One of the cooler ideas to come out of Mondoville College’s Dark Tower is a new emphasis on reaching out to veterans. Many of them enlisted to earn money for college, after all, and we figure that many of them may bring a healthy dose of maturity and responsibility to the classroom, as well. Part of this, of course, will entail understanding the goals and attitudes of these less traditional students. Fortunately, we’ve hired a bright, talented person (who is also an occasional commenter here) to spearhead this outreach, and I look forward to working both with her and with the students she brings in and supports.
As it happens, one of my current students is military — I’m not sure if he’s Guard or Reserve, but he’s had to miss a bit of class this semester for duty. He’s also the guy who made my day when we discussed Cardinal Newman a few weeks back. He pays attention, he works hard, and I like him.
Well, today, we discussed Kipling — specifically, “Man Who Would Be King“, “White Man’s Burden“, and “Recessional“. I observed that although Kipling is not terribly popular among literary scholars these days, many of whom myopically tend to see him as the distillation of Evil Colonialism, a figure to jeer and hiss like a pantomime villain, he can also be read as a voice of caution about the imperialist project. After all, one can read “Man Who Would Be King” as a warning about what happens to those who believe that their culture and superior firepower are sufficient to conquer and hold a people — ultimately, we’re reminded that even the natural conditions in the region are inherently inimical to the colonizers; Peachey dies of sunstroke after half an hour in the midday sun.
Likewise, “White Man’s Burden” is not necessarily the call to conquest it is often taken as being. As we moved through the poem, I kept pointing out possible parallels between the situations Kipling describes and our recent activities in Iraq. (Of course, outside of the paranoid Left — OMGBushHitlerHalliburton!!!1!!eleventy!! — it’s pretty clear that our intentions weren’t imperialistic. We left — perhaps too soon, perhaps not — but we left. ) I talked about building hospitals and infrastructure; I talked about building schools and providing care. I talked about the level of restraint our men and women have shown overall, and what it means that we didn’t just turn Tikrit, for example, into a large, glowing gravel pit pour l’encouragement des autres. And yes, we talked about the “Sloth and Heathen Folly” Kipling warns of. I asked my kids what they thought Iraq would be in 15 years. The consensus was that despite our efforts, it will likely degenerate into a hellhole. We talked about the discomfort of the colonized as well — not least the bitterness of seeing others do for you what honor may demand you do for yourself. And we talked about “the judgment of your peers” — the international community and its combination of dependency, resentment, and Monday morning quarterbacking. Remember — Kipling wrote the poem on the occasion of the US taking over the Philippines after the Spanish-American War (which, by the way, the kids didn’t know happened in 1898, even after I mentioned Teddy Roosevelt and San Juan Hill). Again, I think the poem may be read less as an exhortation than as a warning — if you’re going to go into the empire business, this is what you had best expect.
Finally, we looked at “Recessional”, and Kipling’s warning that even superpowers need to remember that they are special because they have been chosen, not the other way round.
So class ended, and as the kids were leaving, the student I mentioned earlier approached me and said, “I was in Tikrit when Saddam was killed. It was… interesting.”
“I’m sure it was,” I said.
“I really liked this class today. It’s funny how it connects.”
“I’m glad. You know, Kipling wrote a number of poems in the voice of a soldier — just a regular grunt. He also lost his son in World War I. I’ve got some more of his work if you want to check it out sometime.”
“That might be cool,” he said, and made his way to the door. As he did, I called to him, and said, “Thanks for serving.”
He chuckled, said, “You’re welcome,” and headed on. I hope we get dozens more like him.