Bring the Liberal Arts to West Point

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Kenneth Branagh as Henry V

Friday

A recent Washington Post article by a former member of the infantry is arguing that the military academies should open their curricula. Joseph Zengerie says that the cadets miss out on some invaluable tools needed by the military when the STEM disciplines are overemphasized.

In support of Zengerie, I cite Sir Philip Sidney, a soldier himself who found certain lyrics more powerful than bugle blasts in rousing men to valor.

Zingerie says that liberal arts training is vital because the problems military leaders face is complex:

But even in an age of highly sophisticated warfare, our military leaders should not be too narrowly focused on STEM. If we want leaders who communicate clearly, solve problems creatively and appreciate cultural differences in theaters where they operate, studying the humanities is just as important as science, technology, engineering and math.

And:

Those who lead need to be ready for the moments when they must summon their troops — who may be hurt or drained by fatigue — to rise, to respond, to prevail against the odds. That power doesn’t come out of the barrel of a gun or the insignia of rank, much less a math formula. It comes from an understanding of human motivation that can be gained by studying psychology, by analyzing history, by reading great literature. Military leaders should know that the familiar notion of troops as a “band of brothers” originates with the stirring speech Shakespeare’s Henry V delivers to his outnumbered forces at the Battle of Agincourt.

Here’s Henry’s “band of brothers” speech. It’s an instance of a leader developing buy-in among the troops before he asks them to put their lives on the line:

Rather proclaim it, Westmoreland, through my host,
That he which hath no stomach to this fight,
Let him depart; his passport shall be made
And crowns for convoy put into his purse:
We would not die in that man’s company
That fears his fellowship to die with us.
This day is called the feast of Crispian:
He that outlives this day, and comes safe home,
Will stand a tip-toe when the day is named,
And rouse him at the name of Crispian.
He that shall live this day, and see old age,
Will yearly on the vigil feast his neighbours,
And say ‘To-morrow is Saint Crispian:’
Then will he strip his sleeve and show his scars.
And say ‘These wounds I had on Crispin’s day.’

And here’s the famous speech which functions as Sidney’s bugle blast. Sidney has indifferent things to say about British drama, but that’s because he died before he Shakespeare got going:

Once more unto the breach, dear friends, once more;
Or close the wall up with our English dead.
In peace there’s nothing so becomes a man
As modest stillness and humility:
But when the blast of war blows in our ears,
Then imitate the action of the tiger;
Stiffen the sinews, summon up the blood,
Disguise fair nature with hard-favored rage;
Then lend the eye a terrible aspect;
Let pry through the portage of the head
Like the brass cannon; let the brow o’erwhelm it
As fearfully as doth a galled rock
O’erhang and jutty his confounded base,
Swilled with the wild and wasteful ocean.
Now set the teeth and stretch the nostril wide,
Hold hard the breath and bend up every spirit
To his full height. On, on, you noblest English.
Whose blood is fet from fathers of war-proof!
Fathers that, like so many Alexanders,
Have in these parts from morn till even fought
And sheathed their swords for lack of argument:
Dishonor not your mothers; now attest
That those whom you called fathers did beget you.
Be copy now to men of grosser blood,
And teach them how to war. And you, good yeoman,
Whose limbs were made in England, show us here
The mettle of your pasture; let us swear
That you are worth your breeding; which I doubt not;
For there is none of you so mean and base,
That hath not noble luster in your eyes.
I see you stand like greyhounds in the slips,
Straining upon the start. The game’s afoot:
Follow your spirit, and upon this charge
Cry “God for Harry, England, and Saint George!’

Such passages do not show up in one’s engineering courses. As Zengerie rightly observes, military situations require “an understanding that not everything can be quantified.”

Sidney certainly feels that way, Defending poetry against those who regard it as useless, he talks of song lyrics that have inspired him to charge into battle. It didn’t matter, he says, that the lyrics were crude and ancient and sung by itinerant musicians:

Certainly I must confess mine own barbarousness; I never heard the old song of Percy and Douglas that I found not my heart moved more than with a trumpet; and yet it is sung but by some blind crowder, with no rougher voice than rude style; which being so evil appareled in the dust and cobwebs of that uncivil age, what would it work, trimmed in the gorgeous eloquence of Pindar?

He then turns to other countries where songs inspire valor:

In Hungary I have seen it the manner of all feasts, and other such meetings, to have songs of their ancestors’ valor, which that right soldier-like nation think the chiefest kindlers of brave courage. The incomparable Lacedæmonians did not only carry that kind of music ever with them to the field, but even at home, as such songs were made, so were they all content to be singers of them; when the lusty men were to tell what they did, the old men what they had done, and the young men what they would do.

Sidney himself died in battle so he didn’t just talk the talk.

In his concluding remarks on the lyric, Sidney cites the “unimitable Pindar” as proof that the lyric is the kind of poetry “most capable and most fit to awake the thoughts from the sleep of idleness, to embrace honorable enterprises.” Although he acknowledges that he would have preferred “honorable enterprises” to be battles rather than Olympics events, Sidney adds that Pindar’s poetry was so powerful that Alexander the Great himself held no victory greater than an Olympics win.

Here are the opening lines from Pindar’s first Olympian ode, in which he praises the winner of the horse race:

Water is best, and gold, like a blazing fire in the night, stands out supreme of all lordly wealth. But if, my heart, you wish to sing of contests, look no further for any star warmer than the sun, shining by day through the lonely sky, and let us not proclaim any contest greater than Olympia.

So maybe Pindar and Shakespeare should be added to the curriculum.

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  • Dana Huff

    You remind me of a great story I read in Rebecca Fraser’s book The Story of Britain about Major General James Wolfe. I wrote about it on my personal blog (where I post book reviews). If you scroll down a bit, you can see the passage about Wolfe. Of course, the line you made me think of was Wolfe’s declaration, after reading “Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard”: “Well, gentlemen, I had rather have written that poem than take Quebec.”

    http://www.danahuff.net/historical-crushes/

  • Robin

    I love this story, Dana, which I hadn’t heard. And he chose one of the truly great poems in the English language.

  • Dana Huff

    I so agree! I think Americans just don’t study that war like students in the UK do. That book was fascinating to read in that respect. The Seven Years’ War, or French and Indian War, is overshadowed by the American Revolution in American history classes.

  • Robin

    Having finally gotten around to reading War and Peace last year, I now think it should be required reading of all students in the military academies. Absolutely dazzling on multiple fronts–including how, most of the time, people don’t know what they’re doing.


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