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Rules of Engagement
December 5, 2007 - 10:25pm


When I enlisted in the Army years ago, I was offered half-a-dozen duty stations for my first posting. I chose Fort Campbell, Kentucky, home of the 101st Airborne Division. The Screaming Eagles were famed for their service in World War II, especially at Bastogne, where General McAuliffe made his famous retort—“Nuts”—to the Germans demanding surrender. (Some believe his reply was more like the French General Cambronne’s [also disputed] reply to the English at Waterloo: “Merde.”)

I was looking for hard work, a genuine experience, and esprit de corps, but the combat engineer battalion I was assigned to was still training for a World War II mission when the Pentagon was planning to fight “low-intensity conflicts” with small, light units. There was no valid enemy, and many of the recruits in those days had, like me, simply run out of other options. Morale was low, drug use high, and my company was full of people who wished they were anywhere else. My homesick Puerto Rican roommate, off the island for the first time, plotted to get tossed out by sidling up to our ancient First Sergeant and whispering in his ear, “Pssst. Yo, Top: I’m Batman.”

Our training was not unrigorous, but there was much busywork and fakery. When we ran out of the little explosive training caps for the land mines we were meant to find and disarm, non-commissioned officers stood over us and yelled “Boom” if they thought we’d screwed up. (They always had plenty of tear gas, though. I got gassed in the name of training once a month, whether I liked it or not.)

What we learned from all this was that none of it really mattered, and that it was possible to slop through. When we were in the field for war games, supposedly hiding from “the enemy,” my friend Ski would yell from his pup tent into the darkness, as in an Abbott and Costello routine, “Heeeeey Ab-booooooooooott!” and a Filipino named Goomie would cry from across the bivouac, “Wha—aat?”

Soldiers in these sorts of units are called Rooty-Poots or, less flatteringly, REMFs, which stands for rear-echelon motherfuckers. I was more motivated than that and figured if a real war blew up, this unit would be in trouble, so I volunteered for more elite duty.

As there are many ways of serving, so are there varying degrees of commitment to and engagement with higher education. I was reminded of this when a former student e-mailed for a recommendation letter. She had taken an intermediate rhet class and a 400-level independent study with me. A bright, caring person with a difficult and interesting childhood, she wrote, I’d guess, at middle-school level when she was a junior and senior in college. Her major was Rhetoric.

Rhetoric is the new Communications. One can do it right or with a maximum of busywork and fakery, and some students put in their time there until they can be somewhere else. I had tried many ways to get her to engage, from polite requests to playful teasing to stern admonitions. It didn’t matter when I graded her down; she didn’t care; she didn’t listen. I all but failed her in rhet, but the independent study in memoir was one of her last classes before getting the degree, and a previous head of creative writing—now retired—told me, “Everyone gets an A or a B, unless they don’t come to class.” I gave her a C.

When she said in her mail that she’d come to understand, after reflecting on my demands, that what she really wanted was to go to grad school and become a family counselor, I totally fell for it and agreed to write her a letter without seeing her materials. When the packet came, I knew she’d be good at the job but that she still couldn’t tell the difference between to, too, and two, let alone write a coherent essay.

I wrote back to tell her she’d never know how much I believed in her, but she must snap out of it and re-write her materials, because they reeked of educational malpractice. It felt good to be more direct than I had ever been, emboldened by the power of the former teacher, who doesn’t have to do anything. This is where I would draw the line against rooty-poots, and I would hold it, so help me god and Pierre Cambronne. She apologized and said I’d really brought her around—again.

Her new materials came this week. Merde. I’ll write the letter anyway, somehow.


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