The Evil That Men Do Lives After Them

12:49 AM 10/25/2006

This is written, even more that many of my other pieces, to provoke thoughts and comments. Please let me know what comments and thoughts you have.

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Palaima: The evil that men do lives after them
Austin American-Statesman Wednesday, October 25, 2006

The ancient Athenians used public dramas, known as tragedies, to look at problems they had to face. These plays were the centerpieces of yearly festivals that all citizens received payment to attend. They could see one another as they watched the performances in a big
open-air theater. They could share their reactions afterward.

In spring 415 BCE, right after the Athenian citizenry had ordered their soldiers to commit genocide, the citizen soldiers of Athens watched “The Trojan Women,” a play about Greeks committing genocide after the fall of Troy. We have no record of what they thought and felt.

Two movies just opened that pose questions we all need to think about. Clint Eastwood’s version of James Bradley’s “Flags of Our Fathers” (2000) recreates the battle of Iwo Jima and how a single action there by simple men was heroized for Americans back home. In
Kevin Macdonald’s version of Giles Foden’s 1998 novel “The Last King of Scotland,” Forest Whitaker portrays Ugandan dictator Idi Amin. We see Amin through the eyes of a simple everyman character, a young Scottish doctor who has come to Africa haphazardly to do humanitarian medical work and accidentally becomes Amin’s personal physician.

I did not use here any adjectives to describe genocide or what American and Axis soldiers did to each other during the Second World War. Movies such as “Saving Private Ryan,” “Schindler’s List” and “Hotel Rwanda” have shown us these things. Film images and descriptive terms such as brutal, hellish, monstrous, barbaric can be multiplied forever. They do no good unless we understand what we are confronting: an old-fashioned thing called evil.

We either use the term evil without thinking or think we shouldn’t use it at all. What did our president accomplish when he called Iraq, Iran and North Korea the “axis of evil”? He trivialized evil.

Compared to the real axis powers two generations ago, the bad things done by these countries are feeble. Just contemplate the magnitude of the crimes against humanity of the 11 major Nuremberg defendants sentenced to be hanged 60 years ago this month.

My University of Texas colleague Philip Bobbitt once wrote to me expressing his understandable disgust for comparisons made between civilian casualties during our war in Vietnam and the number of innocent people who died on 9/11. Yet evil operates on a sliding scale. This is a fact even if we are uncomfortable thinking or talking about it.

In “The War of the World,” historian Niall Ferguson remarks, “The Second World War was the greatest man-made catastrophe of all time.” As for genocide, it took many Germans to build and run an efficient system to murder 6 million Jews and about 3 million human beings from other social and ethnic groups. We know these things. Iran,
Iraq and North Korea are far away. So, comedians use “axis of evil” as a joke, and our laughter isn’t even nervous.

But evil is no joke. According to a contemporary news report, “just mentioning the name Idi Amin” in Uganda in 2002 was “enough to cause fear to both the old and young.” Amin was then nearly 80 years old and had been in exile for 23 years.

Many of us shy away from calling things evil on intellectual grounds. We associate good and evil with categorical religious beliefs. Moreover, looking at war or genocide tarnishes the good guys. Former British foreign office minister David Owen thought it disgraceful that we did not act to remove Amin from power. Owen had proposed assassinating him.

When we debate estimates of Iraqi civilian casualties, we see that war in any form makes even the good side complicit in harming innocents. This knowledge is so disturbing to us that we use the euphemism “collateral damage” to soften its impact.

It is also hard to call people and what they do evil because we are so used to compromising in our daily lives. Compromise, in its good sense of meeting people halfway, is arguably the chief (and now forgotten) art citizens and leaders in a democracy must know and use. But evil is uncompromising.

In Vietnam, My Lai was evil. Of all the soldiers at My Lai on March 16, 1968, few had the uncompromising moral courage of Hugh Thompson. Thompson, who died in January, forcefully intervened to stop his fellow soldiers from massacring old men, women, children, babies. He later explained, “I didn’t want to be part of that. It wasn’t war.”

