5th Anniversary E-mail to Cadet Kurpiel: Air Force Colonel Responds at Inter-University Seminar on Armed Forces and Society

On October 27, I presented a paper, “The ‘War on Terror’ as Threat to America: Academic Freedom and Suppressing Dissent” at the biennial international conference of I.U.S. At these conferences one does not actually present a paper but a chair summarises  and comments on the papers. Paul R. Viotti, University of Denver, was a colonel in the Air Force and a graduate of the Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs. I was impressed with his collegiality and fairness in assessing my work. My paper was primarily focusing on the relationship between war and academic freedom and used several examples to advance its thesis that the latter is attenuated by the former. The paper was twenty-eight pages in length and only two pages were devoted to a summary of my suspension and reprimand stemming from the October 31, 2002 e-mail.

Colonel Viotti chose to actually read that portion of the paper that I reproduce below:

I was suspended and reprimanded for an antiwar e-mail that replied to an e-mail solicitation from Robert Kurpiel, an Air Force Academy cadet, that had been sent to scores of professors promoting an academy assembly event.  My e-mail denounced war and in particular United States military tactics employed in war. It was personal in areas for which I apologised. My suspension from teaching in the twelfth week of the fall 2002 semester was reflective of a highly militaristic, nationalistic culture that suppresses critical inquiry if it becomes too emotive in condemning American imperialism. I condemned in my e-mail the “aggressive baby killing tactics of collateral damage.” I described “top guns [who] rain death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world.” I objurgated “cowards who bomb countries without A.A.A., without possibility of retaliation.” I assailed “imperialists who are turning the whole damn world against us.” I believe history has already vindicated my observation that “September 11 can be blamed in part for what you and your cohorts have done to the Palestinians, the V.C., the Serbs, a retreating army at Basra.”[1]           

External pressure on St Xavier University to accede to the armies of the night with their prowar thought police was pronounced with thousands of e-mails, letters, phone calls, blogs and websites demanding retribution. Cadet Robert Kurpiel and the cadet wing should not have disseminated my e-mail, one of the most widely ever circulated on the Internet, in order to coerce and pressure the administration to discipline me. Both the cadet and Air Force Captain Jim Borders, the organizer of the campus assembly event, apologised to me as well and tried containing the burgeoning controversy that was sweeping through cyberspace and military networks throughout the world. The incident would shortly evolve from an Internet sensation to an item widely disseminated by television, talk radio, magazines and the international press                                                                                                                              

In an article in The Weekly Standard, former Deputy Undersecretary of Defence Jed Babbin described me as “a hate-the-military type,” and as “barely literate” He questioned if I were “fit to teach at any college” and implied that my tenure should be revoked.[2] The military press covered the story extensively, which varied from balanced reportage to advocacy journalism.[3]  Mr Kimball wrote an article for The American Legion Magazine with a McCarthyism-sounding title, “Academia v. America.” He claimed universities are “havens for displaced radicals.” He then proceeded to name several professors including myself that he construed as disloyal and anti-American. He bemoaned the fact my tenure was not rescinded and that after my suspension I would “soon be back molding young minds.”[4]  

Former university president Richard Yanikoski informed me on Monday, November 4, 2002, that the incident was over, that I had reconciled with the cadet and that the university could withstand any subsequent external pressure for sanctions. I was praised for my career of service to St Xavier and was even asked to inform him if anyone wished to damage my career. A week later, due to the aforementioned public pressure, I was suspended on Veterans Day, November 11, 2002.[5] This violation of my academic freedom with inappropriate sanctions was denounced by conservative groups such as the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education and the National Association of Scholars.[6]

[1] Peter N. Kirstein to Robert Kurpiel, October 31, 2002.

[2] Jed Babbin, “When Professors Attack They make fools of themselves,” The Weekly Standard, December 2, 2002. See my response: Peter N. Kirstein, “Kirstein Strikes Back,” The Weekly Standard, January 20, 2003, 5.

[3] “The professor and the cadet,” Navy Times, November 25, 2002; “Pacifist Professor Feels Blowback From Comments,” AIR FORCE Magazine, December 20, 2002, 20;.

[4] Roger Kimball, “Academia vs. America,” The American Legion Magazine, April 2003, 34-38. For my response see: Peter N. Kirstein, “New McCarthyism,” The American Legion Magazine, June 2003, 4-6.

[5] The Wall Street Journal, November 12, November 19, 2002; “The Historian Who Denounced the Military for “Baby-Killing” Tactics,” History News Network, November 8, 2002;  http://hnn.us/articles/1095.html; Kirstein, “Academic Freedom.”

[6] Alan Charles Kors to Richard Yanikoski, November 20, 2002 http://www.thefire.org/index.php/article/5129.html; Stephen Balch, “Don’t Sink any deeper Into Free-Speech Morass,” The Wall Street Journal, November 25, 2002. F.I.R.E.’s intervention might have prevented my dismissal when they informed the administration by letter and publicly on Milt Rosenberg’s WGN radio programme, “Extension 720,” that all legal options would be pursued if additional sanctions were imposed.

During the question and answer period with the audience, I was subjected to intense examination. One individual berated me for such vitriolic condemnation of the cadet and supported my suspension. I indicated that controversial and infuriating speech must be protected and that sanctions for speech of an academician should rarely if ever be imposed. He stated I had a responsibility to respond more politely. I indicated I did apologize but I also averred that American Association of University Professors guideline proscribe suspensions unless there is an immediate threat or harm to the individual. None were announced as a cause for the suspension on Veterans Day, November 11, 2002.

A member of the audience asserted that if I am claiming the right to speech and academic freedom, then why should I be critical of cadets to assert their right to disseminate in a coordinated manner my e-mail to family and friends? I said they had the right. I never claimed they did not. Yet the academy issued two apologies for their actions. Also my point is one may criticise speech but one should not be sanctioned for it particularly if it is based on ideological disagreements on war and American foreign policy.

I believe one member of the audience ws Peter D. Feaver of Duke University. He asked me what about the persecution of the Duke Lacrosse Team by a public that was looking for transgressions of a multi-cultural or ethnic nature? Did I have an opinion on the political correctness attendant to their inappropriate prosecution? I stated I did not know the details of that case but that it appeared to be qualitatively different than a professor who is subject to national vilification for views of a political nature. I also stated that I did not believe the lacrosse players were particularly heroic or deserving of my sympathy. They hired a poor African-American student from another campus–not from their own elite university– to strip or perform some type of exotic dancing and served alcohol to minors. I stated I believe there should have been some punishment for that but did NOT condone the inappropriate legal actions taken against some of the players.

A final note: One of the other panelists was John R. Ballard, a colonel (ret) in the army who teaches at the National War College in Washington, D.C. His paper was “The Role of Information in the War on Terrorism in Iraq.”  He said, along with Colonel Viotti, at the very end of the session, when I called for the dismantling of the American empire and the demilitarisation of America, that in this country people can express such views openly and directly. My paper was an attempt to prove the converse but I accept their statements in terms of this conference and my being included among the presenters.

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