War Eagle, y’all! (pronounced WerrrEAGle, y’all)
I must have heard it a thousand times last week at Auburn University’s Camp War Eagle, which I attended with my son. Every speaker started and ended their talks with “War Eagle”. (Actually not everyone added the “y’all”, but it was common enough to be rote. There was a shop on the strip off-campus where t-shirts extorting the values of the “y’all” lifestyle were for sale. Ugh.) Nobody knows what, exactly a War Eagle, is, nor even what it means, but somehow it became the rallying cry for Auburn’s athletic, particularly football and basketball, teams.
The phrase has mythological origins, not surprisingly dating back to the American Civil War, the Civil War being the post upon which the time for all Southern mythologies are draped. According to the legend, a Confederate soldier and former Auburn student, the sole Confederate survivor of the Battle for the Wilderness (which is false, as the Confederate Army only suffered about 11,000 casualties, out of an army of 65,000 during the battle), was making his way across the bloody, body-strewn battlefield when he came upon a young eagle, apparently wounded in the conflict. He nursed the eagle back to health and brought it to Auburn with him when he joined the faculty there. During Auburn’s first football game, against the University of Georgia in 1892, the eagle escaped from its master who was attending the game, and circled the playing field, before falling dead at the end of the game, punctuating Auburn’s first football victory. The myth was first published in the Auburn Plainsman, the student newspaper, in the 1960’s, and was published in a children’s book in 2010, the year of Auburn’s second football national championship, which was surely not merely coincidental.
Just turn the phrase “War Eagle” over in your head. War is a thing, not a verb nor an adjective, so on that basis alone, the phrase, stringing two nouns together as it does, makes no sense. It’s like saying “peace turkey” or something, except that “peace” is occasionally used as a declarative greeting or interjectional command. (The teacher ordered “Peace!” to the unruly class.) Perhaps this is the type usage Auburn has in mind. But considering all the carnage and misery wrought by human proclivities for war, it stands as something of a mystery why a public education institution would adopt a phrase with a word that seems to glorify war by using it in a manner that seems to command it.
Yet even if “war” in the phrase is used as an interjectional command, ordering, presumably, an eagle to war, it still makes no sense. Auburn University’s official mascot is a tiger, not an eagle. Though Auburn doesn’t have a pet tiger to strut around the stadium like, for instance, the Louisiana State University Tigers in Baton Rouge have, it does in fact have an eagle that is raised and trained for the specific purpose of making a flight through the football stadium before home games, and does so to the cheers of 80,000 or so screaming fans just before every kickoff on the Plains.
War Eagle Camp is required of all incoming freshmen. After two days of orientation as a new member of the Auburn “family” (they once referred to themselves as the Auburn “nation”, but apparently that wasn’t a cozy enough affiliation for the twenty-something thousand students, and countless alumni and fans loyal to its football team, to embrace, so they changed it to family), the student is finally allowed to register for classes. In other words, indoctrination into the Auburn family comes first, the purpose for which the student ostensibly is matriculating comes last. It is telling, the ordering of the priorities as they are. Of course, the parents soak in the indoctrination, greedily believing that the new family to which their child will belong will propel them to vicarious success, and have no qualms about mapping out their children’s academic futures right then and there with the guidance counselors. The kids, meanwhile, seem like just so many pawns on a chessboard.
Calling itself a family makes the whole affair seem even more cultish than it is—think of the Manson family. Auburn should have stuck with calling itself a nation. The institution exhibits all the markers for nationhood—a mythological past (at least concerning the origin of the War Eagle motto, and of the university’s importance during the Civil War—it wasn’t at all important, but don’t tell the family); unique customs and practices among the nation’s members that distinguishes them from non-members (e.g., using the rallying cry as a greeting; wearing the school colors and insignia, etc.); and devotion to a particular plot of land as being intricately related to the national identity (Auburn calls itself the “Plains”, or the “Prettiest Village on the Plains” or the students there, the “Plainsmen”–yet another designator/identifier. It is said to lie on the plains in East Alabama, but it’s hard for me to see where the “plains” are anything more than just rather ordinary rolling hills, the final waves of the Appalachians as their ancient tectonic energy gradually peters out. And so far as being “lovely” is concerned, the village, which is by now a small town, looks like any other small town might look that was haphazardly cobbled together during the automobile age. While it has a trendy downtown shopping district, mainly, one presumes, for all the wealthy alumni back in town for game day, it is otherwise simply a bunch of rather ordinary American chain stores, arranged along the boulevards and byways in no particular order, just like everywhere else, except it has the University’s quite unremarkable campus at its center.
