SERE and the Essay

There was a decent episode of The Unit tonight that dealt with SERE training: scary stuff, from all accounts, and training I simultaneously found myself grateful that I never had to do and at the same time very much wished I’d had the opportunity to try and prove myself in. I was a lowly non-elite active-duty soldier and NCO, but I had some opportunities to train with guys from the 1st of the 75th, and they and the 3rd of the 160th SOAR were a visible presence where I was stationed, and my friend Daniel was Special Forces. (OK, so all that makes me sound like even more of a wannabe. Guilty as charged.) Out of all of them, Daniel and the two Rangers who’d done SERE training were the only ones who didn’t have that JSOC swagger; who didn’t have that cock-of-the-walk strut. And it’s funny, because that swagger was so much what I wanted to have: when I was getting near the end of my enlistment and thinking about how much I liked books, how much I liked reading and writing and how appealing being in higher education might be, the one thing that almost made me re-up was when the reenlistment NCO told me, “Sergeant Ed, I can get you a Special Forces contract.” But I went for the books instead, and now — years later — I’m happy to be headed to West Point as a civilian professor. (With the occasional second-guessing of what I might’ve done.)

Though the show never uses the word, The Unit is of course about Delta. The show’s a David Mamet project, and his writing made the first episode’s dialogue particularly snappy and engaging, but in the succeeding episodes, the writers and producers have clearly done their research. With the focus split between conflict abroad and wives waiting at home, the show’s cultural and political ideologies are very much designed to appeal to a conservative demographic — but I’d argue, as a political liberal, that that’s not much of a reason not to watch it. The show focuses on the tactical rather than the strategic perspective, and in fact often uses the tactical perspective to question the strategic perspective, as many soldiers do. The proliferation of supportive wives is overdone and reinforces unfortunate gender stereotypes, and in some ways moves the representation of post housing a little bit closer to Stepford with each episode — divorced JSOC soldiers are plentiful, for obvious reasons, so why aren’t they represented on the show? — but also makes a necessary statement about all the difficulties that military spouses manage to endure.

And then there’s the flip side to the way that the popular media tries to thrill you with representations of covert war: “The Desert One Debacle.” The story is yet more impressive reporting from Mark Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down (forget the movie: if you want to know what really went on, read the book, and even the book is considerably sanitized). Read it all the way through, and you’ll see how stuff never works the way it’s supposed to in the military. People simply don’t learn that things never go the way you expect them to go. Nobody who’d been through SERE training ever talked about it much. They wanted those who hadn’t done it to not know, to not anticipate. And dive training? The first thing they do, we were told, is drown you. You’re held under water, at the bottom of a pool, until you take a breath, two breaths, more, and fill your lungs with water. They do it to get you over your fear of drowning, and then they rescuscitate you.

So I wonder, as I move from a deeply liberal civilian institution to a rather more conservative military institution of higher education: how might one ask a student who’s been drowned or gone through SERE to write the personal essay?

SERE and the Essay

11 thoughts on “SERE and the Essay

  • April 26, 2006 at 12:52 am

    My initial response to your ultimate question is — the same way you ask anyone else to write an essay, anyone else being a person who may have been subjected to somethign inhumane and tormenting in life but which you may not have been privy to in other classes.


    Do you plan to confine the topics to military-related issues? If so, then drawing out this experience may be a challenge.

    Or was this a rhetorical question as you advance into this new job and you’re simply wondering how you can relate to it since you didn’t experience it?

  • April 26, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    My brother in law went through SERE (he was an F-18 pilot in the USMC). He doesn’t talk much about it, but it was pretty harsh. I’d love to try it myself.

    Fantastic news on the USMA job, Mike. Congrats.

  • April 26, 2006 at 7:37 pm

    Maybe I missed something along the way, Mike, but where are you going next year?

  • April 26, 2006 at 8:01 pm

    USMA at West Point, Amy. They’ve got a wonderfully collegial English department, with about 20% civilian instructors. I was interested to meet Marie Secor as one of their interviewers at MLA, and I think one of the things that may have gotten me the job was my emphasis on educating highly ethical leaders–something that was important to me as an NCO as well, in the Geneva Conventions and laws of war training I did with the soldiers in my squad. And thanks for the congratulations, Chris–glad to hear from you again.

    Shelly, more kind of a rhetorical question; sort of an out-loud thinking-through of how these students will be different from ones I’ve taught before. Of course, most of them won’t differ much at all–only a small portion of the cadets have actual prior military experience; the rest are just pretty much normal college kids with strong academic credentials who do a lot of extracurricular activities, and who signed a contract saying they’d give the Army five years of service after getting their educations. But there are a few cadets recruited from the enlisted ranks; typically soldiers of the highly motivated over-achieving variety.

  • April 26, 2006 at 9:48 pm

    I like your thinking-out-loud about their experiences and how that may influence their needs from you as a teacher. I kind of thought it was more of a rhetorical question to consider their experience.

    I’ve had to really stretch to put myself in the position of my students (not that I really can) this last semester while teaching developmental classes to highly at-risk kids in an urban environment. I don’t even *know* how many semesters it will take before I can adapt my teaching style to be truly effective. I admire you for thinking so far ahead.

