The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies

city-college-campus-in-harlem

When people ask me what my major in college was and I tell them Middle East studies, they almost always follow up with “was it because you went to Iraq?”

The answer is yes. That is exactly why.

I remember very clearly, sitting in decrepit telecommunications building in Baghdad sometime during the summer of 2003, scouting for a supposed truck loaded with rockets while having a conversation with a buddy about “what to do when we get out.” It struck me that had we known more about Iraq, the Iraqi people, and the language, we would have had an easier time getting things done there.

So as a pragmatic solution to a complicated problem, I thought it would be good to study the Middle East in college.

When I left the military I dealt with all of the normal transition issues that most veterans face – getting money, dealing with the VA, interacting with civilians, hyper-awareness. On top of that, I jumped head first into the academic world of Middle East Studies, which has its own subculture of norms and biases that are difficult to navigate, even for the most well-adjusted student.

Over the years I’ve had a number of strange experiences as a post-9/11 veteran Middle East Studies student. These often came in the form of anti-military tirades from both professors and students, but sometimes were more intimate interactions. There was the time a graduate student in a class of mine casually dismissed General Petraeus and members of the military as akin to the Nazis; the time a girl in a history class thought only “thirty or something” soldiers had died in the Iraq war; a very uncomfortable exchange with my Middle East Studies professor in Egypt when she learned I had served in Iraq – she visibly became uncomfortable, shifting in her seat and suddenly ending the converation; being asked by a good professor to talk about my Iraq war experience to add color and context to a class, which was probably helpful for them but odd for me. The list goes on.

Six years ago, when we were still knee-deep in Iraq, Middle East Studies scholar Marc Lynch wrote a couple of articles on the topic (here and here). He was generally optimistic about the idea of veterans pursuing the field.

When they enter academic programs, these veterans will (and already do) bring a great deal of on-the-ground experience to the classroom and to their research. Many will (and do) enter their programs with far more advanced language skills than did earlier generations of students, although perhaps with more familiarity with colloquial spoken dialects than with Modern Standard Arabic (reversing a common traditional pattern). Their point of reference will be (and is) Iraq and the Gulf, not Israeli-Palestinian affairs, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, or other areas where a great number of current faculty began their encounters with the region. And they will have much greater familiarity and comfort with military and security issues than do many currently in the field.

In my experience, I think that prediction is accurate. As a graduate student, despite wanting to, it was hard to focus on Iraq because of the lack of source material. In the general Middle East Studies literature, Iraq is often left out, its history put on hold due-to-war.

In response to Marc Lynch’s article, commenters posited other points, which I think are also true.

“I wonder if you are not overly sanguine about the likely result of the influx of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans. I agree that many will have a tremendous amount to offer. But what has tended to bother me is how instrumental some of their perspectives tend to be. I’ve taught many returning vets as a professor at the National War College from 2004 to 2006 and at Georgetown’s Security Studies Program since 1997 (fulltime 1997 to 2004, as an adjunct since). And for every one who has a rich and granular understanding and an ability to put his experience in some sort of broader analytical perspective, I have three who have great experience but whose insights run to: “here’s how to get Arabs (or Afghans) to do what I want.” They have instrumental knowledge, but not necessarily the kind of empathy that is conducive to kind of positive outcome you envisage.

History is, unfortunately, not always kind to the notion that experience as a occupier translates into durable understanding. The Brits had plenty of career colonial administrators and soldier, as did the French. I am not really sure that their often voluminous writings on their areas always holds up well. Will they be mostly Bernard Falls or Rudyard Kiplings?”

Even in my most recent deployment in 2014-2015, the amount of boiling down that occurs when discussing “the Afghan” in terms of how to get him to do this or that based on very old stereotypes and ideas is prevalent – even among highly educated officers and NCOs.

