This past semester I learned quite a bit. I took three courses: Italian Renaissance Art, Math 107, and American Decision-making in Afghanistan.
The courses were all quite challenging for many different reasons. Still, not a day went by where I didn't feel like a very fortunate human, having the opportunity to study at Yale University.
Grade-wise, my math course was the biggest challenge. The last time I engaged with much math was in SEAL training, and that was thirty-some-odd years ago. My professor was a saint, and she worked miracles. We had much in the way of homework and practice, and when I knew I needed help, there were two tutors assigned to assist me. These two tutors, mind you, are both undergrads working hard themselves- like me. In the end, I received a passing grade for my math class. I am relieved, so much so that I don't ever want to talk about my math class again.
The Italian Renaissance Art class was nutrition for my soul that I didn't know I needed. It was a "lecture" course, where we had two lectures a week, and we met in smaller groups once a week, often at the Yale University Art Gallery. I didn't know what to expect from an art history class as I'd never really taken one. At one point in my life, I probably said something like: "art classes are a waste of brainpower, time, and money."
Here we are again, me, the "Old Dog" getting humbled and fate gently showing me my error. The Italian Renaissance was a significant thing, and it still impacts large swaths of humanity. The course contained famous artists like Raphael, Michelangelo and, Donatello. The class also featured authors, guilds, patrons, architecture, drawings, sculptures, and dramas between competing cities. I'd remind everyone that the Italian Renaissance gave us the Sistine Chapel, the Mona Lisa, and the birth of "perspective" in manipulating distances in art. During the last few weeks of the semester, we covered works of art from Rome and Venice and their differences.
Included in these comparisons was the Venetian artist "Titian," and he had a surprise for me.
In this painting,
titled "The Flaying of Marsyas," at the very bottom of the piece, one can see a small dog licking up the recently released blood of Marsyas. By way of description, Marsyas was a character from Greek tragedy and a poem by Ovid. Marsyas was a talented piper who challenged Apollo to a piping contest. Marsyas, being something other than a god, loses the competition, and his prize is flaying. I noticed the small dog that licks up Marsyas' blood in the lecture, and when I did, I was immediately transported back to a night in combat where I shot a man standing in his doorway. The man fell dead, and we continued clearing the structure, getting the women and children in a safe place in the back of the building. Once secure, another shooter and I walked back to the entryway, where we saw the dead fellow lying in a pool of his blood. At the edge of the puddle, a tiny, precious kitten had set about lapping up the blood from the dead man. We both froze for a second and looked at one another. As Epictetus once wrote, we were both forced to accept that we are "tiny souls, propping up a corpse."
The experience was disturbing and a jolt to our feelings of invincibility.
Titian knew the power of this symbol centuries before I was born and that thread of humanity is a blessing, a gift of sorts. We might have Siri and running water, but we are still savages, capable of endless horror and goodness.
The flaying of Marsyas is an excellent segue into my most troubling class. GLBL 638- AKA "American Decisionmaking in Afghanistan." Here is a description.
We heard from multiple Ambassadors and Generals in the semester: our instructor, Ambassador Anne Patterson is a powerful asset to America and Yale, and in turn, me as a student.
I was last in Afghanistan in 2009 when I was wounded. I would have never guessed that 2009 wasn't even the "halfway" point in the longest war in American history. Amb. Patterson provided us an extensive reading list, including Carter Malkasian's masterpiece on the history of our war in Afghanistan; bios by Condi Rice, Amb. Khalilzad, Sec. Gates, Amb. Eikenberry, etc. I believe the most potent book in our reading list was "The Afghanistan Papers" by Craig M. Whitlock. I recommend his book to anyone who wants to see the ugly underbelly of our national need for good news over reality. One of the most compelling resources we have experienced in this class, is a former high-level Afghan official who gave us a "primary source" on the Afghan government and military's disposition over the last few years of our experiment in his country. It was challenging to listen to his inputs, especially as I have personally been quite critical of how the Afghans conducted themselves. While I maintain some of that criticism, I have to look my errors in the eye again. The Afghan Army trained with American and NATO partners, including their expensive assets and large support crews. Things like drones and gunships. When we left, they no longer had access to those things. They ran out of essential ammunition supplies, and they saw their "partner" negotiating with our mutual enemy. “What would you think?” Was a great question posed by our generous guest.
Learning to see the "other" point of view is challenging.
My lens is small and narrow and represents only a sliver of the time that we and our allies were involved in Afghanistan, but man did I think I was a professional on “all things Afghan war related.”
Education is humbling. (New trick for the old dog)
The GLBL course is a full year; we will publish a report in May, and I am very much looking forward to the work. We have such a broad and impressive group of students in the course; we have several veterans, international students, and some very sharp undergrads. Ambassador Patterson keeps us pointed in the right direction and humbles me regularly.
Finally, while I was away trying to become educated, Emily and our staff pushed Spike's K9 Fund into the best year we've had so far as an organization. We have many challenges, but our mission to care for every K9 that works on behalf of the humans in our nation is pressing forward. A fantastic group of supporters has helped us get this far, and we will not let up.
One last thing-
Education is humbling.