A Combat Veteran on Safe Spaces

U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Norman B. Green speaks with cadets participating in the Florida Classic football game held on Nov. 22, 2014. The cadets' efforts coincided with the nation's largest football rivalry between two historically black colleges (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. John L. Carkeet IV) ( )
Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

A thoughtful, nuanced email from a reader:

My name is Chris Martin. I was in the U.S. Marine Corps Infantry (specifically: the 81 mm mortar platoon, of Weapons Company, 2nd Battalion, 9th Marines) from 2007 to 2011. After a combat deployments to Ar Ramadi, Iraq, and Marjah, Afghanistan, I was honorably discharged. From 2011 to 2015 I attended Denison University, a liberal arts college in Ohio, where I was a Phi Beta Kappa graduate in economics.

(I provide all of this information, because I agree with Mr. DeBoer of Purdue’s assertion that it is important for vocal critics to identify themselves, as an indicator of the strength of their beliefs.)

During my time in college, I saw little of the protesting, or linguistically manipulative actions that, prior to the attacks in Paris, were making headlines at The Atlantic. That said, I did read “The Coddling of the American Mind” when it first came out, and I found myself nodding in agreement throughout much of the article.  

It is obvious, and fitting in my opinion, that social activism in the U.S. has been overshadowed lately by acts of violence by ISIS in Egypt, Beirut, and Paris.  Violence, the prospect of violence, and fear always seem to grab peoples' attention more roughly than almost anything else. The world grieves for ISIS' victims this past week, as they ought to.

During these recent tragedies, and the student protests sweeping campuses across the U.S., I find myself intrigued by the term “safe spaces.”

In the military I firsthand witnessed occasional racism—not institutionalized nor systemic. Some men, largely those born below the Mason-Dixon line, would indeed make disparaging, aggressive, and/or malevolent comments toward my dark-green Marine brothers.  At college, I again heard of racial tensions between student groups. I wholeheartedly acknowledge and support the causes that the students at Mizzou/Yale/Ithaca/CMC/Amherst and other colleges are fighting for. Their cause is just and needed.  

However, I would like to make a distinction that I think is necessary in light on the events of the last two weeks. There are currently thousands of combat veterans on campuses across the United States, men and women who fought al-Qaida in Iraq and the Taliban in Afghanistan who are now reintegrating into society and taking advantage of the incredible generosity of the Post 9/11 GI Bill.  Speaking as a veteran who saw combat, and who had friends killed and wounded, it is difficult for me to reconcile the idea that campuses are not “safe spaces” for students. To me, a “safe space” is one in which no one is actively trying to kill you. Forget micro-aggressions; there is a large subset of students on American campuses who spent many of their formative years being shot at and blown up by IEDs.  

If a student’s comfort on campus is determined relatively—i.e. they do not feel “included” or “like a typical” member of campus—I would like to remind them that that relativity goes further. After my deployment to Afghanistan, a member of my unit, Kyle Carpenter, was awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor, for diving onto a hand grenade to save his friend. That kind of environment, to me, constitutes an “un-safe space.”

Again, I do agree that there is racism in academia, and I would say there are issues with racism, to a lesser degree, within the military. I only want to provide nuance to the current student activists, who seem so quick to fear for their safety. Please keep in mind that some of your fellow students went through periods of no physical safety—that they walked, day in and day out, amongst people who actively sought to kill them.  

My Millennial peers who are still on college campuses do their causes disservice by claiming conversations about inappropriate Halloween costumes cause them to fear for their safety. Talk to a student veteran about fearing for your safety, before invoking such hyperbolic terms.