I think there is one interesting aspect of the trends you describe that you didn’t touch in your very thoughtful post on veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan joining ME Studies. This is that, given the current generational composition of the professoriate in the field (the senior professors being mainly of the Vietnam and post-Vietnam generations) and the ideological and philosophical views that dominate amongst its membership regarding the US’s role in the world, the bias or prejudice these veterans might face in the classroom is most likely to come from their professors, not their fellow students. Like many folks, I sat through a lot of tirades on US imperialism and perfidy in college classes over the years, as well as many manifestations of the denigration of government service and antimilitary prejudices that pervade US academia overall. I never had a reason to take it personally, and of course US policy should be discussed and debated, but for a veteran it will feel awfully personal. So it’s a challenge faculty should keep in mind, to be more sensitive and thoughtful in their dealings with their students, to recognize the value of students’ experiences and perspectives coming from government service, and to avoid alienating this generation of potentially very rich contributors to the field.”

As the commenters above noted, there is an extra challenge for the veteran navigating Middle East Studies precisely because there is – generally speaking – an anti-imperialist bent in the discourse. That’s not to say that veteran MES students are imperialists, but as I once told a professor who asked, for a veteran who fought in Iraq, whether he agrees with the war or not, he or she left something there, and to hear it casually dismissed as a mistake can feel extremely personal.

Over the years, I’ve only met a handful of other student veterans who pursued Middle East Studies. They almost all followed a similar path to myself, interested in learning more because of their wartime experience. Having been out of school since 2011, I’m not sure how many student veterans took this path. The VA could probably produce the number based on GI Bill date paired with their declared majors.

With both Iraq and Afghanistan significantly scaled down in terms of American military action, I wonder what effect that will have on veterans who leave the service and pursue an education. The Middle East is no more well-understood now than it was six years ago, and with the Arab Spring, the rise of ISIS, and the war in Syria, we are no closer to figuring it all out. I finished graduate school in the midst of the Arab Spring, and it was wildly perplexing to students and teachers alike, who spoke in class about long-standing and seemingly intractable dictatorships that were suddenly crumbling. I wonder if current discourse in the classroom is hyper-focused on the contemporary situation. I hope it’s not, because I think understanding “how we got here” is important in figuring out “how to get out of here.”

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Life is Strange: You can’t un-know what you already know

Gone Girl

The last episode of Life is Strange came out last week, and I rushed to finish it so as not to have the ending(s) spoiled by the internet. I didn’t think I’d be so engrossed by the game when I first read about it from eastern Afghanistan, but I honestly can’t remember the last time I’ve been so sucked into a game’s story. After each episode – and this one is no different – I suffer from a morose melancholy for a few days. From the moment the credits roll, I stumble through the drudgery of work and life, thinking about what happened and trying to make sense of it all.

I remind myself, on a number of instances, that’s it’s only a game. But that doesn’t really work.

It’s been a great journey. One that led me to think about the way we interact with one another, suicide, and how veterans are portrayed in the media.

I’m not reviewing the game here. I can’t really be objective about it because I loved it so much. There aren’t many games I would describe as beautiful, but that’s the word that comes to mind.

Like a lot of fans of the game, I’m sad that it’s over. As much as I love narrative based, choice-and-consequence games, once I finish them, they kind of lose their magic for me. I can achievement-hunt and explore the world, but I’ve already exhausted my path.

When I played Mass Effect, I played it as I think I would if I were actually Commander Shepard. When presented with choices, I chose what I thought I would choose in that circumstance. It’s for that reason that in my story, Commander Shepard never had a love interest. It’s generally frowned upon to sleep with your subordinates, as it goes.

Once I destroyed the Reapers (the only right choice), I thought about going back and replaying the game and playing as a totally different “character.” I liked the idea of doing it, and I even started, but I think I only lasted about an hour before I grew bored with it. It was hard for me to role-play the game as someone I’m not.

It was the same for Life is Strange. The decisions I made as Max were the decisions I think I would have made if I were walking in her shoes. Now that it’s over, I’m already thinking about how I can replay the game, to try to experience it some more. I can explore different decisions, or play as a different kind of Max, but that really doesn’t appeal to me.

I know how the story goes, and I can’t un-know what I already know.

