Sunday, May 1, 2011

Asymmetric Lessons in Annapolis

Imagine a band of scruffy oddballs, obsessed with interpreting ancient texts challenging the most powerful fighting force in the world today and defeating it – time and again!

No, this is not the story of al-Qaeda and the thankfully late OBL – this is a good-natured tale. My alma mater St. John’s College defeated the U.S. Naval Academy in croquet yet again!

The story goes that back in the early 1980s when the commandant of the Naval Academy told a St. John’s freshman that the Middies would prevail over the Johnnies at any sport. The quick-witted Johnny replied, “What about croquet?”

So a tradition began.

Having two such different schools next to each other makes for easy allegories (Athens and Sparta is the obvious – although I always wondered if they were as different as they are caricatured, after all the males citizens of Athens were citizen-soldiers...)

But overall, relations were cordial and we had several Naval Officers in our classes earning their Master’s degrees to provide some perspective.

Perhaps we convinced ourselves that reading Great Books was the higher calling, unlike the mere technocrats across the street. I don’t know what the Middies thought of us, if at all. I can’t imagine they thought about much of anything since they were always running. No matter how late I stayed out at Little Campus (no longer with us) and then Chick and Ruth’s discussing Aristotle and Lucretius, there was always a Middie running by. But when you caught their eye and said hello they were always polite enough, but they usually had to get back to running.

But we read Thucydides and Homer and Hobbes, we had some idea of what they were up to and why it mattered. We knew that our search for the essential was a luxury (liberal arts relies on the word liberty – and freedom ain’t free.) As Orwell wrote
Men sleep peacefully in their beds at night because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf.
It would be nice to think that the Middies next door saw our studies as a testament to what they were defending, and maybe that is the deep symbolism between having the two schools next to each other.

Perhaps the Croquet match serves the Middies, humbling them and reminding them of the danger of asymmetric threats. Or maybe it is just a good time.

But the Imperial Wicket reports that the Middies are getting better – the Johnnies too must remember that they are mortal.

A fitting thought as an evil scruffy oddball bites the dust at the hands of the United States. Herodotus said there is no justice – but sometimes there is.

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