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.
Eric, as I’ll call him, is a newly promoted major whom I got to know over several embeds with his unit. He’s 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 America’s largest corporation, but they didn’t think like any corporate employees I’d 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 didn’t expect any more loyalty from our bosses, or our colleagues, than we gave to them.
But 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.
It 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.
Occasionally Eric and his friends would gripe, they’d 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 who’s a colonel for remarks I published in this blog on General McChrystal’s 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 don’t know if I agree, but I haven’t published anything more on the topic.
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. They’re there for the money.”
I realized that he had crossed over to a point of view where, truly, duty and honor are what he’s there for. I don’t think it’s 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, he’d 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 Afghanistan.
I’m 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. They’re 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.
Isn’t 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 today’s 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.
I’ve also been thinking about the estrangement from civilian life revealed by General McChrystal’s 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 don’t have any easy answers here. Happy July 4th!