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Dr. Alan Whitehorn: Education and the Military in a Revolutionary Era

Alan Whitehorn is a professor emeritus of political science at the Royal Military College of Canada and is an Armenian-Canadian poet. Originally published in the online newspaper 168.am Yerevan, Armenia on January 14, 2021, and reprinted with his permission. An earlier version of this article was originally published as “Gay academic, leftist intellectual helped win the war”, Kingston Whig Standard, December 11, 1999.

Article by Dr. Alan Whitehorn

In recent discussions with military colleagues from Canada, Europe and Armenia, we have often spoken of the need for reform of military education in a revolutionary and hopefully more democratic era. What is required overall? What disciplines and topics should be taught? What are the necessary and best steps forward?

As I reflect on human nature and modern warfare, I think about individual acts of bravery by individual young army privates or the great vision of a brilliant general commanding legions of tanks and artillery. I also reflect on the shell-shocked troops in the trenches of World War I or the armchair generals pushing bureaucratic forms in quadruplicate.

What is it that can produce such bravery and imagination or conversely fear and inertia? What, if any, is the role of education in fostering one or the other? What sort of training did we provide in the past? What sort of education will be needed for the future? What is the relationship of the military to the civilian population? As I contemplate these and other questions, I look back to discern some lessons from the Second World War.

Amid all of the heroic and not so heroic acts by soldiers and officers that may have determined the outcome of a particular skirmish, battle or even an important aspect of the War, I am left wondering how well we know our own military history.

When we ask who were the most influential figures in determining the outcome of World War II, who do we name? Is it an American general such as Patton or Eisenhower? Is it the British field marshal Montgomery or his German rival Rommel? Is it a western politician such as Churchill or Roosevelt or even Truman who made the fateful decision to drop the first atomic bomb on Japan? Or is it any of these? Perhaps, it was the aggressive and ruthlessly expansionist Nazi leader Adolf Hitler who launched the war with his invasion of Poland. Another possibility was the communist Soviet despot Josef Stalin or one of his generals, such as Marshal Zhukov who commanded the forces in Eastern Europe from the Baltic Sea in the north to the Black Sea and Caucasus in the south. It might be a political or military figure from Asia such as the Emperor of Japan or Chiang Kai-shek, the President of China, or even Mao Zedong/Mao Tse-tung, his revolutionary communist rival.

In the end, as important as these figures were, the choice may not be any of these. In the final analysis, the unknown soldier, the faceless government war planner, the charismatic general or powerful political leader may pale compared to two individuals – both civilians. One was at the time a relatively unknown mathematician, while the other was a prominent physicist.

Alan Turing (1912-1954) was a young British academic who was fascinated by numbers and their computational qualities. He devised a technique for processing enormous sums of calculations involving complex arrays of variables and combinations. In his quest to assist humans with such massive amounts of mathematical calculations, he constructed machines – computers – that were able to decipher the hidden codes of the ultra-secret German “Enigma” machines.  Churchill and other Allied leaders made great use of the information provided by the computer “Colossus” and the code breakers at Bletchley Park in England during World War Two. Tragically, after the Allied victory, Alan Turing was hounded for his homosexuality and he chose suicide rather than endure prison for his sexual behavior, which at the time was a “crime” in the United Kingdom.

The other intellectual greatly influencing the war’s outcome was a young American physicist – Robert Oppenheimer (1904-1967). In a rapidly constructed, hidden enclave at Los Alamos, New Mexico, he brought together a remarkably cosmopolitan and able team of scientists in the top secret Manhattan Project. Eventually, they achieved a technological breakthrough and unleashed upon the world the most destructive weapon of the war – the atomic bomb. One mammoth bomb was dropped on Hiroshima and another on Nagasaki in August of 1945. Within a few days, the Japanese surrendered. Oppenheimer and his team of dedicated scientists were heralded as heroes who had shortened the war, albeit with a grim cost of a multitude of civilians dead and sick from burns and radiation poisoning.

As the war ended in the Pacific, a new Cold War emerged among the former allies, and the political activities and friends of a young leftist academic during the 1930s Depression came back to haunt Oppenheimer, the top civilian co-ordinator of America’s greatest secret war operations.  Soon he was under investigation and eventually denied security clearance in his research and teaching field.

There are many military lessons from the Second World War. One is the importance of civilian intellectuals and academics in an advanced technological age. Turing and his computing machines provided remarkable insights into the military intentions, actions and deployments of a powerful enemy, while Oppenheimer provided the intellectual and organizational know-how to construct a weapon of mass destruction and end the war swiftly.

Both these civilian academics helped usher in a new age – the era of nuclear weapons and computers. The outcome of the war was greatly altered by their efforts, as was the peace. Because of their discoveries, we shall never be the same.

Alan Turing, a gay academic, and Robert Oppenheimer, a leftist intellectual helped win the war. But how well did they guarantee the peace? Do we remember them and their great deeds?  Do we discern the crucial lesson of the importance of higher education in both war and peace?  And in our computerized, thermonuclear age, do we recall the ethical concerns expressed about their Faustian creations?

The enormity of the impact was profoundly felt by the physicist Robert Oppenheimer. Standing at the New Mexico experimental desert test site, he witnessed the newly-formed and rapidly-rising massive mushroom cloud that heralded the birth of the nuclear age and thought of a passage from the Bhagavadgita, the sacred Hindu text:

“I am become Death, the shatterer of worlds.”