Monday, November 25, 2013

Reflections on Being an Army Veteran in the 21st Century


“What life to lead and where to go
After the War, after the War?
We'd often talked this way before.
But I still see the brazier glow
That April night, still feel the smoke
And stifling pungency of burning coke.
I'd thought: ‘A cottage in the hills,
North Wales, a cottage full of books,
Pictures and brass and cosy nooks
And comfortable broad window-sills,
Flowers in the garden, walls all white.
I'd live there peacefully and dream and write.’ ...”
- Robert Graves, 1916

“The people of England have been led in Mesopotamia into a trap from which it will be hard to escape with dignity and honour. They have been tricked into it by a steady withholding of information. The Baghdad communiques are belated, insincere, incomplete. Things have been far worse than we have been told, our administration more bloody and inefficient than the public knows. It is a disgrace to our imperial record, and may soon be too inflamed for any ordinary cure. We are today not far from a disaster.”
- T.E. Lawrence, 1920

(Note: This meandering and rather lengthy essay is written primarily to my fellow alumni from Patrick Henry College.  It was produced by request for the November 2013 Issue of the Patrick Henry College Alumni Newsletter.  The editor who honored me with the request said that the word count did not matter.  His primary mistake was that he rather carelessly told this to a very undisciplined writer.  This is the first time I’ve ever written or said anything officially to my fellow graduates and alumni.  It is also only the second time that I’ve written anything that discussed being in Iraq.)

It still sounds strange for me to say this.  I am a veteran of the Iraq war.  I was deployed for one year, from 2006 to 2007, to active duty as a member of the U.S. Army Reserves.  When I arrived in Iraq, the new government had just taken office and the insurgency was on the upswing.  I was there right before the troop surge of 2007 and I was there at the time that Saddam Hussein was executed.

I was proud to serve in the 298th Transportation Company, United States Army Reserves, with a number of brave and selfless men and women who I watched risk their lives daily and selflessly.  When our gun truck platoon was told that it would be spending a year guarding and driving gasoline tankers up and down the country across the roads of Iraq, I watched my friends shrug it off with a sangfroid worthy of their American ancestry.  It reminded me of a story I once heard William F. Buckley tell about a general, trying on one rare occasion, as officers sometimes awkwardly do, to make conversation with the enlisted men during a spit-‘n-polish inspection.  “Why do you like to do such an insane thing like jumping out of an airplane?” he asked a nearby paratrooper.  “Oh, I don’t like to, sir.  I hate it every single jump. It scares the hell out of me,” the paratrooper replied.  “Then why on earth do you do it?”  The answer goes a long way to explaining how many veterans feel about each other.  “I do it,” the paratrooper replied, “because I just like to be around the sort of people who like to jump out of airplanes.”

It is now a running joke that, whenever asked by some new acquaintance who has discovered for the first time that I was in the war, I’ll answer by boasting I was given the distinct privilege of being shot at inside the city of Nineveh.  But that isn’t quite true.  The hostile city I experienced, which possessed a seemingly infinite number of enemy roadblocks making it a pain in the rear to drive through, was Mosul.  Mosul is actually built upon the ancient ruins of Nineveh along the Tigris river.  Jonah notwithstanding, if there is anything the people of that city have yet to “repent” of, it is their enthusiasm for making it extremely uncomfortable for any westerners who should dare to venture inside their walls.

Our platoons took turns going out on missions.  Some missions lasted for a couple hours.  Some missions lasted for sixteen hours or more.  It became so commonplace for IEDs to explode in or on the side of the road every single mission, that their blowing holes in the road just became humdrum routine.  Eight times out of ten, they missed us.  Once out ten, they would manage merely to send shrapnel through the tires of our vehicles.  So I saw a little action over there.  Yet my company and I were blessed.  We all made it.  I made some other friends outside my own company.  A few of them went out on missions and never came back.

