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Values and Action

Swarthmore, the Military, War, and Me

When I arrived at Swarthmore in fall 1976, I was unaware of an existing connection with the College, one that began years before I was born. According to family lore, my parents’ first date included a production of South Pacific. Regardless, my siblings and I were raised in the spirit of “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” never learning “ … to hate all the people your relatives hate.” Only later did I discover the links between South Pacific, James Michener ’29, and Swarthmore. I eventually learned that Michener and Rodgers and Hammerstein considered the song to be “the guts of the show.” I do not know whether Michener’s anti-prejudice value was learned or strengthened at Swarthmore. Nonetheless, I was learning Swarthmore values for years, even though I didn’t hear of Swarthmore until I was 16.

Rather presumptuously, I see parallels between Michener and myself. I am not the talented writer he was, but we both entered the Navy Reserves far later than most, he at 34 and I at 36. I also gather we shared an ambivalence about the moral use of military power and war.

Swarthmore taught me to consider complex questions and understand that questions may have straightforward answers although rarely simple or facile ones. Straightforward answers reflect moral clarity. Simple or facile ones are indicative of intellectual laziness or demagoguery. I learned that morality and power are not mutually exclusive, although Lord Acton’s oft-misquoted caution, “Power tends to corrupt ... ” remains valid. His point is frequently lost in our current age, which delights in cynicism (although the Cynics were quite different from our modern claimants to that title).

Simply put, Swarthmore taught me that truth, justice, and the American Way were real and good things, despite their association with both a cartoon and generations of power-hungry politicians. At Swarthmore, my professors and fellow students encouraged me to love my country—despite its failings—for what it could be and what it aspired to be. Though patriotism is a terribly unfashionable word, I must say that what I learned encouraged me to be a patriot—loving my country for what it can be and seeking to correct its failings.

Patriotism drove my decision to serve the country that gave me so much. In my nearly 20 years in the military, I have never fired a weapon except on a practice range. I have served in uniform at the Pentagon (1998–2002), in Bahrain (2003–2004), at the Office of Naval Intelligence (2005), and two tours in Afghanistan and the United States as part of the Afghanistan/Pakistan Hands program (2010–2015). As a civilian, I have worked in the U.S. and Iraq, supporting counterinsurgency and anti-terrorist finance efforts. I am certain that at least some of my intelligence analyses supporting conflicts in Iraq, Somalia, Afghanistan, and North Africa led to people’s deaths. This is not an easy thing to contemplate, nor should it be. 

I make constant use of Swarthmore-instilled values, making sure my analysis is as correct as it possibly can be. Errors in my line of work carry a price that is far too dear and can result not only in guilty parties eluding pursuit but (far worse) in the deaths of the wrong people—including U.S. military or allied personnel. Oscar Wilde observed, “The truth is rarely pure and never simple”—this describes the reality of my daily work. Ultimately, my job is to explain to senior U.S. and allied leadership the complexities of conflicts. Part of explaining these complexities involves identifying appropriate targets—this forms much of my reality. Swarthmore prepared me for that.  


Gregg Davis ’80, a senior chief intelligence specialist for the U.S. Navy, earned his B.A. in history.