I’m a colonel in the U.S. Army, and next summer I will retire to teach high school social studies. My friends think I’m crazy, and they may have a point.
Colonel is the last rank before general’s stars, and it comes with significant perks. My pay is triple the national average teacher’s salary. Military budgets have doubled over the past decade, while school districts have slashed funding, increased class sizes, cut programs and laid off teachers. The social status accorded to the military is wonderful, while teachers are routinely pilloried by politicians and pundits for student outcomes that are often driven by events and conditions far beyond the schoolhouse door.
My friends express these concerns reluctantly; they may hold teaching in low regard but don’t want to be seen as holding it in low regard. More important, they remind me, I’m not just any soldier. Casting aside false modesty (the only kind we colonels know), I admit that my military career has followed an unusual path. Over the past decade, I’ve written articles and given speeches on the failure of senior officers to adapt to the challenges of irregular warfare. I’ve advocated reforming the military’s seniority-based personnel system to reward moral courage and intellectual rigor. My best-known article, “A Failure in Generalship,” appeared in 2007 and caused the Army to rethink the way it educates its generals. My work on warfare and leadership has been cited by political leaders and included in the curricula of military academies and war colleges.
My friends and colleagues assumed that I had a bright future in the Army, or else a lucrative new career as a defense contractor or consultant. They expected that, at age 45, I would do something more with the second half of my professional life. Not just different, but more — meaning that teaching isn’t very much, or at least not as much as I could do.
So why teach? For me, the answer lies in two moments. The first has occurred a half-dozen times over the past five years in conversations with four-star generals and politicians. Behind closed doors in Washington, there is widespread recognition that while our troops are remarkable, the great majority of our generals are not. In private meetings with senior leaders, I explain how parochialism, ambition and greed have corrupted our national security apparatus. Bad advice and bad decisions are not accidents, but the results of a system that rewards bad behavior.
When I finish, I see a glimmer of recognition in their faces, a sense that the problems I’ve described are real but not intractable. They ask a question, and then interrupt my answer with another, and another after that: We’re better than this, aren’t we? But soon the glimmer fades, and the eyes shift downward, as if to calculate the odds and costs of reforming an entrenched bureaucracy. The voices go flat and the faces impassive.
The second moment is the polar opposite. Unbeknownst to all but my closest friends, my great passion is not military reform but youth baseball. I’ve coached since my 18-year-old son was old enough to hold a bat, and at all ages from preschool to high school. Every spring, I tell each kid to have fun, hustle every play, get better every day and be a good teammate. Every batting practice, I give the same tips — hands back, knees bent, level swing, eye on the ball.
Every season, there is at least one kid who just doesn’t get it, who is embarrassed about not getting it, who leaves practice on the verge of tears, determined never to pick up a baseball again. Every season, I work with that kid one on one, before and after practice, on Sunday afternoons, anytime when other kids aren’t looking and there’s no reason to be embarrassed. After about the third practice, I see in that kid a glimmer of recognition, a sense that he or she is getting it, can do it and doesn’t have to be embarrassed.
There is no calculation of odds or costs, only a sense of expanding possibilities. The glimmer grows each day — if I can hit a ball, what else can I do? It spreads — if one of us can get better, why can’t we all? This moment becomes a series of moments, experienced individually and as part of a larger whole.
Spring turns into summer, and this series of moments becomes a set of habits. These habits — a passion for excellence, a willingness to work, a commitment to others — are more about character than baseball. Shaped carefully, they cement the foundation of a young person’s character.
Weighing these two moments, and alternative futures filled with many more like them, my new career choice became as obvious to me as it was perplexing to my friends. I will leave the Army two years too early to retire with the benefits of a full colonel, but just in time to start teaching next fall. Though I lack an education degree or experience as a student teacher, the Troops to Teachers program helped me complete the requirements for certification as a non-traditional teacher, an apt description of me if ever there was one.
Another high school teacher, Aristotle, believed that people form communities not just to preserve life but to pursue the good life. The iconic, life-preserving figures of the post-9/11 era — soldiers, police officers, firefighters — certainly deserve the adulation they receive. However, security is merely instrumental; peace and freedom make a good life possible but not inevitable. Especially in a democracy, we ought to respect most those who foster the character traits that make self-government attainable — parents and teachers, coaches and ministers, poets and protesters. When I hear the Army motto, “This We’ll Defend,” it’s them I have in mind.
I’ve served five combat tours in Desert Storm, the Balkans and Iraq, and I’ve had cause to reflect on what it means to live well. It has little to do with money or social status or proximity to power. Instead, amid the clamor of a youth baseball practice, I’m part of a conversation on character that echoes in eternity. The opportunity to engage in that conversation more often is why I want to teach.
Paul Yingling is a colonel in the U.S. Army and a professor of security studies at the George C. Marshall European Center for Security Studies. The views expressed are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Marshall Center or the Department of Defense.
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