I. The Readying
The formidable Joshua Buck, an ex-Army sniper and drill sergeant who served three tours in Iraq, is debriefing a bunch of veterans on what’s called the “de-greening” process. That’s when you take off your Army greens, take up your GI benefits and take on the huge transition from the corps to the campus. Fifteen vets lean on his every word. They’re sitting in Fayerweather Hall, a warm Monday in August. It’s the first day of class for the Warrior-Scholar Project, an immersive, week-long “academic boot camp” for veterans going back to school, featuring rigorous support (gratis) from Amherst faculty and staff. I’m embedded with these veterans all week—a week that crushes my previous record of being called “ma’am.”
Buck is a psych major at Worcester State University. He’s also a Warrior-Scholar alumnus and the veterans’ guide to making it in an academic setting. “I was an authority figure for 10 years,” booms Buck. No kidding. He’s 31, a big, bearded guy whose arm is tattooed with the names of eight fellow vets who’ve died during or after their service. “I had to learn to be wrong in the classroom—and be wrong in front of people in the age bracket whose asses I used to kick.” That gets a good snort-laugh. “But I made an effort to get to know those students, work in study groups with them and break down that weird wall between us.”
Weird walls. It’s true that many loom between veterans and traditional students at small liberal arts schools like Amherst. There are several fear factors, I think: a) the age difference; b) the gulf in life experience; c) the military-civilian disconnect, even distrust. This week’s warrior-scholars range in age from 22 to 32, for example, and they carry a certain ineffable maturity. All week, I’ll flinch at their casually devastating comments during classes: In a discussion on the Gettysburg Address, an Army sergeant quietly mentions he knows what it’s like to see friends die. In a class on ancient Roman warfare, one vet speaks their shared perspective: “When we read history, we think about some poor soldier who caught a bullet or bomb there.”
The admission office is steadily increasing its troop strength.
Several of these warrior-scholars hope to go pre-med. Others want to study philosophy or marketing or international relations. This week, though, they’ll dive into the Warrior-Scholar Project’s own curriculum on democracy and liberty, tackling readings from Thucydides to Sojourner Truth to Walt Whitman to Are We Rome?, by Amherst board of trustees chair Cullen Murphy ’74.
They will also get a crash course on how college isn’t the military. Asking questions is imperative, for instance, not insubordinate. You order your own time, rather than follow orders. A distinct fighting tone invades the advice, with “battle plans” for writing well, or ways to master “ninja reading,” which is warrior-speak for close reading. And the buck stops with Buck: He hectors these vets never to cut class (“I don’t care if you’re tired, sick or hungover”), because it takes twice as long to make up the learning lost. Use office hours, he says: “Professors are usually overjoyed to talk to someone who’s an adult.” And thoroughly research those faculty members so you don’t get one who “makes you fall asleep in class.”
No chance of napping as Austin Sarat bounds into the room that Monday. The William Nelson Cromwell Professor of Jurisprudence and Political Science is here to teach a seminar on the U.S. Constitution. He scans the veterans’ name plates: “Cameron! What’s a good thing about democracy?” he fires off. Cameron Wilson, a nuclear electrician’s mate who served on a submarine and was stationed in Guam, seems a bit taken aback. But he gives it a shot: “The people are free to do and think what’s best for them.”
Sarat pounces: “The people can do what’s best for them. OK, I want to go to Smith College. It’s a women’s college and I’m a man, but I think it’s best for me.” But Smith won’t let him in. “Is that democratic?” Marshall Roe, who worked on the Navy’s anti-ballistic defense in the Persian Gulf, cites Federalist No. 10, in which James Madison writes of protecting “different and unequal faculties.”
Sarat nods vigorously: “Now we’re cooking with gas! Smith is a private institution and so can decide not to admit men. In democracy, you treat like things alike—unless there’s a good reason not to.” The energy in the room is all but giddy—many gut laughs, and applause at the end—but also sometimes tense, since Sarat relentlessly calls on each warrior-scholar. When some can’t fetch up a quick answer, the professor never scolds. Instead, he exclaims, “Fabulous, fabulous—I see you’re thinking!”
The Warrior-Scholar Project was launched in 2011 by two Yale grads, and has subsequently been hosted by some 15 colleges and universities. In addition to lessons by Sarat and Murphy, the Amherst stint featured classes with Geoffrey Sanborn from the English department and Rick Griffiths from Classics. This summer was the WSP’s first at Amherst, though the mutual ties go back longer, thanks to Mark London ’74, who has sat on the WSP board from its early days.
The WSP is not a direct recruiting tool, but it is splendid for alerting veterans to opportunities at Amherst—which are steadily expanding. President Biddy Martin has said she is “eager to bring more veterans into the Amherst student body.” It can only help that a CBS This Morning segment on the WSP was filmed at Amherst on Day 5 of the program.
“The Warrior-Scholars Project is very personal to me,” London told the veterans that vivid August week. “When I was at Amherst, we were an outpost of dissent against the Vietnam War. We were right to protest, but we were wrong to leave behind the people who fought that war, to make them feel like pariahs. We did a disservice to an entire generation, and failed to take advantage of their unlimited potential to do good things in civil society. It’s a goal of mine to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”
II. The History
Marshall Roe couldn’t sleep. This Californian Navy vet was so adrenalized by his week at Amherst—“one of the best experiences of my life,” he’d told me emphatically—that he had to walk it off. For days, I’d heard him speak up in class, citing the Magna Carta, Napoleon, the Spartans. As Thursday waned into Friday, there he was, pacing the campus under a big oblong moon, poring over various scenarios for his future.
I like to think he had ghostly company. For Roe strode the same ground where generations of Amherst men once geared for battle.
To begin with the Civil War: After Fort Sumter was fired upon in April 1861, the College’s few Southern students left as fast as hell can scorch a feather, as the saying goes, and a clutch of Union-loving students lobbied to form an all-Amherst Army company. John Albion Andrew, governor of Massachusetts, essentially told them to cool their jets: “College men like you will be needed by your country as officers in new regiments … where you can be much more useful than herded together in one company.”