Others, however, succumbed to a mode of thinking that William Eckhardt, chief military prosecutor of William Calley in the My Lai courts martial, came to know too well: “Evil doesn’t come like Darth Vader dressed in black, hissing. Evil comes as a little bird whispering in your ear. ‘Think about your career. I’m not sure what’s going on. We’ll muddle through.’ ”

If and when you see “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Last King of Scotland,” or read the books on which they were based, contemplate evil, and consider what it means that Calley, after spending three years in house arrest, one month for every 10 villagers he killed, at last report was married and working at a jewelry store in Columbus, Ga.

Palaima is Dickson Centennial professor of classics at the University of Texas.


QUESTION: Do you agree or disagree with the decision of the
military court which found (Lt. William) Calley guilty (in
connection with the My Lai incident) and gave him a life sentence?

Agree 7%

Disagree 78%

No opinion 15%

From a telephone survey of 1,090 adults from across the United
States conducted for President Nixon on April 1, 1971.

QUESTION: Do you think President Nixon should free Lt. William
Calley, substantially reduce his sentence, or uphold his life
imprisonment sentence (in connection with the My Lai incident)?

Free Lt. William Calley 51%

Substantially reduce his sentence 28%
Uphold his life imprisonment sentence 9%

No opinion 12%

From a telephone survey of 973 adults from across the United
States conducted by Opinion Research Corporation for President
Nixon on April 5-6, 1971.

As a matter of honor, troops shouldn’t bend rules of war


Austin American-Statesman Monday, August 13, 2007

My close friend Joel Cryer served in Air Force pararescue in Vietnam. The parajumpers are the only U.S. military unit “specifically organized, trained and equipped to conduct personnel recovery operations in hostile or denied areas as a primary mission.” They train hard to uphold their motto “That Others May Live.” They put their lives on the line every mission. On military matters, I give Joel my full attention.

Last week, Joel called me and said, “Tom, I’m leaving a book on your front porch, ‘Lone Survivor,’ about a Navy SEAL mission in Afghanistan. It is a New York Times bestseller. The author is from East Texas. Read it, but don’t bother to return it. Just throw it out. It is jingoistic, simplistic and there is something not right about its narrative of what happened. It advocates killing civilians. Let me know what you think.”

I read the book and many reviews and blogs about it. I have read interviews with the author, former Petty Officer Marcus Luttrell, including one by Edward Nowotka in the July 29 American-Statesman. I have found only one source, a Christian blog (, that questions Luttrell’s repeated assertion that U.S. military rules of engagement prohibiting firing upon unarmed civilians caused the deaths of the three other SEALs in Operation Redwing.

Luttrell, without historical understanding, blames “liberal politicians in Washington” for the rules of engagement that guide our soldiers in Iraq and elsewhere.

The four SEALs were searching for a Taliban leader. They choppered in and secured a position for observing a Pashtun mountain village. Three goatherds happened upon them. The SEALs faced an awful life-and-death dilemma. Killing these three might preserve the security of the mission. But they had no way of knowing whether the goatherds were pro-Taliban or not.

Luttrell claims that he could tell whether Afghanis were friendly or hostile. He reports that although these goatherds said in English “No Taliban, No Taliban,” their looks were cold and hateful, and they offered no signs of friendship.

Ultimately, Luttrell cast the deciding vote to let them go free. He says the SEALs were afraid of what America’s “liberal media” and the Al-Jazeera network would do if they discovered that four American soldiers had killed three “innocent civilians.” One reviewer declares flatly, “Marcus Luttrell made the wrong

decision. He was thinking like a liberal.”

Later on, after three fellow SEALs have been killed by armed Taliban rebels,

Luttrell is protected and given medical attention by Pashtun villagers. When these Afghanis first approach, he is unsure whether they are friends or enemies. He holds an unpinned grenade as he is carried back to their village, ready to blow himself and them up if they were with the Taliban. He decides they are friendly, when they say, “No Taliban, no Taliban,” the same words he earlier said he heard from the suspicious goatherds. But now he says he is “pretty sure” that the goatherds did not say the same words.