It was the sort of thing we talked about - the possibility of not making it back.  But it was too easy to reassure ourselves because of who we were and where we were from.  We’d continually compare the action that we’d seen to the action that our fathers, uncles and grandfathers had seen.  (I have one uncle who made it back from Vietnam and one great-uncle who didn’t.  I am also very proud of the fact that both of my grandfathers served with distinction in the Pacific theater of WWII.)  The “combat” we were experiencing in Iraq was nothing compared to what the men in past generations had seen and suffered through in other wars.  How on earth could we complain about what we were seeing once we compared ourselves to them?

I will never forget attending Patrick Henry College on September 11, 2001. The whole school shut down that day.  All our classes were very solemn and full of continual prayer for weeks afterward.  It was seared into our minds that we were now living in a new world, different from anything our country had ever experienced before.  Grief was first above all else.  But the next feeling was one of profound frustration.  I had already resolved, as a matter of family tradition, to serve in the Army.  But there is a strong sense in which, no matter how you are working in academics or politics, you can often feel like you aren’t doing anything that really matters. After graduating in the first graduating class, I walked off the platform in May of 2002 straight into boot camp.  My degree at Patrick Henry helped secure my acceptance to George Mason University School of Law.  I was never going to pursue a military career, but I was obligated, like so many of my historical heroes, to still participate in my generation’s war.

Neither will I forget the international relations and foreign policy classes I attended at PHC.  It was at our school that I first thoroughly studied and learned how empires have risen and fallen over the course of history.  It was at our school that I realized that there are lessons, even in the Peloponnesian War of the 400s BC, that still contain matters of great importance for us now.  Because I attended our school, I knew when I trod the desert sands of Iraq that others who believed in the principles of Western Civilization had trod them before me.  I experienced some unpleasantness there.  But so did Xenophon and his fellow Greek hoplites, outnumbered by tens of thousands of Persians, after they held back their enemy in the Battle of Cunaxa and then, leaderless, had to fight their way over a thousand miles back to the Black Sea.

It makes being in a foreign land and fighting what seems like a confused war far more meaningful if you pay attention to military history.  It turns out, I was fighting in merely one of a long series of conflicts between the East and the West.  I was in the same troubled country that had once been conquered by Alexander the Great.  The consequent Greco-Persian wars covered five decades.  It was a land that was later part of the Parthian Empire, conquered by Rome, established as a province by Trajan, evacuated as a province by Hadrian, and conquered again by the Roman general, Lucius Verus.  The Roman-Persian wars lasted for over seven centuries, as Roman legions did something very similar to what American troops were doing for the last decade.  The Crusaders of the Medieval Ages fought in what are now the cities of Iraq.  The Ottoman Empire was in conflict with the West for over six centuries. The British had to fight the Ottoman Central Powers there during World War I, and then they tried to keep order, often bungling it for which T.E. Lawrence so eloquently took them to task.

Western armies have entered the Middle East, defeated the enemy and then sat around superfluously until they eventually retreated over and over again.  It is useless to criticize American involvement in the Middle East without studying this history.  Asking why we were in Iraq is a question that cannot be satisfactorily answered without asking why East and West have been in conflict since antiquity.

My understanding of why I was there changed permanently when I made friends with an Iraqi.  For purposes of this essay, I’ll call him Zaid instead of his real name.  Zaid worked on a U.S. Army base, providing information regarding local cities to us despite death threats that had been made against him and his family.  He told me about how excited he still was about voting in the last Iraqi parliamentary election.  Al-Qaeda had threatened to attack the polling booths and then demonstrated that they were not bluffing, killing and bombing would-be voters standing in line across the country.  Knowing that this was happening, Zaid and his wife stood in line waiting to vote for over four hours.  When I asked him why, he gave me an answer that I will never forget: “We have never NEVER had real elections before.  We want to be different now and voting has changed us forever.”  In other words, for thousands of years, the people there have never before possessed self-government.  Now, at least, they have a beginning.