Which leads me to the whole point of this post. A friend once described part of the problem with the civilian-miltiary divide as one that stems from the fact that once someone joins the military, they never really get out. Sure, they can separate from service, but instead of becoming a civilian, they are more likely to identify as a veteran, an identity separate from being a civilian. They’ve been militarized, and you don’t really ever become de-militarized.

Once you’re in, even when you get out, you can’t un-know what you already know.

When I finally finished Tactics Ogre last year, I wrote about how even though it felt good to finally beat it, the final playthrough was tainted by the first, some twenty years ago. The way I experienced it the first time was canon – I can’t go back and change things. And even if I do, it never feels quite right.

When a young man or woman chooses to join the military, that doesn’t become undone when they come home. They can never go back to “normal,” whatever that even means. You can’t un-know what you already know.

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Volunteering to Not Volunteer

Full Metal Bitch

When I was in college I met lots of smart and ambitious young men and women who struggled – like most people – to figure out what it was they wanted to do for a career. Being one of the only veterans they knew, I’d ask them if they ever considered military service. I’d usually get a range of replies that all led to the same answer: no.

If you are a young man or woman and physically capable of serving in the military and you happen to be of prime fighting age during a time of war, is it a duty to volunteer?

We talk about draft dodgers of the Vietnam era. In the future, will the candidate running for President who is an Iraq or Afghanistan veteran challenge the non-veteran on why they chose not to volunteer when they could have?

It just seems to me that in a country where so few are eligible to serve due to education, drugs, criminal history, or physical fitness, that those who could, should – especially if we are actively engaged in war.

It’s a hard argument, I know. It’s the “I don’t want you to do the dishes, I want you to want to do the dishes” argument.

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#JadeHelm

So no shit, there I was.

Driving between Dallas and Fort Hood, returning from a recon for a funeral detail.

There I was, at a nondescript rest stop somewhere in the middle of nowhere.

In uniform.

I paid for my coffee and waited for a fellow soldier to pay for his Red Bull when an older man approached the counter. He was about my height, balding, overweight with a stained, sleeveless cutoff shirt. He looked me square in the eyes, making sure we were locked in.

With both hands pressed against the counter holding him up, he looked at me hard and asked with a straight and serious face: “Jade helm?”

I may or may not have responded with a sarcastic remark.

Without going into the details, the rest of the conversation revolved around preachers, preparations, and treason.

Without question, it was the most uncomfortable I have ever been in regards to civilian-military relations, and I’ve dealt with a lot of anti-military rhetoric, having been a part of veterans issues in New York City and attending graduate school at the School of Oriental and African Studies.

In those settings, challenges towards my military service usually resulted in me thinking critically about my decision to serve, and eventually hardening that resolve through deliberate thought.

In this instance, being called treasonous by an angry Texan, I wonderd what might be sitting on his belt. I got out of there as fast I could.

It’s interesting – and a little scary – to read on the internet about this group of people worried about an obscure military exercise. It’s a completely different and strange thing to actually be confronted by it and challenged by it.

I didn’t like it.

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A good article on the 10th Mountain in Afghanistan that gets so much wrong

Saw this article from the Washington Post making the rounds a couple of days ago: In Afghanistan, redeployed U.S. soldiers still coping with demons of post-traumatic stress. It’s about soldiers in the 10th Mountain Division who are currently fighting in Afghanistan. Not sure why I decided to read it – I think someone said it was an important article so I jumped in.

It’s a good article, but one of two things are happening here: either the journalist doesn’t understand the nature of the modern, all-volunteer military (doubtful), or he’s taking advantage of the fact that most Americans certainly don’t.

They have served as many as seven combat tours each, with the accompanying traumas — pulling a friend’s body from a charred vehicle, watching a rocket tear through a nearby barracks, learning from e-mail that a marriage was falling apart.

But a diagnosis of post-traumatic stress disorder is not a barrier to being redeployed. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. Instead, the Army is trying to answer a new question: Who is resilient enough to return to Afghanistan, in spite of the demons they are still fighting?

