- Historic Sites
One Englishman’s America
A distinguished military historian’s forty-year quest to plumb our essential mystery: the “secret of a way of life different from any other lived on earth”
February/March 1996 | Volume 47, Issue 1
Some of the places to which invitations brought me were rich, world-famous, and intellectually intimidating. Harvard I knew, but only as the alma mater of old friends who had treated it with easy familiarity. As an academic society, briefly giving a visitor its attention, it proved formidable and demanding. Nowhere, not even at Oxford, had I encountered a professorial that exuded such a sense of academic aristocracy. Scholarly eminence, security of tenure, wealth, knowledge of the world—these were the marks of the Harvard historians and political scientists before whom I tried to show my paces.
I felt more at home in that uniquely American institution, the liberal arts college, the reason being, I surmise, that it is much like the English public school. Liberal arts colleges are a point of aspiration to the educated parents of many American children. They offer a degree but, more important, the friendship of professors, usually remote figures on the great campuses, social grooming, an all-round education, and, in many cases, an emphasis on moral purpose in life. I came to know liberal arts colleges in their many forms, from Swarthmore, the most celebrated of them all, a virtual forcing house for Rhodes scholars, to the small religious foundations, Lutheran or Unitarian, that cluster so thickly in Ohio and the rest of the Midwest first settled by God-fearing, hardworking German immigrants in the nineteenth century. I grew very fond of St. Anselm’s, a small Catholic college in New Hampshire, centered on its magnificent chapel, where jolly young Franciscans mingled in their brown habits at lunchtime with boys and girls in sneakers and T-shirts. I got to know even better Colorado College in Colorado Springs; “rich kids’ place,” a state university professor described it, but I found it governed by teachers of awesome fidelity to the ideals of truth and learning. “You,” my closest friend there said to me, “are an Oxford humanist.” You, I felt like replying, are an Abraham Lincolnian populist, believing in the equality of all before the book as well as the law.
Between the English educational system of my youth and the American one already beginning to prevail on my first visit there, I see no middle way.
I also came to know the great public universities, where a clever instate student can acquire, given desperately hard work and a willingness to wait at table or wash dishes, an Ivy League education at a fraction of the price. Athletic prowess also sees a student through. The large private universities came my way, too, New York University, the University of Southern California; between them and their state equivalents I could detect no difference at all. The students, it seemed to me, enjoyed no better facilities, no greater intimacy with professors. They were merely exercising a choice the poorer students did not have, even if it was only the choice to waste their parents’ money. But choice is the essence of American higher education, and so is wastefulness. The dropout was unknown in my Oxford years; if you were admitted, you graduated. There was no studying for a year or two, taking time out, going to another place, graduating eventually in a discipline entirely different from that in which you had started out. English university education was ruthlessly elitist. The tiny group that secured entrance was destined to be a national elite, theoretically guaranteed a secure career for life ever after.
Between the English system of my youth and the American system already coming to prevail when I first visited the United States, I see no middle way. The first makes for a society of haves and have-nots, well organized, well governed but unequal, and destined, in a post-Industrial Revolution world, for economic inertia. The second, though it may lay the seeds of discontent with prevailing government and organization, fertilizes creativity. Education ought to be wasteful, as American education is. It ought to offer chances to the greatest possible number and ought to offer them in manifold variety and over and over again. No social scientist ever born has been able to predict who will benefit from education, or when.
In 1977 the Vietnam War was not long over. Indiscipline had ceased to plague the military, but the groundswell of doubt over why the war had been fought still swirled. Indeed, I ascribe the success of my book The Face of Battle , an inquiry into the origins of human failings before danger as well as of triumph over it, to the troubled self-inquiry of America in the post-Vietnam years. I had asked questions not usually put, not easy to answer in a country at odds with itself for the first time since the Civil War over a great national military purpose. My friend John Erickson, the master historian of Russia’s resistance to Hitler, had found himself in the Cold War years invited by Soviet generals to pro- nounce on their problems, impartially, they thought, because his was an external voice. Lesser historian though I am, Americans accorded me similar status. My opinion over “combat motivation” was sought; my responses were accorded quite undeserved respect. Nevertheless, I could detect in the 1970s that all was not well. At Fort Carson, visiting a tank battalion, I noted that the commanding officer’s clerk, seated in one chair, feet in another, did not rise when the colonel and I entered his office. He was delighted to see us and full of news; I could only think that in a British regiment he would have been quivering at the sound of the colonel’s footfall.