Luttrell’s basic opinion has gained wide support in reviews and commentaries. American soldiers should be given freedom to decide in the field about killing people who look like unarmed civilians. Not doing so in Operation Redwing, in Luttrell’s opinion, cost the lives of three brave SEALs and 16 other Americans in a rescue helicopter that crashed. For Luttrell, even our abuses in Abu Ghraib prison were nothing. Al Qaeda beheads innocent people. Why should we worry about mistreating prisoners?

The Christian blog alone points out that we have no proof that the position of the SEALs was betrayed by the three Pashtun goatherds, or that the mission would have been a success if the SEALs had killed them.

As for Luttrell’s own fallible enemy Geiger counter, imagine three Texan ranchers walking out one morning to look at their cattle. They come upon four Afghani commandos armed with high power weapons. They are forced at gunpoint to sit immobile while the Afghani soldiers discuss in an unintelligible language what to do with them. Hardly the situation for friendly smiles and a warm Texas welcome.

Luttrell is right. War is full of moral ambiguities. But no moral person has the right to do harm to possible innocents to escape death.

This is not a liberal opinion. It is the opinion of an army veteran of three terrible campaigns. His name was Socrates. He died fearlessly in 399 B.C. rather than act against his own rules of engagement, as a soldier and as a human being.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas. Contact:

Palaima: Let’s explore who we are as human beings

Posted: 11:00 p.m. Friday, Dec 23, 2016 Special to the Austin American-Statesman

The end of the fall semester at the University of Texas always slams up against preparations for the holiday season. Since I was raised with deep faith in Roman Catholicism, the season for me, with 65 Christmases behind me, is still one of deep reflection on the message of the political revolutionary named Jesus Christ.

I can still feel how the small brick mission church — established in 1857 — of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary 20 miles south of Cleveland, Ohio, sheltered from the howling, snowy, dark wintry cold the working-class faithful who attended the 6:30 a.m. weekday masses that I served as a grade-school altar boy.

I am sure deep in my bones that Jesus would disagree strongly with the view recently put forward by psychology professor Paul Bloom in the Wall Street Journal that empathy, the capacity to feel and think how others think and feel, “is a moral train wreck. It makes the world worse.”

Bloom’s statement and arguments in support of it are symptomatic of what the world has become and we within it. Empathy is the very foundation of the socially radical message of Jesus in Matthew 12.30-31. Jesus there enunciates the two greatest commandments defining our purpose on this planet. We are to devote our hearts, souls, minds and all our strength to a higher entity and love other human beings who come near to us.

Jesus here blew up the prevailing moral code: “Help your friends and harm your enemies.” The two new commandments instruct us to live in humility, aware of how far we fall short of the virtues that transcend our lives, and in kindness, treating other human beings as we would want to be treated. We are to do both, Jesus says, full throttle.

One step up and two steps back, sings Bruce Springsteen’s persona in his song of the same title. That is mostly what we spend our time doing, if we do aspire to lead our lives in service to a higher calling and focusing empathetically on the good we can do for others.

The publicly proclaimed values of UT, where I have taught for 31 years, are no longer recognizable to me. I recently sent my friend Ronnie Dugger, founding editor of the Texas Observer, an annotated copy of the inaugural address of UT PresidentGregoryRichard Fenves. I marked in red phrases declaring the economic benefits of the university to our society and to individual students who attend the university. My text looks like a bloodbath.

A UT degree now is marketed as a ticket to a lifetime of higher earnings, a passport to consumer paradise. A degree is no longer a credential verifying that its holder has spent four years exploring who we are as human beings; how historically powerful figures in society find it hard to act outside their own self-interests; and why the history of our own country is full of violence and war and brutal forms of hatred. The faint echoes of the optimism of the civil and human rights movements — including gender and sexual orientation — of the Sixties are distorted. Listen. What you will hear is: “Ask not what you can do for others in your country, think of how you can succeed in an unrestrained capitalist economy.”

