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The Historian Who Denounced the Military for "Baby-Killing" Tactics

Breaking News (11-17-02): Saint Xavier University has announced that Mr. Kirstein has been suspended from teaching for the remainder of the semester. He has been officially reprimanded. In the spring semester, while on sabbatical, his scholarship and record will be subjected to peer review. In addition:"Any future faculty contract(s) extended to Professor Kirstein will include a binding addendum specifically requiring him to adhere both to institutional policies and to the norms of the American Association of University Professors in matters relating to the proper exercise of academic freedom and extramural activities." Click here for more details.

Last month HNN'S HISTORY GRAPEVINE reported that Saint Xavier University historian Peter Kirstein has encouraged members of the United States armed forces to disobey orders should President Bush order an invasion of Iraq. Since then the professor has become embroiled in another controversy which has led to calls for his resignation or firing.

L'Affaire Kirstein began in late October when a student at the Air Force Academy, writing by email, asked Kirstein to help advertise an upcoming annual academic forum on international relations. This is the letter the student wrote:

Dear Sir or Ma’am

The Air Force Academy is going to be having our annual Academy Assembly. This is a forum for mainly but not only Political Science majors, discussing very important issues dealing with politics.

Right now we are in the planning stage for advertising and we would appreciate your help in the follow [sic] areas. Do you know of or have methods or ways for interschool advertising and or communications? What would be the best way for us to advertise at your school whether it is sending you the fliers and you making copies or by perhaps putting an advertisement in your local publication? We would appreciate your input and the cost of what your recommend. Thank you for your time and consideration.

Very Respectfully,

Cadet Robert Kurpiel

In response, Professor Kirstein, who teaches U.S. history, sent the following email:

From: Peter Kirstein
Sent: Thursday, October 31, 2002 1:46 PM
To: Kurpiel Robert C4C CS26

Subject: Re: Academy Assembly

You are a disgrace to this country and I am furious you would even think I would support you and your aggressive baby killing tactics of collateral damage. Help you recruit. Who, top guns to reign death and destruction upon nonwhite peoples throughout the world? Are you serious sir? Resign your commission and serve your country with honour [sic].

No war, no air force cowards who bomb countries without AAA, without possibility of retaliation. You are worse than the snipers. You are imperialists who are turning the whole damn world against us. September 11 can be blamed in part for what you and your cohorts have done to Palestinians, the VC, the Serbs, a retreating army at Basra.

You are unworthy of my support.

Peter N. Kirstein
Professor of History
Saint Xavier University.

A firestorm erupted at the Air Force Academy when Kirstein's email surfaced and began circulating on the Internet. Complaints soon reached the president of Saint Xavier, Richard Yanikoski. Within days of the initial exchange of emails Yanikoski announced that Kirstein had apologized for his "intemperate, angry words." Subsequently, the director of the Air Force Academy's forum issued the following statement:

November 4, 2002

Ladies and Gentlemen,
There has been considerable attention given to an e-mail received by a Fourth Class Cadet here at the United States Air Force Academy from Professor Peter N. Kirstein of Saint Xavier University. Dr Kirstein's e-mail was a response to an e-mail he had received concerning the Academy Assembly. The Academy Assembly is a forum to promote academic discussion of important issues of our day and to allow the student delegates from all over the North America to draft a report that is widely disseminated. This year our theme is America's Challenges in an Unstable World: Balancing Security with Liberty. I am pleased to say that a "cyber-episode" that started poorly has evolved into a more professional and academic discussion. Please find below a letter of apology from Dr Kirstein which I received this morning, accompanied by a phone call. I have drafted this message in response to his correspondence and with an advance copy to Dr. Kirstein.

On behalf of the Academy Assembly I accept this apology in the same sincere manner in which it was given. Furthermore, I would like to offer my own apology to Dr Kirstein for the way his original message, which was intended as private communication, was spread throughout the Air Force Academy and beyond. Since that e-mail was forwarded with such great vigor to many individuals both within and outside the Air Force Acadmey [sic] I would ask that you, the reader of this letter, please forward this e-mail to anyone to whom you sent the original message.

Two results of this are obvious and I want to share them with you. The first is that through well considered words and messages a situation that was initally [sic] highly inflammatory has become one in which diverse ideas can be compared and discussed; this is the essence of the Academy Assembly. Second, though emotions have run understandibly [sic] high throughout the USAFA Cadet Wing in response to this e-mail, replies to this e-mail from our cadets have been, almost without exception, marked by great maturity and professionalism. I was presented nearly forty proposed responses to the the original e-mail from cadets, but the one that best encapsulates the opinion of the cadet wing is a quote from their book, Contrails, which serves as not only a statement for others, but an admonition for themselves.

