Studying mission ahead

Midshipmen: The war on terrorism brings a new sense of urgency to their lessons at the Naval Academy.

October 23, 2001|By Laura Sullivan | Laura Sullivan,SUN STAFF

Standing in front of a blackboard scrawled with a list titled "Definitions of Terrorism," Naval Academy Professor Barbara Harff searched the room for an answer to a question haunting the country: How do we fight a war in Afghanistan?

One midshipman called out, "I think it would be better to take out bin Laden than to give him a platform."

The class fell silent. On the blackboard, one of the definitions of terrorism was assassination.

"This is why we're here," Harff told the students in her "Middle Eastern Politics" class. "You can talk here."

As college students across the country struggle for ways to define the conflict and comprehend the difference between terrorism and military action, these students, dressed like the Navy officers they will become, have far more at stake in their quest for answers.

These students are learning about a conflict they will likely join, some in less than eight months. This campus in Annapolis is where debates about the rules of war and the right to wage one aren't theoretical, but real issues that these midshipmen will have to reconcile.

The seriousness they bring to these discussions, a daily occurrence across campus since the Sept. 11 attacks, is palpable from the tension in the arguments and the debates that follow.

"We don't want to indoctrinate them, have them speak in one voice," Harff said. "These students are very aware of what they are heading into. They are willing to risk their lives. The best thing I can do as an educator is teach them to analyze and think critically."

From her helm at the blackboard, Harff leads her political science students studying the Arab-Israeli conflict through the murky waters of historical disputes, religious conflicts and wars in the Middle East, starting with Muhammad and leading up to Osama bin Laden. The debates do not always coincide with Department of Defense military policy.

One student argued that the Defense Department had made its definition of terrorism too broad - so broad, he argued, that Northern Ireland and Colombia would then be considered terrorist states.

Another questioned whether President Bush was wrong not to accept the Taliban's initial offer to hand over bin Laden to an independent court.

When Harff asked if terrorists have to have a political agenda, senior Chris Kiesel raised his hand from the back of the room.

"Here's what I don't understand," he said. "Is terrorism just any action against the status quo? I mean, could terrorism be considered nationalism?"

Reminders on campus

Across campus are reminders of the midshipmen like themselves who left the classrooms to die fighting for their country - from the memorials to alumni who perished in the Battle of Midway during World War II to those who died in the sinking of the USS Maine before the Spanish-American War.

Now this war is at their front gates - where concrete barricades and armed Marines stand guard - bringing a sense of urgency to these lessons.

More than 900 midshipmen showed up last week at an informal discussion on the conflict to hear the opinions of professors and officers. Administrators had expected several dozen.

"I was 10 or 11 when I watched the gulf war on TV," said junior Lisa Steinmetz. "We're going to go off and have direct contact with this. It makes you look at things a different way. It helps justify the actions we will have to take."

`A kick in our step'

Not in a decade, many professors say, has there been such camaraderie on campus.

"There's a lot more pride, there's more of a sense of purpose," said junior Tim Shanley. "We've always had a sense of purpose, but there's a kick in our step knowing we are going to participate in what's going on."

Junior Mitch McGuffie said all the students he has talked to - even the ones who may have come to the academy more for the free education than for the chance to serve - are focused on understanding what they might face.

"We operate on a chain of command here," McGuffie said. "We follow orders. But I think we are also going to be officers in the military making decisions about what we should do. Exposing us and educating us on the issues helps to give you a rational response."

In "Naval Ethics 203," midshipmen faced an exam that posed this question: The United States is currently considering how to respond to the recent terrorist attacks. [Given a military response or a judicial response,] please explain which response a utilitarian, Kantian or Aristotelian would choose? Finally, which response would you choose and why?

`The final exam'

Cmdr. Bill Spann, who teaches the class, said that although most of the students chose a military response, he was stunned by the depth of their answers.

"Initially in this class they were uncomfortable that we ask more questions than we give answers," Spann said. "But I tell them straight up, that in 18 years of service, I've never stood watch and been asked to differentiate an equation or recite a physics formula, but I have had to make moral and ethical decisions every day.

"When it comes to [issues like the current conflict], it's not the conclusion they come to, but how they get there. The final exam in this course will be when they head out into the fleet."

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