In my ethics and leadership class this fall, we studied for one class oral histories from the civil rights movement. Bob Zellner described how he went from his native Alabama to Mississippi where a white voter registration activist had been shotgunned to death in broad daylight in the center of town. There were no white witnesses. Two black witnesses came forward. One was shot-gunned to death in his own yard. The other disappeared forever. Zellner describes hanging onto the courthouse railing as whites who attacked the activists tried to carry him off and “disappear” him. He tells us what it was like to have his eye gouged and pulled from its socket.

Students later asked: “That wasn’t true. That was just a made-up story, right?” Some of these same students wrote to me — after viewing a mainstream documentary film focused on what American soldiers went through in Vietnam — “We were taught that we won the Vietnam War and prevented communists from taking over the world.” The one selfish thing that we all should do at the end of the year is look at history and then treat others with love and understanding despite who we are and who they maybe.

Palaima is the Armstrong Professor of Classics at the University of Texas.

Palaima: Are the lessons from Vietnam lost?

By Tom Palaima – Special to the Austin American-Statesman

Posted: 12:00 a.m. Saturday, May 28, 2016

What starts at the University of Texas is supposed to change the world. Last month, a Vietnam War Summit was held at the LBJ Presidential Library on the UT campus. Since then, I have been talking and corresponding with wise friends and colleagues, with veterans, with students, thinking, rethinking, sometimes talking out loud to myself, other times staring into space, trying to make sense of the Vietnam War Summit in moral terms. I cannot.

What takes place at a summit will only change our world according to the terms set and the intentions of the participants involved. We have to ask who is at the table, what they hope to achieve, what they will even permit themselves to accomplish. Let me begin with the truly mournful words of an Australian infantryman among the 23,000 who were killed in five months during the first battle of the Somme in World War I: “For Christ’s sake, write a book on the life of an infantryman. By doing so you will quickly prevent these shocking tragedies.”

This poor, long dead Aussie soldier imagined that honest accounts like E.B. Sledge’s With the Old Breed at Peleliu and Okinawa, a book that literally haunted famed British military historian John Keegan, would, in the words of eminent American war scholar Paul Fussell, be “hard to forget.” We would, thought Fussell, “not easily brush away its troubling revelations.” We would never again send teenage boys—and now girls—off to fight and die in unnecessary wars. We would not escalate disproportionally the wars we fight.

If that Aussie soldier were alive today, he might pin his hopes on summits. What might he be saying about the Vietnam War Summit?

Former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger said he was honored “to participate in a conference which is needed to heal wounds of the debate about Vietnam.” Just read that statement. Kissinger says, “heal wounds of the debate,” as if those are the wounds that matter.

The real wounds are not to the intellectual egos, the public reputations, the historical legacies or even the moral and philosophical beliefs and political positions of those who were involved directly or indirectly in decision-making about the military operation that we call the Vietnam War. The wounds that matter are the physical wounds that killed between 1.2 and 3.2 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians between 1955 and 1975. Over 58,000 American soldiers lost their lives. The wounded Americans and Vietnamese who lived on, many in great suffering, total around 2 million. Those are the incomprehensible numbers that should have resounded when Kissinger declared that mistakes were made. Do we count the nine-year secret war of bombing Laos ‹ 580,000 bombing missions ‹ as one big mistake, or 580,000 little ones?

When Secretary of State John Kerry twittered from the Vietnam War Summit, “If we forget, we cease to learn,” what did he mean? He surely has never forgotten. Why then has he not learned and applied the lesson that drone strikes will not defeat an enemy any more than bombers and phantom jets dropping 7 million tons of bombs on what President Lyndon B. Johnson called “a raggedy-ass, little fourth-rate country?”

Unleashing such military force should require a full Congressional declaration of war, not a Gulf of Tonkin resolution based on a few real or phantom torpedoes. We are now suffering the consequences of the congressionally authorized use of military force (AUMF) in 2002, itself based largely on phantom weapons of mass destruction. Yet, now Kerry argued for an unconstrained AUMF against the Islamic State. Missing from the summit were the consciences of two courageous political leaders whose forthright views got them killed in spring of 1968 on a hotel balcony in Memphis and a hotel kitchen in Los Angeles:

• Robert F. Kennedy, Feb. 8, 1968: “Whatever the outcome of these battles, it is the people we seek to defend who are the greatest losers. Nor does it serve the interests of America to fight this war as if moral standards could be subordinated to immediate necessities.”