"It is the soldier, not the reporter who has given us the freedom of the press. It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us the freedom of speech. It is the soldier, not the campus organizer, who gives us the freedom to demonstrate. It is the soldier who salutes the flag, who serves beneath the flag, and whose coffin is draped by the flag, who allows the protester to burn the flag." ~Father Dennis Edward O'Brien, Sergeant, USMC

I would dare to add one thought to the above quote; that we in the military, as servants of the public, must carefully guard and cherish our relationship with the civilian community. We must always remain open and responsive to legitimate criticism that is presented in a spirit of willingness to improve the forces that guard our country and make them an institution that all Americans can take pride in. I am pleased to say that this discussion, of which many of you only saw the first portion, has moved towards that high plain.

Respectfully yours,

Captain Jim Borders, USAFA
Director, Academy Assembly
Instructor, Political Science

Kirstein reproduces the captain's letter on his own website, to which he has attached the following statement of apology:

Dear Captain Borders,

I have expressed to Cadet Kurpiel my regrets over what I communicated to him in my e-mail. I did not mean to impugn his character. I am sure he is of the highest character. I should have written him in a more thoughtful and contemplative manner. As one who believes in non-violence and the avoidance of conflict, I could have been more circumspect and creative in my communication with him.

Cadet Kurpiel has sent me several generous, thoughtful and impressive e-mails. He has also expressed "apologies" for the unwarranted national distribution of a private e-mail correspondence which has caused me and others to receive 100s of e-mail messages. I hope this update on my response and the cadet's kind communication will serve to inform the public that this issue has been resolved with dignity and honour between myself and Cadet Kurpiel.

I remain respectfully yours,

Peter N. Kirstein
Professor of History
Saint Xavier University

Although Professor Kirstein's apology may have mollified Captain Borders, others remain upset, as is evident from the comments people have sent to the president of Saint Xavier University, who posted them on the university website along with his own responses:

Here is a brief summary of what I have heard so far, and my responses.


- "Prof. Peter Kirstein's initial email to a cadet at the Air Force Academy was tasteless, unprovoked, rude, unprofessional, and indefensible." I agree completely.

- "Prof. Kirstein's apologies seem less than genuine to some who have read his remarks." It always is difficult to look into a man's soul, but I believe Dr. Kirstein's apologies to be genuine. However, apologies are insufficient by themselves. Fortunately, the cadet has graciously accepted Prof. Kirstein's apology, as have others at the Academy, and conversation now is proceeding in a courteous, professional manner.

- "The forthcoming Academic Assembly at the Academy is an event worth supporting. It's a shame that Saint Xavier's response was so negative." Prof. Kirstein did not speak for the University in his first response. Saint Xavier University intends to identify and support one or more students who will attend the Assembly.

- "Prof. Kirstein has spoiled the reputation of the University, particularly if his views or the manner in which he expressed them are reflective of the University's attitude." Prof. Kirstein's views are solely his own and do not reflect the University in substance or tone. Saint Xavier University stands for reasoned discourse and educational practices based on "respect, caring, and justice." Prof. Kirstein's email to the cadet reflected none of these attributes. Crude language is not and will not be tolerated.

- "Prof. Kirstein should be summarily fired." As president, I am exploring all options for ensuring that such behavior never again occurs. While I understand why many request his immediate dismissal, I have to weigh very carefully matters of due process, academic protocol, legal precedent, and the greater good. I assure you that I will do what is right in this matter. I also will follow the University's policy of not discussing personnel matters with third parties.

"Academic freedom is not a legitimate defense for the kind of language used by Prof. Kirstein." I agree. Academic freedom is about the right to search for truth, the right to hold views at odds with the majority, and the right to teach unencumbered by rigid orthodoxies. It does not justify hate speech, vile language, etc. Professors here and elsewhere are expected to be respectful at all times, to engage in genuine, reasoned discourse about controversial matters, and to distinguish personal views from institutional positions when necessary for the sake of clarity. Thus, Prof. Kirstein is free to hold views critical of the military if he wishes to do so, but he is not free to issue demeaning, degrading statements AS A PROFESSOR in or outside of the classroom. In other respects, he enjoys the same freedoms of speech extended to all citizens.

I deeply regret the hurt that has affected so many. As both president and former USAF, I offer my most sincere apologies to all in the military and beyond whose sacrifices and intentions have been denigrated by Prof. Kirstein's words. I ask for your understanding as we attempt to rectify this unexpected situation. Please know that the University is taking this matter very seriously and will do its best to bring the matter to a proper close. You have been heard! My goal is to seek a just solution, a practical response, and a lasting form of resolution that will uphold the integrity of both the university and the military.

To those who are current or former members of the military, I offer my heart-felt gratitude for your service to the nation and I extend my personal best wishes on the occasion of Veterans Day.

Sincerely and respectfully yours,

Dr. Richard Yanikoski, President Saint Xavier University

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