I was on the phone with one of my Army friends the other day, and it
suddenly struck me, with a mixture of pride and alarm, that he seemed to have crossed a final divide from the civilian world.
Ill call him, is a newly promoted major whom I got to know over several embeds with his unit. Hes one of a handful of (then) captains and
lieutenants I trailed as a journalist in Khost and Zabul between 2008
and this year. One of this handful, Captain Dan Whitten, was blown up by an IED on February 2. The others are thankfully still alive, either
here or in Afghanistan.
Hanging out with these men who are
young enough to be my kids when I first met them, it was their late
twenties to my late forties I was aware of a military-civilian divide. These men worked for what could be viewed as Americas largest
corporation, but they didnt think like any corporate employees Id met
in my twenties when I was in finance and consulting. We were trying to
extract the most from our jobs, whether in year-end bonuses or training
or opportunity to rise. We all knew we could be fired at the next
economic downturn or if we messed up. We didnt expect any more loyalty
from our bosses, or our colleagues, than we gave to them.
the Army is not another big corporation. I realized that gradually,
noticing that officers ate last in the small combat outposts, that
dealing with the bodies of the fallen was considered a sacred charge,
that all the officers and NCOs, and many of the enlisted men, worked
ferociously hard for very low pay and no expectation of a bonus.
dawned on me that these young officers were not just people like me who
happened to be wearing a uniform and I wondered if I could have been
like them twenty years earlier had my career taken a different turn.
Eric and his friends would gripe, theyd talk about quitting the Army,
going on to get a Ph.D. or work at an consulting firm or set up a modest business. I would try to picture them in civilian life and wondered
which would be better for each of them. Were they sufficiently motivated by money to make it? I always told Eric to stay in, that he was a born
commander, and that civilian life contained far more jerks than he had
yet encountered in the military.
That divide was wider when I
spent time with lieutenant colonels (battalion commanders, who typically oversee a Afghan provinces) or colonels (regional commanders or on
staff in Kabul or Bagram). Those men and women saw life differently. I
was chewed out on e-mail by a friend whos a colonel for remarks I
published in this blog on General McChrystals plan to shutter the fast
food outlets on the Kandahar boardwalk. My friendtold me
that this was not an issue on which a civilian should be opining. Yes on strategy or tactics or Afghan politics; no on how bases should be run. I realized this is not like writing about the cafeteria at Google. I
dont know if I agree, but I havent published anything more on the
Then the other night Eric and I were discussing the
astronomical cost of well-drilling in southern Afghanistan, and I
jokingly suggested that he set up a well-drilling company there himself. He blurted out, Those guys are mercenaries. Theyre there for the
I realized that he had crossed over to a point of view
where, truly, duty and honor are what hes there for. I dont think its bad to be in Afghanistan for the money if more people were, the
country would be more secure. But I understand what he means and why he
feels that way.
We discussed some civilian casualty incidents
and Eric spoke authoritatively on what went wrong and why. He said there is no such thing as firing a warning shot from a 50 cal machine gun,
and that firing a disabling shot at a speeding civilian car is something you see in the movies in reality, bullets that hit the engine block
will almost always ricochet and kill the driver or passengers. I
realized that over the last decade, hed accumulated a wealth of
information like this, which I could not hope to assimilate in the four
or five weeks a year, max, I spend as an embedded reporter in
Im relieved that Eric decided to stay in. All of
his buddies did, too. These are good men I trust with my life, and our
country is trusting them with the lives of many young men and women.Theyre now recognizable as military professionals, they have a mind set and
knowledge that I do not, and ten years from now the divide between our
perceptions will probably be greater, no matter how many embeds I do.
this pretty far from the old American ideal of the citizen soldier? On a
recent West Point staff ride at Gettysburg, I heard tale after tale of
civilians who took up battalion command, and often enough died where we
were standing. Most more or less bought their commissions, either by
raising soldiers or by paying cash. They were often absurdly young and
inexperienced by todays standards and I wondered how much natural
talent they brought to the battlefield. Eric and his pals would have
probably done a much better job.
Ive also been thinking about
the estrangement from civilian life revealed by General McChrystals
comments along the way not only in the Rolling Stone
piece and I wonder about the direction our country is heading with our volunteer military. I dont have any easy answers here. Happy July 4th!