But this isn’t to say that we should expect them to be just like us.  “We ought not to be surprised,” wrote Russell Kirk, “that men and nations resist desperately - often unreasoningly - any attempt to assimilate their character to that of some other body social.  This resistance is the first law of their being, extending below the level of consciousness.  There is one sure way to make a deadly enemy; and that is to propose to anyone, ‘Submit yourself to me, and I will improve your condition by relieving you from the burden of your peculiar identity and reconstituting your substance in my image.”  The East has a great richness of culture, art, religion and wisdom.  Much of this historical richness has been destroyed by radical Islam, but we have to understand how influences from the West have been destroying it too.

Archie Roosevelt, in his 1988 book, For Lust of Knowing: Memoirs of an Intelligence Officer, wrote that in “Baghdad and Tehran the charms of the old Islamic cities were losing the battle to the banalities of secondhand Western modernity.”  Roosevelt worked for years in the Middle East, and he described how in many cities there, “hordes of automobiles, squeezed together by rush-hour jams and traffic lights” had crowded out the very existence of local communities.  Families were being broken apart as individual family members take “employment as guards, taxi drivers, and members of the lower scale bureaucracy.”  A new technocratic elite is increasingly regulating the lives of local communities and families, and this kind of organization has been ushered in by Western influence.  Commercialization is entering the Middle East.  When I was there, I watched the number of McDonalds’s and Burger Kings that were setting up in Iraqi cities double in number.  These are not necessary accoutrements to self-government.

One of the reasons I decided to serve in the U.S. military was because I learned at our school that it was precisely the military experience of some of our founding fathers that gave them insights into the reality of how government worked.  Washington and Hamilton both had learned, firsthand, how the powers of a Confederate Congress worked when they attempted to obtain financial and logistical support for the army during the Revolutionary War.  It is no coincidence that the institutions and limitations of our constitutional order was designed by many men who learned practical political lessons by their experience in war.  You can even see it at the Constitutional Convention.  The voices of those who only sat in political office during the war ring with a different tone in the debates than the more urgent voices of those who personally fought in the war.

So how, as a veteran, is my point of view now different?

I’d confess that, because of my experience, there are some ways in which my point of view should carry less weight.  I’d also argue there are ways in which it should carry more.

In order that you may know how to take a veteran’s point of view cautiously, let’s first consider the disadvantages of being a veteran.  There is a real sense in which life in the military is unhealthy for the soul.  I didn’t go through any greatly tragic or searing experiences that many other of my fellow service members went through.  I don’t have post-traumatic stress disorder.  But those problems aside, military life and war still influence the participant unhealthily.  In the training process, mentally you have to steel yourself against feeling.  After experiencing a combat environment where you could endanger the lives of your friends by making even one single tiny mistake, after living in a state of constant vigilance and lack of security every day for a year, you develop mental habits that are not always going to be desirable in civilian life.

I believe in the faculty of free will and I believe influences do not impare one’s will.  I am still morally culpable for every choice that I’ve made.  But that does not change the fact that, since my military service, I now lack empathy in a way that I didn’t before.  Empathy is one of the basic requirements for close personal relationships, but my experience has roughened (or corroded) my ability to relate to others as Christianity teaches I ought.  This is an advantage in emergencies.  Everyone else around me can be upset, stressed out or even shouting, and I will stay utterly calm, ready to act with ruthless efficiency despite the feelings in the room.  It is often a disadvantage at being a human being.  My personal relationships with friends and family have suffered because of this.  There was, for example, a lovely young lady that I was growing closer to before I left for Iraq.  It sounds too dramatic to say that the deployment changed who I was.  The alterations were often small, gradual and subtle.  But I grew less empathetic, more callous, and even more coarse, towards her.  She noticed and rightly drew away.

My faults are my own, but I can also see how being a veteran has decreased my own personal responsibility.  When you live for an extended period of time doing a job that is literally a matter of life and death, when you have watched other people at the very moment when they deliberately try to kill you, when you have ducked so as not to be torn in half by gunfire, it is often very difficult to view other less demanding things in life as priorities.  I now work in the law.  There is occasionally a “crisis” at my office concerning what we’ll call the filing of paperwork.  I simply cannot feel any sense of urgency about paperwork.  I happily work hard at things.  I’m willing to commit to finishing things.  But the excitement or the adrenaline rush I used to feel in accomplishing simple workday tasks under pressure is now gone.  I’ve talked to other veteran friends and they’ve said they share this same problem.  Basic adult responsibilities have been neglected in my life as a result of this attitude.  If you happen to know other veterans who have seen combat, understanding this about them will do much to your understanding why they sometimes act the way they do.

