Men (and Women) in Uniform

by Ayelet Waldman

The terrifyingly erudite commenters on this blog have ruined my day. I was all set to ignore my TNC obligations and get to work on a particularly grueling chapter of my novel, the action of which involves a stolen U.S. Army truck, a group of Auschwitz survivors, and a flat tire in the Austrian Alps, and the theme of which involves the use of the Holocaust and its survivors by the Jewish political establishment of pre-1948 Palestine in its struggle to delegitimize British rule. Instead, I'm writing a post about the American military, its civilian supporters, and the odd contrast between their points of view. My husband, whom I've left with no fewer than six children trapped in a house with no TiVo, on the first day of grim Maine weather we've had since we arrived, will forgive neither you nor me. Be warned.

As I said earlier, I was a participant in the National Security Seminar at the Army War College on at the historic Carlisle Barracks. (Which is, yes, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, but which is close to Harrisburg, or close-ish. At any rate, that's where the train station is. And a lovely train ride it was, too, from New York City.)

I had, before my experience at War College, what I imagine is a fairly typical American liberal attitude toward the military. I imagined the officers corps to be made up primarily of Rush Limbaugh-listening conservatives. I understood there to be a preponderance of Evangelical Christians. I knew for sure that they'd have no patience for a Berkeley liberal like myself. And, on the other hand, I suffered from the same tendency towards idol worship that is fairly common amongst liberals (particularly, I think, men), when faced with someone in uniform who regularly risks his (or her) life in circumstances entirely at odds with my personal experience.

If there was any subtlety at all to my biases, it came from the fact that two of my brothers and my father served in the Israeli army, my father in the Palmach during the War of Independence, one of my brothers as an officer in the paratroopers during the Yom Kippur War, the other brother as a draftee in a time of relative peace. For six years I lived with an Israeli man, the first of those years while he was a soldier on active duty in Lebanon.

But while that family and personal experience gives me, perhaps, more of a sense of what war means than I might otherwise have, I was, before going to War College, quite unfamiliar with the U.S. Army and its officers.

Almost immediately, I found my preconceptions contradicted. I say almost, because one of the first things I experienced was in my seminar group, when the leader played as an introduction to the day (and as a welcome to me) a Daily Show bit: Rob Riggle interviewing various Berkeley citizens, including members of Code Pink, about the protests against the local Marine recruiting station. It's a hilarious sketch, and it was easy to be a good sport about it. I stood up and took a bow on behalf of my town and its earnest citizenry.

The seminar instructor who played the clip turned out, in the end, to be one of the few who satisfied, at least a little bit, my knee-jerk assumptions about the military. He wasn't the only political conservative in the room--many of the lieutenant colonels and colonels were conservative. But he was the only one who seemed to be even slightly closed-minded. His disdainful reaction, for example, to a lecture given by a member of the ACLU board (again, nonattribution rules preclude me from either naming this person or giving you her actual title), was the only one. Even the seminar members who disagreed with the ACLU speaker on some issues were eager to learn from her.

The seminar students were remarkably open-minded (remarkable, perhaps, only if you have biases like I did). They were strikingly intelligent--which only makes sense given that they had risen to the ranks of lieutenant colonel and colonel and had also been selected to participate in the War College program, a very significant honor. They were genuinely curious to find out what someone like me (ie, a Berkeley liberal) made of the Army and its mission.

When I pressed the commandant about why he invited New Members to the seminar in the first place, why the Army paid for our (admittedly spartan) motel rooms, schlepped us on a tour of Gettysburg, threw us cocktail parties, and encouraged us to participate in the debate in the seminar rooms, he told me, essentially, that it came down to two things: 1.) Publicity. He wanted us to go back to our communities and describe our experience, presumably because he knows how well it reflects on the Armed Services; and 2.) Because by the time officers reach the level of colonel, they often know very few people who aren't in the military. Their experience is confined, thus, to people who, in most instances, think like they do. To be strategic thinkers, the commandant told me, they need to be exposed to a wide variety of points of view. In fact, he is so eager to expose his students to a diversity of opinion that he urged me to recommend more liberals, more people from the West Coast, more women to be civilian New Members of the Seminar.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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