  • April 27, 2006 at 12:55 am

    I know it’s terribly trite of me to say, Shelly, but haven’t we met somewhere before? šŸ˜‰

    A good friend of mine teaches kids like the ones you describe, and a big part of the mismatch she sees is about priorities: academic work simply doesn’t hold the same value in relation to other things that we see it as holding, and the reasons for doing it aren’t clear, likely due to differing distances from material circumstances. Julie Lindquist says that’s why considerations of affect are so important in the classroom, because affect has strong links to material and embodied experience–and, again, why I’m thinking about experiences like SERE.

  • April 27, 2006 at 1:47 am

    Terribly trite of you, Mike.

    I’m afraid I’m not acquainted with Julie Lindquist’s work, but for the first part of the second paragraph, I’m thinking, yes, yes, I know what you mean because some of the students I’m talking about have been brought in via state or federal programs, specifically targeted as “at risk” students who could benefit from post-secondary education, yet their motivation and understanding of the purpose of education in general, much less their own, is still unclear. I’m ending this semester with a long list of changes for next semester.

  • April 28, 2006 at 6:42 am

    I’ve been wondering if you meant that you had to make the experience violent and painful for them to write–or that they wouldn’t be inclined to reveal anything about the experience (always a risk with the p.n.). I would wonder if they would feel the “mismatch” you write about above, or if they would suck it up and get on with it. Sir. Yes. Sir.

  • April 29, 2006 at 9:59 pm

    Joanna, to your first question, I’d say ‘no’ — you know how I feel about the problematic stereotyping of the personal essay as guts-on-the-page self-indulgent trauma narrative, both by people who assign it and by people who critique it — but I am struggling with the question of the “mismatch.”

    Frame it this way: one could make certain generalizations about how your students at a big community college in a middle-class suburb construct the purposes of higher education. Those generalizations would likely differ from the ones Shelly might make about her at-risk urban students, which would in turn differ from the generalizations I might make about my students at a big state school with a party reputation.

    And all of those generalizations, I think, might differ rather radically from ones you might make about students/cadets at West Point. The most visible trajectories of those differences have to do with socioeconomic class and with economic concerns as manifested in career choice: students at community colleges come from backgrounds somewhat different than those of students at four-year public institutions. And from what little I’ve seen so far, the cadets at West Point are somewhat more academically prepared than my UMass students. And they’re going in different directions: some community college students use it as a stepping-stone to a four-year institution, while others use it as a way into an occupation. A portion of four-year students use their educations as a way into occupations or professions; some go to graduate school. Cadets know they’re going to be career soldiers for at least the next five years, and often longer. Each of those end-points represents a different economic construction of the non-commodified use value of education, and a different understanding of what writing does.

    Again: differing trajectories through the differentiated field of higher education. I go back to Bourdieu here, and think of that differentiated field as a three-dimensional cube. Remember your Cartesian maps/graphs from junior high math? In that cube, say the x-axis — its left-right orientation — represents exchange value; the cash rewards education gives you, chiefly in the job it helps you get. Say the y-axis — the cube’s up-down orientation — represents use value; the non-commodifiable benefits of education; Cardinal Newman’s ideas about the liberal education and how it enriches your life. Finally, think of the cube’s z-axis — its back-front orientation — as change in student class consciousness over time, with the back side of the cube being the student’s class consciousness as an entering freshman, and the front side of the cube being the student’s class consciousness as a graduating senior.

    How do class background, class consciousness, and type of institution shape individual students’ three-dimensional trajectories through that space? And — if one agrees that there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ or value-free pedagogy — how might assignments help to strategically shape those trajectories?

  • April 30, 2006 at 10:31 am

    Mike–wrong metaphor to use with me. I’m LD in math and am so lost on the axes. Better to go the Will Rogers route and lay it out in plain English. I need to correct you on one point, my fellow MC native: my students are at risk. The county may be relatively well-off, but the students in basic writing tend to be the children of immigrants from non-English speaking countries. In fact, they themselves may be immigrants. Negotiating academia can be very tough for them, which is why I’ve developed a learning community that combines academic literacy with writing and study skills. In the end, I hate generalizing all of the students, though I recognize that I am guilty of doing so from time to time. My goal has always been to be subversive in that I want to help all students have the proverbial “fighting chance” to succeed. And in answer to your final question, the issue has been to use the college as the text to be studied, and to do so on a very introductory level, to give students the vocabulary of as well as the experiential understanding of academia. In short, my basic writing classes are very often one long stream of comparing/contrasting high school to MC, MC to UM and other 4+ year schools, college to grad school on and on and on.
    Speaking of trajectories, ahem, when do you graduate?

  • April 30, 2006 at 1:16 pm

    OK, I guess I was generalizing from my experience at the Takoma Park campus to the Rockville Campus: Takoma Park was remarkably diverse, including first-generation Somali and Salvadorean and Ethiopian and Vietnamese students but also a bunch of middle-class white kids from Blair and Northwood and Richard Montgomery.

    Defense date is looking like second or third week of June.

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