• Martin Luther King Jr., April 4, 1967: “All the while the people [of Vietnam] read our leaflets and received the regular promises of peace and democracy and land reform. Now they languish under our bombs and consider us, not their fellow Vietnamese, the real enemy.”

We have forgotten their words of truth and have ceased to learn from them. Our world is not changing.

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas.

What Austin could learn from watching ‘Canine Soldiers’

By Tom Palaima – Regular contributor Posted: 12:00 a.m. Tuesday, Oct. 11, 2016 Austin American-Statesman

Front-page stories continue to trumpet Austin as one of the fastest-growing cities in the country. What does this mean for us, our children and our children’s children beyond pollution, wasted time in traffic and decreasing racial, ethnic and socioeconomic diversity in the city proper?

Alexander Pope, while meditating four centuries ago on who we are as human beings, wrote that “the proper study of mankind is man.” We see ourselves better when we look away from the high-rise mirrors — metaphorical and real — that our capitalist society puts in front of us and look instead at the creatures who share this planet with us.

This planet. Not our planet. Recent scientific thinking among, for example, multispecies ethnographers about how poorly we share the earth with other species confirms the prophetic warning that Bob Dylan sounded 30 years ago in “License to Kill”: “Man thinks ’cause he rules the earth / he can do with it as he please / And if things don’t change soon, he will.” Well, they haven’t. We seem to be enacting Dylan’s punch line: “Man has invented his doom.” And our doomsday behaviors affect other sentient creatures.

Donna Haraway, who studies the interconnections between human beings and dogs, emphasizes our ineluctable bond with nonhuman creatures in her book (available free at ) “When Species Meet”: “If we appreciate the foolishness of human exceptionalism, then we know that becoming is always becoming with — in a contact zone where the outcome, where who is in the world, is at stake.”

From Haraway we learn that humans do not become who we are on our own. All along we have been interacting with microorganisms she calls tiny “messmates” and with other living creatures. Only human arrogance, akin to our myopic pride in a monstrously expanding Austin, keeps us from respecting our interdependence with other creatures.

Fortunately creative storytellers like filmmaker Nancy Schiesari, professor of Radio Television Film at the University of Texas, help us to think, feel and see what we might otherwise miss in the world around us. For four years, Schiesari and her dedicated collaborators have been working on a documentary movie about the heroic military working dogs (MWD) who each on average have saved the lives of 150 American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. It will premiere at the Austin Film Festival on Saturday. It is called “Canine Soldiers.”

The title may sound like sentimental anthropomorphizing. It is not. Watch the film whenever it comes your way. Listen to MWD handler Sgt. Eric Morales speak — or rather, barely speak — through tears about a fallen comrade: “The most honorable trait he had was how he stood by me, even as we were posted so far away from backup. He always had to help. He put his life in my hands and I trusted him with mine. Unfortunately, everything that has a beginning has an end. So rest easy, my buddy. I am proud to have called you my partner.”

Morales’ heartfelt words describe the canine soldier with whom he lived 24/7 during their tour of duty. He is speaking at a funeral. Thirteen states now recognize Canine Veterans Day.

It took me six hours to watch a preview of Schiesari’s 65-minute film, taking it in, pausing, meditating upon what soldiers who worked with these bomb-sniffing dogs had to say about their virtues and about their eventual fates, and getting to know the dogs themselves.

As reported by “National Geographic” in May 2014, we sent around 4,000 military working dogs to Vietnam. There they saved the lives of 10,000 American soldiers. When we left Vietnam, we left these dogs behind — discarded and categorized as now useless equipment.

Nowadays MWD’s are brought back, but not necessarily to happy endings. Some suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. Others understandably mourn for their human handlers who are not redeploying with them.

