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Soldiers & Art…

by on June 9, 2013

Following up on my previous post (Gestures of Proximity/ Alienation/ Violence/ Art, posted on May 24) about points of contact between those who wield gestures of art and those whose agenda involves gestures of violence, my point of departure in this post is the teaching of poetry at West Point (United States Military Academy), specifically: Elizabeth D. Samet’s Teaching Poetry to Soldiers in a Post-Heroic Age and Marilyn Nelson’s Aborigine in the Citadel. Wilson and Samet write evocatively about their experiences teaching poetry at West Point, and in this post, using these two articles as my stimuli, I’d like to consider the potential of art in a military education.

As Samet points out, a critical question we need to ask at the outset is whether the military institution in question aims to educate or to train its cadets– the former alluding to a holistic process that provides varied avenues of learning for soldiers in training; the latter implying a more dogmatic pedagogy that looks to craft soldiers who fit pre-existing moulds. Assuming that there exist a number of military training institutions that seek to educate and not only train their soldiers, why might those who design the curricula for military academies consider a role for artistic gestures within their institutions? Secondly, given the general tendency of artists to be ‘congenital pacifists’ – to use a term that Nelson employs to describe herself– why might artist-educators be interested in bringing the arts into the forum of military training? My thoughts on two possible reasons for including the arts in a military education, reasons that might influence both military-educators and artist-educators, are discussed below:

a)  By identifying connections between the practical skills built by arts-based programmes and the skills needed for a military career, gestures of art and violence might actually be seen as complimenting each other. I can think of a couple of examples for this:

  • In terms of providing skills that would serve the soldier in battle, art forms like theatre, film, and digital art (video games) could be seen as ways to enhance a soldier’s preparedness to face combat situations. By creating ‘simulations’ of war-time scenarios, these art forms could be used in designing programmes for soldiers to ‘rehearse’ their actions in times of war.
  • Skills that are fostered by improvisation exercises in theatre, for instance, might be seen as means of strengthening a soldier’s ability to ‘think on their feet’ in combat situations. While other aspects of military training would involve a focus on the use of soldiers’ bodies, improvisation – as anyone who has done improv exercises will admit – could lead to a honing of the mental skills that are necessary when having to adapt to changing circumstances..

b) Arts-based education programmes could be seen as working on the ‘human development’ of soldiers who participate in them. The introspection, emotional discipline, and reflection that most arts-based programmes inspire/require could lead to positive affects that might very well give rise to a generation of ‘sensitive’ soldiers. In an age that sees laws like the Patriot Act and the Armed Forces Special Powers Act, laws which put the lives of civilians at the mercy of soldiers, it is only sensitive soldiering that would enable young men and women in uniform to be mindful of the magnitude of their actions. While this fostered sensitivity could be seen as jeopardizing the deference to rank and command that most armed forces demand, I believe that possibilities exist within an artistic educational effort to serve both purposes i.e. frameworks within which discipline to command and sensitive soldiering are not necessarily mutually exclusive to one another. In adding to this point, it is worth quoting at length from Nelson’s article:

One of my high school classmates, who graduated from West Point in the class of 1968, also reassured me, writing that: I spent almost 25 years in the Army and think I have a pretty good handle on the character traits and values that are both needed and present in the best leaders. We have a unique profession and it requires almost an oxymoronic type of individual to do it well. A good leader in times of stress, whether combat or peacetime, must not only know the men he leads, but also himself. He must know his limits and theirs, when to push and when to back off. He must have compassion yet be ruthless in imposing and enforcing standards. He must be able to go days at a time without rest, demand it of others, yet find a way inside himself to relax whenever he can. Do we call that repose? If so, who else needs it more?

What might these frameworks be? How could we, as artist-educators, design frameworks that both respect the gestures of discipline and hierarchy that armed forces see as being essential to their function, while simultaneously educating soldiers about gesturing/ embodying/ wielding their power sensitively? More on this soon…

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From → Poetry, Teach

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