The first paragraph is catching. Seven deployments! That’s pretty incredible, and probably unfathomable for someone reading this who has not served in the past ten years. It’s incredible to me – as someone who has served!

But it is the second paragraph that had me leaning in and wondering where this article was going. Not when the Army needs its most experienced soldiers to wrap up the war. What is he talking about there? That sentence is making it seem like these men were forced to go overseas, specially selected, when they certainly were not. Stop-loss as a policy has ended. These men chose to stay in the Army, which is admirable. They are not victims of the Army preying on their war experience to close this thing out. The Army is not having any problems recruiting or retaining its soldiers. These soldiers chose this, proudly.

The author then goes on to list some soldiers and the problems they faced upon redeploying from previous tours. All good stuff.

Later, he writes this:

His commanders and his subordinates said Borce is an impeccable leader, the kind of soldier his unit needs here in Ghazni province. He was chosen to redeploy. He followed orders. But he acknowledges that he was still reckoning with what he had already been through, even as he boarded the plane for Afghanistan in January.

Chosen? Again, this line makes it seem like the Army singled him out, which the article is not substantiating. It appears that Borce wanted to go, despite dealing with readjustment issues. The Army “chose” the 10th Mountain Division, of which Borce was a member. That is all.

Further on, he writes this:

“The mentality was that you had to be hard. There was no concern for behavioral health, even though at the time I had a lot of issues,” he said. “Some of the stuff I saw really messed me up.”

That mentality has changed, he said, and for plenty of reasons. Last year there were 349 suicides among active-duty U.S. troops, more than the 295 Americans who died last year in Afghanistan.

I’m pretty sure that this was the line that compelled me to write this down and make sure I responded to this here. It was just a few weeks ago that a study came out confirming that deployment factors are not related to the spike in military suicides. If you didn’t know that, you would probably buy in to the popular narrative that deployments are related to the military’s suicide problem – which the studies show is not the case.

Lots of people like to write about the “veteran as victim” narrative and the civilian-military divide. While there was some good stuff in this article, I got the sense that it painted the soldiers in this story as victims of their own professionalism. They are professional soldiers, capable of coping with multiple deployments – that is a good thing, and worth writing about. The style and juxtaposing though, hints at things that don’t exist, and to me, that does nothing to inform the public of the reality of what is going on with their military, but rather only reinforces tired old narratives that don’t want to die.

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Social media as a way to bridge the civil-military divide

Soldiers crossing a bridge. It’s a metaphor. But that really happened.

Just about every week there is some event that happens that connects social media and the Army, for good or for ill. I’m a true believer in social media. I love using it myself, I studied its use in social movements in college, and I believe that for all its flaws, social media is good for the Army and good for soldiers. Social media allows both the Army and its soldiers to “tell the Army’s story” to the American public, and further, I argue that it helps fill in some of the empty space that makes up the civilian-military divide.

A brief history

… I started to write my own “brief history” of the Army and social media, but then remembered that MAJ Crispin Burke (aka Starbuck, aka, Wings Over Iraq) wrote a good one at the New York Times At War Blog. So if you’re interested in that history, check it out.

How the Army has changed

The Army has struggled over the years to figure out if wants to embrace social media or wall itself in. Thankfully, after many fits and starts, the Army has chosen to embrace social media, and cautiously empowers soldiers to use it to tell the Army story. For its part, the Army has established a pretty impressive digital foothold (Facebook, Twitter, blog, etc.) Units across the force have their own digital holdings. While I’m sure lots of units out there are just “doing it” the Army actually has created guidelines on “how to do it” through the Social Media Handbook (3rd Edition). The handbook provides units and individuals the guidance they need on how to establish a social media presence for their unit or how to conduct themselves online as individuals. There are some specific rules governing a digital presence for units, but for individuals, following the UCMJ, not violating OPSEC, and using common sense is the best hedge for staying out of trouble.