Schiesari’s film is not heavy-handed, Michael-Moore-like fare. It lets human and canine soldiers express who they are and how they are in our anthropocentric world. They do so through their own actions and interactions and in their own voices. Like her fellow Mississippian William Faulkner, Schiesari lets dogs we have made into soldiers and the soldier handlers who love them tell their own stories.

If we watch and listen, they tell us lots about ourselves. “Canine Soldiers” may prompt new thoughts about our lives in the concrete, metal and glass jungle of Austin and about what kind of friends we have been to man’s best friends.

Palaima is a professor of classics at the University of Texas.

There was this, by coincidence, in the NY Times: Learning From Dogs as They Sniff Out Their World By JAN HOFFMAN. OCT. 10, 2016

The Forever War on Terror and Thanking Our Veterans

Palaima: This season, put ourselves in the shoes of others
6:00 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014 | Print December 25, 2014

Story Highlights:
—Dr. Ronald Glasser’s classic book “365 Days” is distilled from his service as a surgeon during the Vietnam War.
—Palaima: We do not know how to see veterans as individuals, often with deep personal wounds.

Palaima: This season, put ourselves in the shoes of others
Posted: 6:00 p.m. Wednesday, Dec. 24, 2014

By Tom Palaima – Special to the American-Statesman

There are 365 days in our non-leaping years. Let us hope we have spent our days in 2014 well, because we are never getting them back.

In the days from Thanksgiving through the seasons of Hanukkah-Christmas-Kwanzaa, we naturally focus on our own families. But a discussion I have been having with someone to whom 365 days were so meaningful that he wrote a book of that title, published way back in 1971, invites us to think about others in a broader sense.

His name is Dr. Ronald J. Glasser. His classic book “365 Days” is distilled from his service as a surgeon to the most critically wounded soldiers during the Vietnam War. “365 Days” should be read and reread alongside other books containing the truths about war by those who have experienced war firsthand. But there is more to be done than reading and developing the classic feelings of sympathy and fear.

Dr. Glasser recommended to me Phil Klay’s “Redeployment,” about Iraq, being there and coming back. I read it.

He then told me that it and other books written by and about soldiers and veterans of our prolonged military operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, no matter how powerful, felt to him like “individual efforts unconnected to anything else,” more or less about “our French Foreign Legion rather than our country,” where the things that happen are “all just kind of individual bad luck.”

This put into words some of my own feelings about how we have been invited to look at our ongoing “war on terror,” our “forever war,” to use the title of Dexter Filkins’ Pulitzer-Prize-winning book on the subject. When do we question publicly or privately whether we should support the loss of American and non-American lives in distant lands?

In “Redeployment,” a veteran meets up with a chaplain he knew over in Iraq. He is still seeking, almost unknowingly, help for his anger, sorrow, guilt and moral confusion. The chaplain points to the small cross on his collar, calls the cross on which Jesus died “a torture device” and declares that Jesus “only promised that we don’t suffer alone,” so long as we believe in Him. What the chaplain’s words imply about the isolation from all of us felt by many soldiers and veterans every single day is almost too terrible to contemplate.

Ron’s words made me hear again the invocation before a Texas A&M football game in College Station in November. We, over 100,000 strong, were invited to pray in thanks for the men and women “defending our country every day in foreign lands.” We were not invited to pray for peace or to ask God that our leaders might find a better way to use the lives of all those men and women for the good of our society and the world.

I have other new words to ponder, spoken by a new friend, Joseph A. Costello. Costello is 33 years old, the age scholars hypothesize Jesus was when he was tortured and died upon the cross. Joseph served in the U.S. Army in Iraq during the early phases of Operation Iraqi Freedom. He is finishing a master’s in information science at the University of Texas at Austin as a prelude to doing graduate studies, he hopes, in social work. His goal is “to work with traumatized populations to help alleviate burdens of trauma related to issues such as combat experience.”

Joseph told me that, like many veterans, he has had trouble processing the guilt and shame about what we are doing with our soldiers and contractors in the Middle East. He finds it especially troubling when as a veteran he is thanked for his service by people who do not know, or even seem to want to know, what effects the chaos and violence and amorality and senselessness of fighting a “war on terror” have on the men and women who are doing the fighting and on the men, women and children in foreign countries who are in the way of our shocking and awful military power.

