange to sit in class and realize, the fourth time I heard the term conventional warfare in one lecture, that I didn’t know that war had conventions. I have learned (have had to teach myself) the difference between strategy and tactics, between OotW and MOotW, between insurgency and terrorism, and every page of notes I have has a list of terms to google later!!! in the margins.
These are all things everyone in the class except me (it seems) already came in intimately, and in many cases practically, familiar with. “Low-intensity conflict is a stupid name,” my professor said on the first day. “I mean, all the names for it are stupid– that one’s just the least stupid. But it’s still stupid. At least four of you have seen combat. You tell me– you ever been shot at with a low-intensity bullet?” (The four oldest men in the class– mid-twenties, it looked like– all shook their heads.)
I never learned to think about war as an academic pursuit. This seems incredibly stupid now. I never realized how intricate wars are– not just the parts that are fought, but the parts that are planned, the incredibly specific vocabulary that is required to describe them, the refinement of technique and tactic that has been going on for thousands of years, the unbroken line from one war to the next whose trajectory I have never once considered. I never thought about the things that change from war to war (the adage that every army spends all its time fighting the war that came before the one they’re in, I am told, is true), and the things that stay the same (my field manual quotes Sun Tzu in the first chapter). I have thought of war only in terms of art – have only critiqued the prose describing the mud and blood and gore, analyzed the major themes of the movements it inspires, and graded its simulation on its realism, as though I had any authority to do that. I have never known this clean war, this academic war– the kind that is fought first in a statistical model, and whose weapons start out as numbers.
I’ve never had to sit in a circle and calmly point to those numbers and say if this action is taken, this many people will likely die; to argue that another action would cause fewer of them to die (citation here, von Clausewitz said so, I’m an academic), but at the cost of more resources bound for a certain point. I’ve never meant so much when I say win and lose before. I feel heavy with the knowledge that I’m arguing the point with people who fully intend to make these decisions in the Real World – a term I’ve jokingly kicked around to describe a period of my life I’m not in yet, without realizing how real the world can be, how real it can feel when you open your mouth and feel the words that are about to condemn two thousand hypothetical people to death sitting heavy on your tongue– when you are trying to convince case studies not to wear faces.
And, you know, I have also never thought before about how much I think about war, despite my utter lack of understanding about it. How easily I have packed it into the context of my education. I never thought about the fact that all the classes in one of my majors define themselves by when they happened in relation to a single war, among many, many other wars. I never thought about how many wars there are. How all of them, in the end, for all the complexity that goes into planning and fighting them, come down to killing the right people at the right time. I don’t actually know how to think about war at this point, whether it should be as personal as the Iraq veteran taking notes next to me or as cold as the statistical model whose numbers I practice running on study break, whether war, to me, should be the first-person account of the Belgian front I’m writing about in my German course or a discourse spanning centuries and oceans. The more I learn what war is, the less I know what I think it is.
I am not explaining this well.
Part of it, I think, is that war isn’t even all of it. Having to make room in my conception both of the world and my education’s place in it for this entire new line of thinking is hard enough, but it’s also made me realize that… that college has done nothing for me so far except make me realize how little I know. I have realized already this year how easy it is to specialize in academia– to decide to see the world one way, and to live your entire life in a house whose walls are built of very specific assumptions and painted with the opinions you decided to have, and then forgot you decided to have. College hasn’t opened my mind so much as shown me new biases to choose from, the many beams from which I could, if I wanted to, build the walls of my house. I know, because I’ve been to college, that I have a choice, and that’s valuable; but I’m starting to think that I’m never, in my life, actually going to be educated enough to make it. This is rather contrary to what anybody ever told me about college.
I’m going to come back to this, because there is a lot involved in rearranging a worldview. I’m going to come back to it because I am already starting to have opinions about war – a month of studying it, and I am already forming opinions, despite the fact that I sit next to people whose opinions are much more informed than mine are by the feeling of being shot at! – and I don’t yet know what to do with them. I’ll come back to it because I now know, more than I did, where war fits into my education, but I have no idea how it fits into my life, and I can’t go back to a time when I didn’t have to think about this. I might not be enough of an adult to know what to do with an education whose application has real-world consequences. That might be, more than anything, what I’m not sure what to do with.