Connecting worlds, bridging the civil-military divide

The thing that excites me most about social media is the way it allows outsiders of a specific community to inject themselves into that community and engage with it in a way that would normally be difficult or impossible. Interested in ballet but not a ballet dancer? A few minutes of searching and you can amass a small arsenal of blogs, Twitter accounts and Facebook pages to saturate yourself in the art. Whenever I find myself interested in a new topic, I usually start finding that community online as a way to quickly learn about it, and hopefully, connect to people who know what they’re talking about.

While the big Army is able to tell its story through its social media presence, individual soldiers like myself can engage with the larger public through blogs like this or on any other social media site. While military bases are normally walled off and secluded from major population areas, the internet is everywhere, and anyone can engage with soldiers who are out there and online. Interested civilians can follow me on Twitter or follow this blog and get an idea of what their soldiers are doing in a more personal way than just reading about it in the newspaper.

Of course, there are inherent dangers in this, just as there is when the military is coupled with social media generally. Some people will do dumb things. That is why anyone – especially soldiers – who choose to engage online need to do so with eyes wide open.

Top comment: “Every time i hear this video it reminds me that we’re all humans and sometimes we need to set aside our differences and live life. I salute these soldiers for taking time to make this video as they get little RR in the war zone. So the next time you see a soldier be kind and say “thanks” because it could be their last appreciation they hear from someone that’s protecting our freedom and liberty.” 

A few years ago when I was still in college, I remember this video was released and it was getting shared across the internet. From the comments and reactions I saw from a lot of my peers in college, I got the impression that this was the first time they saw and thought of soldiers as human beings. That is, to most Americans – young people especially – the concept of the soldier is something abstract, something never seen or experienced. It’s something that happens in movies, video games, and newspaper articles. While many of my military friends chided the soldiers in the video for making us “look foolish” or for obviously having too much free time, I saw value in the video in the way it humanized the soldiers to a society who are largely unaware of what soldiers do or are doing. Plus, the whole idea of tough paratroopers dancing and enjoying a Lady GaGa song destroyed a ton of stereotypes.

The civil-military divide, that thing which gets lots of lip service of being something that needs to be addressed but little in terms of how to fix it. I’ve written about it before, and I’m of the mind that since we’re helplessly outnumbered by the American population, it falls on our shoulders to do our best to not wall ourselves in further and reach out the rest of country to help bridge the divide. Using social media is one way in which we can do that.

And, just for fun.

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This “total war on Islam” nonsense

I saw the article at Danger Room titled “U.S. Military Taught Officers: Use ‘Hiroshima’ tactics for ‘Total War’ on Islam” shortly after it was posted. I took a deep breath, fired it off on Twitter disgustedly, and then went to work. Since then, some friends have prompted me for my opinion on the matter and a number of other blogs I read have referenced the article (Mondoweiss, The Arabist).

Andrew Exum (Abu Muqawama) writes:

“Plenty of U.S. military officers and troops were inspired by their service in either Iraq or Afghanistan to learn Arabic or Dari and study the peoples of the region. I left the Army in 2004, as a matter of fact, to pursue a master’s degree in Middle Eastern Studies at the American University of Beirut,” says Andrew Exum, a retired Army captain who now serves as a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security. “But plenty of other officers and troops began their own amateurish studies of Islam and now, like Lt. Col. Dooley, peddle claims to know the truth about the violence and hatred at the heart of Islam. Pope’s warning that a little learning can be a dangerous thing is certainly relevant here. These hucksters, like the Robert Spencers of the world, know just enough to make themselves sound credible to an uninformed audience and hide their prejudices under a thin layer of amateurish, ideologically motivated scholarship.”

Like Exum, I was inspired by my service in Iraq to go and study the Middle East and Arabic – mostly because I saw firsthand how much we didn’t know. As a result, I studied abroad in Morocco and Egypt and did my masters at the School of Oriental and African Studies, where I wrote my thesis on the experiences of Iraqi soldiers during the Iran-Iraq War. On this blog I write about military things and Middle Eastern things. As much as I hate getting into these kinds of weeds, this blog sits at exactly the intersection of the military and Middle East Studies (a very uncomfortable intersection, mind you). What I’ve found is that this subject is extremely sensitive for everyone involved. People hold strong opinions on this, for whatever reason.