We do not know how to see veterans as individuals, often with deep personal wounds. We take the easy way out. We thank them all and ask God to bless them and us.

Let us all resolve to look at and think about war, soldiers and veterans and our own relatively peaceful lives differently on each of the 365 days we are given in the year ahead.

Tom Palaima is Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics at the University of Texas.

Longhorn Football: Hubris, Counterfactual History and Mythological Lessons


Longhorn football could learn a thing or two from Greek myth

The Daily Texan Published on-line September 18, 2013 Print edition September 19, 2013

By Tom Palaima

In my many years of teaching ancient mythology, I have absorbed, as I hope my students have, the important lessons about life that the original myth-makers embedded in their stories.

One lesson is to be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it. A variant is to make sure you follow through on your side of whatever bargain you strike. A third is not to get too big for your britches — the Greeks called this hubris.

The immortal and ageless goddess Dawn falls in love with a handsome prince of Troy named Tithonus. She steals him away and asks Zeus to make him immortal. Zeus asks her, “Do you want anything else?” She says no.

Zeus makes Tithonus deathless, but not ageless. He grows older and older, shrivels up and finally turns into a chirping cicada—not what Dawn had in mind.

A similar fate befalls the Cumaean Sibyl. According to Ovid, Apollo loves the Sibyl so much that he offers to grant her one wish if she will make love with him. She asks to live as many years as the grains of sand she holds. When she later refuses to give up her virginity, Apollo gives her long life, but lets her, too, grow old.

Counterfactual history, like Winston Churchill’s famous 1931 essay “If Lee Had Not Won the Battle of Gettysburg,” focuses on key moments and their consequences by wondering “What if?” What if Dawn had thought through her request? What if the Sibyl had followed through on her promise?

Given the major distraction that the poor performance of the Longhorns football team has become lately at our university, it is worth posing a big counterfactual historical question. What if Vince Young had not scored the winning touchdown with nineteen seconds left in the 2006 Rose Bowl, considered by ESPN the fifth greatest play in the history of NCAA football?

The touchdown won the national title for the UT Longhorns, just weeks after William C. Powers, then dean of the UT Law School and long a sports enthusiast, was officially named the 28th president of UT Austin.

Winning the national championship was for head coach Mack Brown the NCAA sports equivalent of being head of a team of researchers awarded the Nobel Prize. As national champions, the football program brought in a bonanza in revenues from marketing souvenirs and our UT trademark.

The chief financial officer of the self-operating UT athletics program Ed Gobles has proclaimed, “We eat what we kill.” Translation: whatever monies athletics raises, it spends. Athletics director DeLoss Dodds has crowed, “We are the Joneses.”

The die was cast. From the Vince Young Rose Bowl onward, there has been no restraining athletics. Hubris has prevailed.

Stadium expansions, large salary increases coaches — not only in football, and a $1 million annuity for the athletics director were approved by the cronies within the UT sports silo, the regents who attend football games in the president’s skybox or their own, and the wealthy donors who, according to a local sportswriter, really decide whether head coaches are hired and fired.

The sense was that we would win another national title.

And we almost did. The Longhorns lost to Alabama 37-21 in the national title game following the 2009 season. Trouble was, right before that loss, Mack Brown was given, over the strong protest of a core of faculty leaders, a $2-million raise. That set in motion the decamping of his heir apparent Will Muschamp.

Without Muschamp’s defensive coaching genius, the Longhorns fortunes have faded. Talk now is of winning Big XII titles. But this hope is almost counterfactual, given that teams coached by Mack Brown have only been Big XII champions twice in his fifteen years at UT (2005 and 2009).

One more counterfactual thought. If UT had lost the 2006 Rose Bowl, perhaps Vince Young would have played another year of college football, reined in his hubris about his own abilities, and faced the transition to the fame and fortune of professional football with more maturity.

One positive fact: Young has now earned his degree in Youth and Community Studies and has a loving wife and child. He can do some real good in the world before old age overtakes him, as it overtook Tithonus, and overtakes us all, even our greatest athletes.