The worst thing about it is that, if you’re not paying attention to it, the way wartime experience can influence you is easily unnoticed.  I was unconscious of how much empathy with others I had lost until I was able to look back, years later, at how I have talked and acted since returning home.  Once I was back, I hurt another young lady because I only dated her out of what can be described as starvation for feminine company.  I also spent a couple years where I became obsessed with what I was sure was the loss of masculinity in our culture outside military life.  I even despised some of my other friends for being weak or effeminate because they cared and worried over things that I, in my own pride, dismissed as unimportant.  Other fellow veterans I know have similar experiences.  They are still the same guys I knew before they went to war, but it is also as if they lost a part of themselves.

This is not to say that unhealthy influences cannot be resisted or overcome.  I am learning now to show charity where my military training taught me to show none.  I am understanding now to consciously pay attention to how other persons feel, even when I may think the problem doesn’t demand feeling.  I am only now forcing myself, after six years, to treat some basic adult responsibilities with the importance they deserve.  I can’t help asking myself “what if?”  What if I didn’t serve in the army during the war?  Would I already be married and raising a family?  Wouldn’t I be much further progressed in my career?  Wouldn’t I have resisted that callousness that I am so ashamed of having shown to others who needed me?  But these questions are both unanswerable and unhelpful.  The more relevant question is, starting over, would I still have volunteered to serve?  Yes, I would have.  It was simply a matter of duty, the costs be what they may.  Compared to others, the price I have paid is as nothing.

I’ve reminisced here over what are, to me, some very personal questions because I believe it can help those of you who have friends or family members who are veterans.  There are habits of thought that affect us.  We view life problems through the lens of our experience.  For veterans, struggling with some of these attitudes is common.  But there are many who have succeeding at resisting worse influences better than I.  There are many who are more loving and empathetic than I.  And, there are many who have seen and experienced far worse than I.

Nonetheless, there are some advantages of perspective that I believe veterans also share in common.  There is something to be said to having a strong sense of what does and doesn’t matter. I appreciate little things that I always took for granted before - cheap hot coffee on a cold dark morning, the bright summer stars, the feeling of a very slight breeze on a sun beaten day, the love that can be demonstrated by the smallest of common acts, a human smile in the face of disaster, the shelter of a roof, the warmth of a fire, the mere presence of a woman, the imagination in a book, the laughter and trustfulness of a child, the nurturing act of feminine care in a situation most men would ignore, the silence that exists away from motorized industry, the air when it doesn’t smell of burning or stink or gasoline, the time that is wasting away at every little movement of a clock’s second hand.  There are so many blessings I wasn’t aware of and that I used to give no thought to.

Another advantage to military experience is how it forces you to reckon with certain realities.  No amount of idealism or abstract theorizing will take away the very concrete reality of bullets, explosives or the consequences of the exercise of political power.  Maybe it’s tea party or libertarian influence, but these days I am hearing far too much spineless talk among conservatives, and even some fellow alumni, that is flippantly casual, dismissive and almost contemptuous for America’s starting up the Iraq War.  It’s embarrassing, both selfish and cowardly sounding, and, quite frankly, flirting with a 1780s-style isolationism that seems willfully blind to the historical age in which we now live.  We must be very careful not to follow the popular or the trendy even within our own circles.  Criticizing military interventionism is trendy right now.  Dismissing the war in Iraq as just an expensive extravagance that Bush and Cheney engineered out of lies is both overly simplistic and naive.