So here’s what I think.

Exum is right, over the past ten years there has been a cadre of opportunists who took advantage of the the military’s thirst for knowledge on a subject they know relatively little about (Islam) and used that opportunity to spread their own ideas of what Islam is and how to best fight the war on terror. For a long period of time, these guys went unnoticed (internally, anyway), probably because there weren’t many people to call their bluff. This course in question was pulled after an unnamed officer who took the course alerted someone higher to the objectionable curriculum. I’d be willing to bet that he had taken some courses on Islam or the Middle East before (or maybe he just understood that ‘total war’ on an entire people based on their religion was not a good thing).

Thankfully, General Dempsey already came out and condemned the coursework that Danger Room uncovered as “objectionable, against our values” and “academically unsound.” The Department of Defense is currently conducting a review of material to root out any traces of material that is combative towards Islam or rooted in some kind of Islamophobia.

Unfortunately, the damage has already been done, as most of the headlines regarding this incident inferred that the US military was indoctrinating its officers with this viewpoint, when that’s not the case. Outsiders looking in read the headline, read the article, and then conclude that what they’ve always thought was true: the US is at war with Islam or the military is filled with Islamophobes. This is unfortunate, because neither is true, and events like this degrades the way the public views the military.

But this incident points to a larger issue that exists, which I wrote about previously in the infidel post. There is still a poor understanding of the peoples of the Middle East and Islam as a religion within the armed forces and this poor understanding can manifest itself in ugly ways.

Why does this happen? My hunch tells me that people want to explain difficult things away by going for the low hanging fruit – “they” hate us because of their religion, or their culture, or worst of all, “they” are violent by nature. Fighting is hard, and everyone has to reconcile why they do it in their own heads at some point. Fighting a war on global terrorism, a vague thing in-itself hardly provides a person a good starting point to why he or she is wherever they are in the world fighting whoever it is he/she is fighting. But if they are fighting someone because that other person automatically hates our way of life, or that person is inherently violent or evil, it makes the process a whole lot easier.

Simply stated, it’s easy to blame complex phenomena on one’s culture or religion. Unfortunately, that’s wrong. Following that path 1) won’t work, 2) is wrong, and 3) will piss everyone off.

While this revelation is a public relations setback, I think it is bringing to the surface an important issue which can now be rapidly addressed. I know I’m doing my part.

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Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

(Don: This article post is from 2011, and many of the links are dead or take you to strange places)

My parents have a small bathroom in their house on the first floor. It’s tiny and sparsely decorated. The only wall adornment is a dusty ‘motivational’ poster in a frame.

Stand in the bathroom and look left.

If you can’t read the text, it says “VISION: Vision is the art of seeing the invisible.” It’s attributed to Jonathan Swift.

I’ve stared at that poster a lot. People can interpret the meaning in a number of ways. “Seeing the invisible” might mean seeing the invisible dead people who move among us without our knowing it (except, of course, for those who can see them). To me it means picturing something that doesn’t exist. Yet.

Over the past couple of weeks, a number of people have written about the civil-military divide. Kings of War had a piece on a French officer’s lament over the public’s (mis)understanding of the meaning behind the death of some of their soldiers, which sparked a debate on ‘why soldiers fight’ in the comments. Andrew Bacevich wrote a piece for the Huffington Post chronicling the “display” of the military for public consumption, and how it lacked real meaning. Elizabeth Samet, an English professor at West point fired things up when she suggested that the awkward offer of ‘thank you for your service’ may originate in guilt. Back to Kings of War, “Captain Hyphen” confirmed the awkwardness, to which MAJ (Ret.) Mike Lyons responded by asserting things have never been better in terms of the civil-military relationship.

So what’s going on here? Is the civili-military divide – the gap – bigger than it has ever been or not?

