James L. Morrison, Jr. From Rat Pants to Eagles and Tweeds: Memoirs of a Soldier-Teacher. Kent: Kent State University Press, 2004. xi + 251 pp. $34.00 (paper), ISBN 978-0-87338-800-9.
Reviewed by Robert J. Franzese (Department of History, McMurry University)
Published on H-War (January, 2005)
A Report Card by an Educated Officer
In a thought provoking memoir of a twenty-four-year army career extended by a seventeen-year stint as a history professor, James Morrison offers an account of a life of service to the nation both as a soldier and educator. From Rat Pants to Eagles and Tweeds is a biographical reflection upon a number of subjects: military ethics and professionalism, the education of soldiers, and history and higher education, all undertaken with an eye towards the strengths and weaknesses of the American military's intellectual preparedness, past, present and future.
Morrison harbored an early fascination with the military, yet paid little attention to the historical environment of Petersburg, Virginia. When he entered Virginia Military Institute in the fall of 1941, he did so with the hope of becoming a naval officer, settling on VMI while waiting for an appointment to the Naval Academy. Majoring in civil engineering, he gained a great deal of respect for his regular army instructors, as well as for VMI's honor code, which fostered the creation of a military society "based upon mutual trust and integrity" (p. 28). When the confusion of World War II made an appointment to the Naval Academy available in 1942, he reluctantly left the "Ratline" for a place among the plebes.
Morrison found Annapolis to have a "monolithic, technological curriculum," that avoided the liberal arts, yet tried to instill in midshipmen the notion that naval officers were exceptional individuals (p. 39). Accustomed to the martial atmosphere of VMI, Morrison found few differences between the two schools, but was discouraged by the unmilitary appearance of marching midshipmen and the absence of a student-administered honor code. He did, however, see an advantage to the active role seniors played in disciplining the fourth-classmen and the emphasis of memorization of useful knowledge, unlike the frivolous trivia required of VMI Rats. As geometry prevented Morrison from achieving academic success, so also his eyesight ultimately prevented him from receiving an officer's commission. Realizing that his time in the academy was slowly nearing a dead end and convinced that he did not want a career as either "an engineer or a businessman," Morrison resigned (p. 52).
Returning to VMI, after an encounter with a brother Rat, was the first turning point in Morrison's career, setting him on a path to an army career. Majoring in the liberal arts, he came to admire and respect a number of VMI instructors who would offer lessons on teaching, motivation, and military ethics to the prospective young officer. Appointed First Captain (regimental commander) in 1946, he was allowed to put these lessons into practice, gradually coming to a realization (one amplified by his time at the Naval Academy) that "belonging to a disciplined, hierarchical organization provided psychological and practical advantages that more than offset the irritants that also accompanied membership" (p. 74). Serving on the General Committee and Honor Court en route to becoming an ROTC Honor graduate, Morrison realized that VMI's greatest lessons of integrity and ethical standards of conduct had been learned outside the classroom.
Commissioned in 1947, Morrison's military career lasted nearly twenty-five years. Early postings took him to the Armored School at Fort Knox and to Panama, where he learned important lessons about troop leadership, logistics, and staff work, although he encountered "inconsistent interpretations of professional integrity" that would trouble him throughout his military career (p. 102). Orders to a combat command in Korea were halted by the armistice ending the war, with Morrison spending the next two years in Japan before returning to Fort Knox and a post with the Combat Developments Group. Participating in research that would eventually lead to the adoption of "Buck Rogers" technology (p. 136), Morrison anticipated a return to troop command after two years in a research and staff role. However, orders he received in December 1958 brought great change to his military career that ultimately directed him to the position of instructor of history at the U.S. Military Academy. Aside from a brief stint in Vietnam, he subsequently relinquished the prospect of continued advancement in the military, preferring to advance the minds of the nation's cadets, and eventually its college students, spending the remainder of his military career at West Point. After earning a Ph.D. in History from Columbia University, a fortuitous meeting with a recruiter propelled Morrison to York College in Pennsylvania, where he spent the next seventeen years as a college history professor.
Reflecting upon a life spent in both military uniform and scholarly tweeds, Morrison's concluding chapters offer his views on a number of subjects. Although he speaks favorably of instruction at the military academy, with its small classes and daily exercises coupled with block exams forcing cadets to understand material in a comprehensive form, he regrets the lapse in the honor code that was a product of the Vietnam War. The overall education offered to cadets was "generally excellent," a product of the Ã©lan, dedication, and energy of the officers that "more than compensated for their lack of scholarly depth" (p. 213). The cadets compared favorably with their civilian counterparts, though it is difficult to place cadets and traditional students side-by-side for comparison, as the mission of the academy is to produce professional soldiers. Morrison generally accepts the system of higher education, though finds faults that are echoed by faculty on many college campuses--the absurdity of depending upon student course evaluations to critique a "seasoned professional with advanced academic credentials," the trend towards political correctness in history texts, and the increased specialization of scholarly historical study by those who teach undergraduates (p. 222).
Commenting with a consciousness of current events tinged with traditional conservatism, Morrison's final observations stress a need for a broad historical education, for both civilians and the military. He speaks as an admitted "aged male WASP who subscribes with all his heart to the conviction that the civilization created in Western Europe ... is the best ever devised by human beings," and concludes that the soldiers of today, products of an exceptional military and civilian educational system, are the defenders of the origins and evolution of the American cultural heritage (p. 241). It is incumbent that they understand what they are in fact fighting to preserve. Perhaps Morrison, as both a soldier and as an historian, is qualified to offer that as a conclusion.
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Robert J. Franzese. Review of Morrison, James L., Jr., From Rat Pants to Eagles and Tweeds: Memoirs of a Soldier-Teacher.
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