Skip to main content

In 2008, Captain Lauren Merkel graduated from the University of North Carolina with a degree in Political Science. A cadet in the Reserve Officer Training Corps, she was commissioned as a junior officer in the United States Army. Merkel served in Afghanistan, Jordan, Kosovo, and in the United States. In 2016, she entered graduate school at her alma mater, this time in History. She won’t be here long: next fall, she will leave Chapel Hill for the United States Military Academy at West Point, where she will teach cadets in a required course on the history of twentieth-century warfare.

West Point
The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, NY, where officers selected for graduate work at UNC often go on to teach [courtesy]

This demanding career trajectory has become surprisingly common at UNC. The History graduate program has a strong reputation and long-standing relationship with the Armed Services. The Department has helped to educate a new generation of officers and bring academic methods and thinking into the military. Graduates of the program include Lt. General H. R. McMaster (PhD, 1996), a former National Security Adviser under President Trump, and retired Colonel Gregory Daddis (PhD, 2009), a highly regarded historian of the Vietnam War.

Typically, the department accepts two mid-career Army officers to the graduate program every three years. For these officers, the academic training they receive at the university is both an important step for their military career and an opportunity for intellectual growth.

Recently, the department has graduated John Roche (PhD, 2015), Brian Drohan (PhD, 2016), and Rory McGovern (PhD, 2017).

The Army provides funds for officers to pursue graduate education at a civilian university like Carolina. Officers are responsible for choosing a research topic and getting accepted into a program, although the Army’s relationships with some universities inform the officer’s final choice between programs. For most, the immediate purpose of graduate training is to become instructors at West Point, where they teach for two to three years. More than half of West Point’s teaching staff is composed of Army officers trained at civilian PhD programs. “Using military officers not only keeps West Point focused on its fundamental mission as a professional military academy, but it also helps to create a broadly educated Officer Corps in the army,” said Drohan.

The Army requires a Master’s Degree to teach. So Army Officers studying at Carolina follow an accelerated path to earn their Masters and reach “All But Dissertation” status within two years. Then they are transferred to West Point, at which point, Merkel said, “it is all on” her to write her dissertation in her spare time while teaching. This is a challenging pace for any graduate student. “I definitely came in feeling lost; I’d never even heard of Foucault before,” Merkel said. “I felt very overwhelmed my first year but I think most people do.”

Officers at UNC study a wide variety of subjects in preparation for their teaching assignments. The History Department’s strength in a variety of fields and time periods—as well as its specific depth in military history—make it attractive to Army officers. Merkel highlighted Carolina’s strength in both Middle Eastern and military history as factors that drew her to the department.

She has been well supported by the department. In particular, Cemil Aydin, professor of Modern Middle Eastern history, and Wayne Lee, the Dowd Distinguished Professor and a retired Army combat engineer, have been important resources. Lee especially “understands both sides of the system and is able to provide very specific, tangible advice,” she said. Merkel also highlighted her “supportive cohort,” saying that graduate school had “a very different sort of intensity from what I’ve been used to and a really nice change of pace.”

Within the Army, there is an increasing emphasis on continuing education throughout officers’ careers. Merkel said that mid-career officers feel some pressure to earn a Master’s degree; a variety of Army programs facilitate this. “I think that a cultural shift is in progress,” Merkel said. “There is a real recognition that war is really complicated” and “the Army is beginning to realize that the critical thinking skills that come from a higher level of education are critical for the Officer Corps.” In part, appreciation for higher learning at the highest levels of the Army’s command structure has driven this transformation. A number of officers in key positions, including David Petraeus and H. R. McMaster, “found value in their own education” and have shaped the organization from top down, Merkel said.

We “cannot draw specific tangible lessons from history,” she said. But “history can direct the right questions, even if it doesn’t provide answers.” History “provides a framework for understanding social factors in a very broad sense and [equips officers with] a better ability to evaluate them.” Drohan added that the skills he developed in the graduate program have been “vital” in his work as a strategic planner. “I’ve also found that I’m better at identifying biases, logical fallacies, and weak points in an argument,” he said.

Other graduate students also learn a great deal from the Army officers or veterans who bring a range of combat experience to the classroom. In his first seven years in the Army, Drohan spent time in Iraq, Kuwait, Sri Lanka, and Bangladesh–all former British colonies or protectorates. Those experiences sparked his interest in the history of colonialism and the British Empire. His experiences in Iraq and Sri Lanka in particular informed his dissertation research on human rights activism in counterinsurgencies in the British Empire.

Eric Burke, an Army veteran and PhD candidate, said his “experience as an infantryman provided me with key insights into the kinds of problems soldiers care most about, and the kinds of issues they find most compelling.” Academia and the United States Army are, obviously, very different organizations, but Burke believes engagement between the institutions can be fruitful. “The Army has a tremendous amount to learn from the academy,” he said, “most especially that war will always involve people and people are dizzyingly complex.” Teachers and students in the humanities know “this better than probably anyone alive.”

Yet his military service helped him see the essential human sameness that cuts through that complexity. As a soldier, Burke said he had “the great good fortune” “of risking my life alongside men whose social, cultural, political, and religious views could not have possibly contrasted more with my own. I would have given my life without a second thought for any one of them. Many of them did so for me.” Those were exceptional circumstances, he admitted, but now as a historian, Burke thinks “a little more of that kind of mutual respect and caring that transcends all the divisions in our society could certainly benefit any and all institutions, the academy very much included.”

For Merkel, working within both institutions and cultures requires shifting her mindset. “When I am here I am a historian; I try and differentiate between historian mode and soldier mode.” She said she does not approach her project from the perspective of a “we” or and “us” “as in the United States,” but rather as a historian. In terms of her professional identity, however, there is no question: “I’m definitely a soldier first.”

–Joshua Tait

Comments are closed.