The existence of military superpowers in world history have derived certain responsibilities.  To deny these responsibilities is immoral.  The United States can either forsake the responsibilities that the existence of power creates or it can, unlike some other historical empires, tie a commitment to the right along with the exercise of our power - so as to ensure that we stand against the ancient and destructive lie that might makes right.  Criticize the methods or specific instances of the use of military power by all means.  We ought to hold ourselves to a high standard.  But it is plain ignorance to criticize the use of military power itself.  After personally witnessing the lives of innocent people destroyed by evil men, I can heartily declare that the use of military power is a necessity for good men in a fallen world.

Moreover, every combat veteran has seen, firsthand, the human costs that derive from either political or religious extremism.  As a result, we have a strong distaste for radicalism and extremism in all of its forms, no matter whether it is from a collectivist left or a religious right.  Extremism in the defense of liberty is a vice.  Moderation in the pursuit all things, justice included, is a virtue.  The devil discovered long ago, that there is such a thing as too much of a good thing.  Evil, remember, is not self-existent.  All evil is some good twisted or taken to excess.  It is no coincidence that one of the first and greatest of advocates for moderation as a virtue was Socrates, a veteran of the heavy infantry in the Greek phalanxes of the Battle of Potidaea.  Neither is it a coincidence that one of the conservative heroes of antiquity was the military veteran, Cincinnatus.

We dearly need our political rhetoric today to be tempered by both classical and Christian forms of moderation.  Today, politics is in a state of increased polarization and transition.  Our country is, in a sense, at a crossroads.  There is one path we can take that will cast away many of the things our ancestors have long loved and cherished.  There is another path we can take that is neither the path of ideological purity nor of reactionary insistence upon turning back the clock.  We must distinguish.  Generally speaking, the odds are, if you happen to be in your twenties or thirties, that you are either liberal or libertarian.  The odds are, if you happen to be a military veteran in your twenties or thirties, that you are conservative.  The conservative naturally ought to avoid extremes.  The conservative is also very aware of the practical realities required of accomplishing tasks in a complex and broken system.

I worry about this even among my fellow PHC alumni.  It seems that we now have semi-regular controversies and loosely organized protests criticizing our school.  During the last one involving Dr. Baskerville’s lecture, I heard and read a few responses that were, to put it kindly, thoughtless, angry and bordering on the hysterical.  I strongly disagreed with a number of Dr. Baskerville’s assertions.  But we must think practically.  We graduated from a college that receives a majority of its financial support from what is still an organized and politically active religious right.  Making extreme statements has always been an unfortunate rhetorical device of some prominent members of the religious right.  It should be no surprise to us then, when some professors who are a part of this tradition, occasionally say things that should not be uttered (particularly in front of a camera).  We must not, however, respond in kind.

What are some of the concrete realities that the Patrick Henry Alumni currently have to accept? Traditionally, alumni have exerted significant influence and control over their schools.  But, we are not there yet.  When William F. Buckley, Jr. published God and Man at Yale in 1951, he was making a plea to his fellow alumni because the Yale alumni provided a large percentage of Yale’s financial support and almost all of Yale’s Board of Directors were alumni.  If we believe in our school and if we have successful careers, we can begin achieving this.  But until we are directly responsible for a significant amount of the college’s financial resources, it is unrealistic to assume that we can exert much of an influence on the administration of the college.

One of the most important questions for our alma mater is whether it will ultimately be only a product of the evangelical religious right.  If it is, then there are expectations that will have to be tempered.  If it is not, then there may be things our college will be able to accomplish outside of any ideologically enclosed bubble.  One of the reasons I chose to attend PHC was because I was impressed by Michael Farris fighting James Dobson on the Religious Liberty Protection Act of 1998.  That was one instance of the sort of intelligent and reasoned advocacy that I still wish to see more often in the public square.

As both a military veteran and an ally of the religious right, I support many of the same causes that they do.  As a Christian, I hold firmly to some basic principles of government.  As a conservative, I believe we have some of the same political battles ahead of us.  I do not, however, have any interest in contributing to protests against PHC resulting in bad publicity that will accomplish no concrete objectives.

