Men (and Women) in Uniform

By Ta-Nehisi Coates

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.

In my seminar group were, among others, an Air Force squad commander, an Army Psych-Ops officer, a Military Police battalion commander, a career personnel officer. There were, as I'd anticipated, a few Evangelical Christians, including one man who is perhaps the kindest and most friendly person I've met in years, and with whom, despite our serious differences of opinion on issues like gay marriage, I have become good friends, and a woman who graciously takes time out of her days of active duty in Iraq to email with my nine-year-old daughter. The Marine, by the way, is a liberal who berated me for using the cop-out word "progressive" to describe my politics, and in whose honor I now, as he insisted, "own the word 'liberal', because there's nothing to be ashamed of!"

Debate was vigorous, in a way I haven't experienced since law school. And it was often surprising. I asked the seminar at one point what they thought of women taking combat roles. A discussion ensued about the challenges of 1.) Women's physical limitations; 2.) Male chivalry defeating operational goals; and 3.) All women-units torn apart by gossip and bickering. After about 10 minutes of this, in a lull in the debate, one of the officers, a man who I hope will one day become chairman of the Joint Chiefs, said, "You people are kidding yourselves. Women are in combat every day. They serve, they fight, and they die, just like men do." He talked about a machine-gunner who worked for him, and honestly he brought me to tears.

The week was full of moments like this. This same lieutenant colonel's comment about honor and respect in our treatment of our enemies also made me cry. In fact, I'm sure the guys (and the one woman) thought I was a big pussy, the way they kept reducing me to tears.

I'll just describe one other experience. We had the great good fortune to get a video briefing from two general officers on the ground in Afghanistan. These two men, clearly exhausted after a long, long day of work, described in some detail the goals of COIN. They told us about, among many other things, the American midwives they've deployed in the field. During the question and answer period, I raised my hand and introduced myself. One of the generals smiled a little when I said Berkeley, as you might expect. I asked him if the drone program has complicated his "population centered approach." He paused for a good long while before answering and then said, "When we can kill with accuracy from 25,000 feet, it's difficult to convince people when we kill civilians on the battlefield that we haven't done it on purpose."

What's most interesting is not his answer, though it does seem to indicate a certain level of frustration with at least some of the consequences of the unmanned aerial vehicle attacks in Pakistan and Afghanistan, but rather what happened after. At least a dozen colonels came up to me, congratulated me on the question, and expressed their frustration with the general's response. They wanted to know what he really thought, and his measured reaction wasn't good enough.

Some of my civilian colleagues were as surprising. I'm thinking in particular about the former Karl Rove staffer who voted for Obama. But I had far too many conversations with fellow civilian New Members that left me searching for the nearest pillar against which to beat my head. One individual claimed that instead of taking prisoners we should shoot all the enemy, including, presumably, the ones we're finished interrogating or those who surrender to us. One Citadel alum treated me to a halitosis-spiced lecture about Obama's socialist takeover. And I already told you about the mayor who is convinced that every Muslim in the world is strapping on an explosive belt to personally blow up his grandchildren.

I had a true moment of wannabe gratification when one of the members of my seminar, a man who tied himself up in knots trying to avoid using the words "courage" or "bravery" when I demanded that he tell me the meaning of every one of the bazillion ribbons on his chest ("This one is just for, you know, doing a little something extra.") said to me, "Who would have thought that the writer from Berkeley wouldn't end up being the loosest cannon in the group?"

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/national/archive/2010/08/men-and-women-in-uniform/60903/