Palaima is the Armstrong Centennial Professor of Classics. 

Austin American-Statesman 09/13/2013 Palaima: If Mack Brown Were On the Tenure Track


Palaima: If Mack Brown were on the tenure track

Austin American-Statesman Posted: 12:55 p.m. Thursday, Sept. 12, 2013  Print Edition September 13, 2013

By Tom Palaima – Regular Contributor

The big questions in Austin right now are what grade do we give Mack Brown for his performance as head coach of the University of Texas football team, and who gives him his grade?

Sportswriters are giving out C’s, D’ and F’s for play on the field. Here let me propose that it would be much better if decisions about coaches, expenditures, admissions and academic standards were made with a wider range of voices, perspectives and values.

Athletics decision-making has long operated in a silo. Regents, a sports-enthusiast president, other insiders and a few carefully chosen and easily outvoted outsiders decide on hiring and firing and set spending priorities in a self-operating sports enterprise.

What if decision-making in athletics at UT was modeled on the university’s system for promotion and tenure ? The promotion and tenure system obtains broad perspectives from inside and outside the university. It involves the tenured faculty and university administration at many levels of authority. It virtually eliminates decisions based on cronyism, except at the highest levels, where such decisions are at least transparent. It allows at every stage for fact-finding and debate.

Before you say it just can’t work, hear me out. And imagine your own analogies to UT big-time sports.

Assistant professors apply for tenure and promotion generally in their sixth active year at the university. During their first five years, committees and chairpersons or directors within their units have assessed their annual reports and given them specific advice on how to improve in the year ahead.

In the promotion and tenure year, full dossiers relating to research, teaching and service are compiled and closely reviewed. Five or more evaluations of research are sought from distinguished scholars worldwide, chosen to be knowledgeable about a candidate’s areas of specialization but unbiased. Long gone are the days, for the most part, of the good-old-boy system, when going to the finest schools and knowing the right people assured tenure.

Chairpersons or directors and committees of tenured professors judge each case separately within units. Everyone knows the stakes are high for the candidates and for the future of their units. Budgets are tight. Investing in the right person is crucial.

The two departmental decisions are scrutinized by a college-wide committee of professors and by the dean within each college. Their two college-level decisions then go to the provost and president. Not much gets missed or overlooked, but appeal safeguards are in place in case the process is flawed.

We complain about decision-making by large committees. Yet UT has made real progress every 25 years because of broad-based committees like the Commission of 125. In the promotion and tenure process, stacking committees upon committees and including the independent opinions of chairpersons, program directors and deans really does work.

It was recently reported to professors that the prevailing philosophy in the provost’s and president’s offices is that UT is not in the business of awarding tenure and promotion to B+ professors. We were also told that research productivity is the bottom line. Mentoring, advising, award-winning teaching, university, professional and community service won’t get assistant professors tenure if they have not gotten an A in research now and for the predictable future.

These are hard standards. I have seen them used. The assistant professors who received the Texas Exes Jean Holloway Teaching Award the year before and after I received it in 2004 were denied tenure. One was a brilliant linguist in Germanic Studies, the other a government professor.

Imagine a similar process and standards applied to Mack Brown. We would discount academic matters like six-year graduation rates of players and the heavy use of tutors. We would discount as outreach service his fundraising and recruiting skills and Longhorn Network appearances. The bottom line would be productivity on game days.

What grade would a broad-based system of evaluators outside the sports silo give a coach who recruits A+ athletes and coaches them in A++ facilities to play against mostly B and lower-grade teams? He chooses his own assistants who are paid A+ salaries.

Right now the problem is defense. But in 2008, 2009, 2010 under Will Muschamp, then-anointed successor to Brown, the Longhorns had the top defense in the Big 12.

The silo did not offer tenure to A+ Muschamp. Instead, they gave a $2 million raise to Brown, who has only coached two teams in his entire career to conference titles.

Would a promotion and tenure-style committee make and stand by the same decision?

Palaima is a classics professor at the University of Texas at Austin.