Participants Respond to a Bold Experiment: Army War College and Dickinson Combine Forces for Course on First World War

In spring 2015 Mellon Project funding enabled for the first time ever a new course team-taught by faculty from Dickinson College and the U.S. Army War College and offered to students at both institutions: How the Great War Made America Modern. Dickinson’s Professor Wendy Moffat and the War College’s Professor Tami Biddle worked together to deliver a seminar-style course to both military officers undertaking an MA in Strategic Studies at the War
College and upper-class Dickinson students.

These two populations, around two decades apart in age and in many respects worlds apart in experience, might face difficulties working together in seminars. How did they do? Here, in some of their own words, are what they experienced.

Dickinson students:

I do not think that any amount of book learning could compare to the hands on experience of this course. It was truly an incredible experience to get to sit down with a class full of war college students—something that would never have happened otherwise—and exchange thoughts on the readings and the military and war in general on an “equal” footing. I think the most remarkable part was that they treated us intellectually as equals.

The image I had of military personnel was of stoic, unwavering men with little sense of humor and a strong regard for discipline. I quickly learned that the army is full of men who like to joke, tease, and throw projectiles over cubicles.

This is where I believe the course has changed me. For a long time I was growing tired of explaining my history [as an “army brat”] to people. The dreaded question: Where are you from? I would just say I was from Connecticut, it was easier. But this class has reminded me that I am proud of my military lineage. It gave me insight into my own culture.

Despite my initial concerns, the war college students were eager to hear our input, and wanted to make sure that our voices were heard. They wondered about the lives of young twenty-year-old college students and how we lived our day-to-day lives. Many of them went straight to the military either out of high school or college, and never really had the opportunity to live the life that we take for granted.

[While]  this course fell short in its potential to bridge the divide between the two groups, it was a very effective life lesson on the US military.

This class tested my writing skills and also my attention to detail. What I mean by attention to detail is the way I learned to pick apart the readings and focus on the moral and moods of the story and not just the facts.

The War College students have inspired me to reach heights I never thought were achievable. I know they will never get this message but I would like to thank them for their input and opening my mind in this course but especially their service to the United States of America.

My conversation with the [wounded] veteran [at Walter Reed] and his eagerness to speak with us really made me understand why closing the military-civilian gap is so important—after listening to him, I realized that the reason he was so excited to talk with us was because changes need to be made, and those changes largely depend on us as civilians and as the broader public.

I would be remiss not to acknowledge how much I have learned just by getting to know the War College students as individuals—this course has given me the opportunity to bond with and learn from a group of people that, without this course, I might never have crossed paths.  This course has affected me on a profound level, and I am beyond grateful to have had this experience.

War College Students:

I am very comfortable with talking about my experience as a minority in the military but perhaps the students were unsure if they should ask such a sensitive question. However, within my mind I was not totally ready to share my deep emotional and mental thoughts  [on my Iraq experience] with everyone.

American history often marginalizes or ignores the contributions of minorities in the birth, foundation, and growth of the Nation. However, this class ignited within me an interest to study, research and write about the role that African Americans played in World War I.  The research for my class paper was very enlightening to the point that I wanted to read every chapter of all the books.

If Dickinson College students reflect the attitudes and capabilities of their generation, the future of the United States is very bright indeed.  They consistently read and analyzed assigned material.  Their in-class contributions frequently left me wondering how they could be capable of providing such insightful comments with so little life experience.  I will certainly miss this dialogue in the future.

I was so impressed with the energy, enthusiasm and intelligence of the Dickinson students.  They bring so much potential, and many have traveled and know something of the world around them.  Seeing their interest in how the military operates and in the WWI experience helped assuaged my fears that young people were more concerned with self than service.  Perhaps not every young visitor to France seeks only a selfie on the Eiffel Tower and Belgian beer.  I am encouraged that there are those among this generation who are interested in history and political and military affairs.  That bodes well for our future.

This course provided the opportunity to see a side of college education I had not seen before.  I hold a bachelor and a master’s degree from military universities [in technical fields] …so, participating in a class taught at a Selective Liberal Arts College was a brand new experience and took me out of my element in a good way.  Furthermore, I was continuously impressed with the caliber of the Dickinson students.  I did not realize undergraduate students could be so smart–I certainly was not that smart when I graduated college.  This experience left me feeling that the future of our country is in great hands.

On days when I wore civilian clothes I blended in and had to shift past people on the sidewalk walking toward me, as on any busy sidewalk.  On days when I was in uniform it was as if I had a three foot force shield around me, with students moving aside far before they reached me and almost never making eye contact.  ….  I was the same person in the same place, but having that uniform on triggered a physical separation.

One thing that was interesting to observe both in my AWC classmates and in myself, was that even when the class material regarding the battles and wounds and suffering of WWI became very graphic at times, the AWC students were very careful not to open their own Pandora’s box very wide to the students.  I do not know if it was because of the age difference, under which many of the LTCs and COLs have children the age of the Dickinson students, or just a part of the civil-military divide, but the class never went down the path of delving into the graphic horrors of Iraq and Afghanistan the way we explored the graphic horrors of WWI.  There was a cultural self-censorship present, which is always present when soldiers are discussing their wartime experiences with civilians,

For much of my twenty-three year career in the Army, I have not spent much time considering how civilians view my service. Like most officers who believe in selfless service, I have been content on making my contributions without seeking any significant personal recognition. I believe that my colleagues from the Army War College have behaved similarly throughout their careers. It certainly has been easier to continue to focus on the aspects of our jobs within the military community without having seeking engagement with the civilian populace. This has not necessarily been a conscious decision; military basing often provides a physical barrier to routine engagement with the public while the military community oftentimes engages more easily with others from within the same circles. The result, as identified early in this class is that even the civilian community right outside of military installations often does not have a clear view of the multiple facets of military service. Due to the interactions of the course, I now am more aware of the civilian community’s fundamental lack of understanding of the differences of a military life created through lack of exposure to members of the military and I have developed methods that I can use to help close this gap in the future.

You can read Tony Moore’s article about the course here.