A Paratrooper’s Guide to the Liberal Arts

by Zach McDonald

Article can also be read here.

In the Italian city of Padua’s Piazza del Santo stands a statue created by the famed Donatello of an armed horseman, the Italian condottiero (mercenary) Erasmo da Narni, known as Gattamelata “the honeycat.” Renowned for his skill at arms, Gattamelata was the man to talk with if you were a mid-fifteenth century Italian potentate who needed to sack a rival city-state. But he was also known for his passion for the humanities, proving he was more than a man with a talent for dealing death.

I’ve never been to Padua, but recently learned of Gattamelata’s life in an art history course, certainly not the place I would expect to learn of a Renaissance era mercenary. Nor would I have expected an art history professor to speak of a condottieri commander and emphasize the fact that he was more than a military stereotype. What significance might this have for those of us in, or recently of, the profession of arms today?

As veterans returning to school, our college experience and what we take from it clearly differ from those of traditional students. Of course, we all seek a degree that will allow us to achieve our academic and career ambitions, but we can also use the time to segue back to civilian life, reflect on our time in service, make connections in the civilian world, or party on Uncle Sam’s dime. The choices are ours to make. I’ve also come to believe that college presents veterans with an overlooked but essential opportunity: to polish ourselves, from our dress and speech to our level of cultural sophistication.

If your immediate reaction is skepticism, hear me out. We should all be aware by now that succeeding in life, professionally and personally, is predicated on more than competence. No matter how skilled you may be, you will find more opportunities if you are also a personable, interesting individual. Your ideas might revolutionize the world, but they are unlikely to gain traction with anyone if you have the personality of a rock. By now, we realize that few people have any interest in hearing about “what it’s really like” or how to headspace and time a .50 cal, and I know that most of us would prefer to avoid discussing how closely Hurt Locker resembled our time overseas. Nor do the more specialized subjects, like finance or engineering, computer science or business strategy, make for the best happy hour talk with those who are not involved with those specializations. To lead fulfilling lives, we need to be able to engage with diverse groups of people, from professionals in other fields to attractive strangers when out on the town. Neither discussion of the Haqquani network nor barracks talk will do. Small talk gets your foot in the door, but what sort of topics might cast a flattering light upon you and add depth to the conversation? I would suggest the arts serve this purpose well, whether literature, philosophy, fine art or what have you.

As a young grunt, I enjoyed dipping Cope long cut and pounding Yuengling at Bragg as much as the next guy. But I’m not there anymore, and though I still enjoy lager from America’s oldest brewery on occasion, I’d prefer that my jaw not fall off and I’ve given up dip. And I can’t sling variations of the F bomb as wantonly these days. Strangely enough, some people find it offensive. So where does that leave a guy like me?

On a recent trip to Washington, DC for the Atlantic Council’s Veterans Take Point Initiative, I met former infantry NCO Jared Smith, recently of the esteemed 75th Ranger Regiment, and among our many discussions that week, we hit upon the topic of polish. What we do and know is paramount, but how can we avoid being one-dimensional and help grease the wheels of human interaction? We are both immensely proud of our service, fascinated by the world and the changing nature of conflict, but also want to be more than Zach the Paratrooper or Jared the Ranger turned-Defense-Wonk. Here we both agreed that a crucial element to leading a rich life, as well as lubricating the path to our personal and professional goals, was polish. While this includes being a well-dressed, suave cat, everyone is capable of reading GQ on his own. Ladies, I’m sure you can translate this into terms more relevant to yourselves, but the general sentiment stands. Besides looking polished, how else might we present ourselves well, be an entertaining guest and interesting conversation partner, to say nothing of enriching our own existences? Here, the liberal arts, whether literature or philosophy, history or fine art, shine.

College is a prime opportunity to explore these topics, and it is not necessary to be a tortured art student to do so. Nearly every undergraduate program will require a number of liberal arts courses, or they may be taken as electives. Having been a voracious reader since childhood, I’ve always enjoyed many of these subjects, but even if you are not keen to jump into Shakespeare, keep in mind that a little culture goes a long way, especially if you have a military background. We all know assumptions are made about us, and while we are held in high regard by many, it’s always amusing to see the reaction I get when people realize that I can discuss not only counterinsurgency, but a bit of Hemingway as well. I may not be a Gattamelata, but neither am I one-dimensional. And that helps in both professional and social situations.

We’ve worked, trained, traveled, and in some cases fought, granting us an air of personal gravitas not normally associated with those under age 35. Why not round that out with a dash of Renaissance Man? There’s no reason not to be all you can be, to resurrect the recruiting slogan I grew up with. To be a soldier is commendable, but to be an artist, warrior, and philosopher, in the words of Italian Renaissance artist and soldier Benvenuto Cellini, is singular. If you worry that might turn you into some sort of an effete, remember that there will be two former infantry sergeants, one from the 82nd and one from the 75th, who will be right there with you, as will the soft-minded hacks Niccolò Machiavelli and Carl von Clausewitz. Not to mention Jason Everman, who took Cellini’s advice to heart, and entered Army Special Operations following his time with Nirvana and Soundgarden. Take a spin through the Metropolitan Museum of Art, or spend some time with the Stoic philosophy of Marcus Aurelius (the Gregory Hays translation of The Meditations is superb). If you’ve experienced ground combat firsthand, Hemingway’s story “The Short Happy Life of Francis Macomber” will surely resonate with you. Check the arts out. You’ll enrich your life, and your career and social life will be glad you did.

Zach McDonald was born in Chicago and left Illinois immediately after high school, having enlisted as an Army infantryman. A recipient of the Combat Infantryman’s Badge and Purple Heart, Zach served in the Al Anbar province of Iraq and Khost province of Afghanistan with the 82nd Airborne Division, and subsequently worked on the Army staff. Currently, he is a senior majoring in political science at Yale University. He is also Service to School’s Executive Director of Undergraduate Admissions.

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