In my experience in being a part of the greatest and most efficient military in the world, I have still witnessed incredible incompetence, ignorance and wastes of resources.  These things happen.  I have also witnessed protests and complaints made without the power or influence necessary to accomplish real world goals.  In order to do real good, you have to act tactically, at the right time and in choosing the right battles.  We must never make our freedom from control of the college administration an opportunity to publically voice any disillusionment we may now feel with either our school or with current politics.

I’ve always found “the Clevers” very amusing when John, in The Pilgrim’s Regress by C.S. Lewis, discovers them speaking the language of protest and “freedom of thought”:

“... ‘It is the expression of a savage disillusionment,’ said someone else.
‘Reality has broken down, said a fat boy who had drunk a great deal of medicine and was lying flat on his back, smiling happily.
‘Our art must be brutal,’ said Glugly’s nurse.
‘We lost our ideals when there was a war in this country,’ said a very young Clever, ‘they were ground out of us in the mud and the flood and the blood.  That is why we have to be so stark and brutal.’
‘But, look here,’ cried John, ‘that war was years ago.  It was your fathers who were in it: and they are all settled down and living ordinary lives.’
‘Puritanian!  Bourgeois!’ cried the Clevers ...”

Let’s not be like them.

After being in the war, I dream, just like Robert Graves described in his poem, “Over the Brazier,” of settling down and living peacefully the ordinary life that we all can still be blessed with in this country.  I refuse to allow extreme political rhetoric from either side to disillusion me.  I continue to be, in spite of my experience in the military, something of a romantic.  There are so many things in life that don’t matter and that are not worth fighting about.  And this is so because there really are some things to do matter and that are still worth fighting for.

If you want to explore a good and healthy point of view from a veteran’s perspective, let me warmly recommend the recent novel, In Sunlight and In Shadow by Mark Helprin.  Helprin himself is a veteran.  In the book, he has a character, who just recently returned from fighting in World War II, argue against how some people talk as if war and extremism were grounds for disillusionment with those things we used to believe in:

“People like that always want to show you that they’re wise and worldly, having been disillusioned, and they mock things that humanity has come to love, things that people like me - who have spent years watching soldiers blown apart and incinerated, cities razed, and women and children wailing - have learned to love like nothing else: tenderness, ceremony, courtesy, sacrifice, love, form, regard ... The deeper I fell, the more I suffered, and the more I saw ... This is what I learned and what I managed to bring out with me from hell.  How shall I treat it?  Love of God, love of a woman, love of a child - what else is there?”

Being disillusioned with what has been rather banally described as “traditional family values,” or being disillusioned with our constitutional system of government, with politics, with our country’s place as the world’s military superpower, with conservatism or with our college will not help accomplish any good.

And, just so we’re clear, I am not above being susceptible to any of these kinds of disillusionment myself.  Neither do I pretend to have any special claim for anyone’s attention merely because I am a veteran.  My service in the military helped me as much as it hurt me.  I am both better off and worse off because of it.  I do not deserve any special treatment for what I did.  The fact is merely that my wartime experience has deepened my understanding of some things, but that experience derived merely from doing what I ought to have done - nothing particularly noteworthy.  Justitia nihil expetit praemii.

And yet, I have seen many of my fellow service members who have suffered.  In our dismissive and increasingly cynical and ironic culture, I have also seen them disrespected and dismissed.  This is why I believe military service is worth honoring.  “For,” as C.S. Lewis wrote, “let us make no mistake.  All that we fear from all the kinds of adversity, severally, is collected together in the life of a soldier on active service.  Like sickness, it threatens pain and death.  Like poverty, it threatens ill lodging, cold, heat, thirst, and hunger.  Like slavery, it threatens toil, humiliation, injustice, and arbitrary rule.  Like exile, it separates you from all you love.  Like the gallies, it imprisons you at close quarters with uncongenial companions.  It threatens every temporal evil - every evil except dishonour and final perdition, and those who bear it like it no better than you would like it.”


  1. Rather lengthy essay, indeed, but I feel honored and privileged to be one of the many within your targeted audience. Thank you very much for this, and for your service, sir, and for the history lesson. Blessings on you and keep up the good work.

    (2011 alumna)

  2. Really appreciate this. Thanks!