Most of all, however, a nation is determined by self-identification, a fact not lost on the leadership of the Auburn nation. Self-identification seems to be the whole purpose to which the cajoling of students at Camp War Eagle is directed.
The Auburn WerrrEagle nation is a barely-disguised contrivance celebrating Southern white heritage, owing much of its origins and vitality to the fact that the University of Alabama, over in Tuscaloosa, bore the brunt of the desegregation battles during the Sixties that were waged on Alabama’s college campuses. No one paid Auburn much attention while Governor George Wallace (“segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever”) melodramatically stood on the steps of Foster Hall at the University of Alabama to prevent the enrollment of black students. While it was all just a big political show for the cameras, as Wallace stepped aside when the US Attorney General and Federal Marshalls swept in to escort the two students so that they could register for classes, it made Alabama the first integrated University in the state, and a preferred destination for black students who weren’t attending historically black colleges.
Which, in turn, made Auburn a preferred destination for white suburbanites in the state who steadfastly believed in their romantic little hearts that there still existed such a thing as a “y’all” lifestyle, where the Southern culture of front porches and pick-up trucks and dirt roads and good ol’ boys drinking too much and good girls on the front pew at church and peach cobblers and fried chicken and God and country and honor and courage and land were so closely intertwined in the fabric of life as to create a tapestry of all that was good and right in the world. WerrrEagle, y’all, indeed. It’s all just so much nonsense, except that a goodly portion of white Southerners really believe in the mythologies of their past, that their belief actually makes them real in the present, which also sort of makes them scary.
Thus Auburn has become something of what Alabama (the university, not the state) once was—a last bastion of white Southern culture. Auburn’s student body is a non-black as could be imagined, much more so than Alabama’s (excepting, of course, the football teams; both schools field starting elevens on the gridiron that are overwhelmingly black, proving that racism isn’t so powerful as to justify losing at something as important an expression of a nation’s values as football). Even when I was at Alabama (in the eighties), the black student population had grown large enough and politically smart enough, that it was able to leverage its unanimity into Student Government Association presidencies and homecoming queen coronations. The blacks at Alabama broke the white fraternity “machine” stranglehold on student politics, which had been until their arrival, a stepping-stone to Alabama political careers. So now, white suburban kids go to Auburn, to join the Auburn WerrrEagle nation, and leave Alabama to that other indigenous culture in the state.
And my kid, being a white suburbanite in Alabama, is following his friends down to Auburn. I might have objected more, and actually tried to convince him just to work and live and let his future unfold naturally, had he not already endured so much pain in his short life (he’s had two bone marrow transplants). But at least he’s smart enough to know how silly all the indoctrination nonsense is, cracking cynical jokes all the way through Camp War Eagle about its cult-like proclivities. I think he understands from experience (particularly with the children’s hospital where he was a patient for so long) that large institutions like Auburn University (or even children’s hospitals) do not exist to serve anyone or anything but themselves; that no matter how desperately loyal a WerrrEagler he might become, the WerrrEagle nation will never consider that it owes him a thing.
It’s sad really. The whole point of getting an education should be to learn how to think, independently and freely, understanding, exorcising and overcoming the prejudices and biases a person may have learned or developed as a child. Indoctrination into a new family or culture, with its own prejudices and biases, as a part of the collegiate program seems inimical to the task.