MAJ (Ret.) Mike Lyons makes some good points in his argument describing how the divide is as close as it can be:

There have to be at least 5,000 members of the media who have been embedded with military units since 2003. They have the names and email addresses of let’s say 100,000 service members in their cell phones and blackberries and vice versa. Soldiers have real friends in the media today. They are doing a great job writing about soldiers and what they are doing overseas and at home now more than ever, and that’s as it should be. The media uses military analysts who are ready to discuss and explain all the intricacies of the mission or whatever the military is up to. The Pentagon now gets it regarding social media and its connection to the civilian world.  Active duty officer’s blog openly about topics in the military – leadership among the popular topics – this was unheard of in the Army I grew up with.

I agree that the information is out there. Anyone can spend the time and learn as much as they want about the military world. You can follow lots of service members on Twitter and read their blogs, and get all up in their world.

In the media rich environment we live in today, the same can be said for just about anything.

Feeling similarly to Mike, a few years ago I raised this exact thing to one of my mentors. “Are we beating a dead horse here?” I asked. “Everyday I see stories about us in the media.” To which he wisely responded “Yes, there’s a lot out there, that’s true. “But” he continued, “You know, when you drive a Jeep, the only thing you notice on the road are other Jeeps.”

She doesn’t drive a Jeep

The information is out there, but it doesn’t count if people don’t care.

Once, while sitting in a history class during a summer session, the professor threw out the question “How many American troops have been killed in Iraq?” to which a girl – probably 20ish – responded “I don’t know, like, 30 or 40.” At this point in the war, some 4,000 American troops had been killed. My jaw literally dropped and I felt like I was going to throw up my heart. I was offended. How could an American college student not know, or even come close to knowing the number of American war dead?

To me, that is an example of the civil-military divide.

People like Mike Lyons, Captain Hyphen, and myself drive Jeeps and we see Jeeps all over the road. But the majority of the country, like the girl in the history class, don’t drive Jeeps. As a veteran himself, Mike Lyons is in the game. And as a veteran, he’s going to notice all the military stories, all the Jeeps. In fact, as a military analyst for the media, it’s his job to notice.

Unpacking

The term ‘civil-military divide’ gets thrown around a lot without explanation. Like ‘transition,’ we talk about it without really talking about it. What do we actually mean? While this may seem tedious, explaining helps.

  • ‘Civil’ means civilians. Regular men and women. Except, they never served in the military.
  • ‘Military’ means the men and women who serve or served in the military.
  • ‘Divide’ suggests a gap between the two entities.

Significantly, when the term is used, it usually suggests that the civil-military divide is unnatural. There’s a sense that somehow the gap has ‘grown’ from a point in which there was no gap or it was at least a lot smaller. Besides being undesirable, it’s also described as being unhealthy for the country (unless we’re talking about civil-military relations, which has more to do with civilian control of the military. These two things are interrelated, but not the same).

The problem with this formulation is that it suggests that there are only two types of people in this country, military and civilian. Once someone goes through military training they begin seeing the rest of the country – those who haven’t served – as ‘civilians.’ This is usually done with a hint of superiority (see Ricks, 1997). Civilians, on the other hand, don’t view the world this way, unless they’re forced. That is, civilians don’t think of themselves primarily as ‘civilians,’ highlighting their non-militaryness. If they do, well that’s a shame.

A friend of mine wisely informed me that the only time she realizes she is a ‘civilian’ is when someone from the ‘military’ reminds her.

Civilians ———– GAP ———– Military (the push comes from this side)

My point is that the civil-military divide is mostly viewed from the military point of view. We talk about it, we write about it and sometimes, we suggest ways to address it. And in doing so, we give it power and the meaning we want.

Something we can never know is how much thought ‘civilians’ give to the civil-military divide on their own time. Do they sit around and discuss how out of touch they are with the military? I doubt it. Every now and then an article might pop up somewhere urging Americans to pay more attention to the lives and sacrifices of service members. Usually though, these are family members of troops, or someone who had a chance encounter with a veteran, for example, and was suddenly inspired.

The trend suggests that American society is becoming less interested and more disconnected with the military. So, expecting an ‘about face’ (or the civilian equivalent) is not promising. Since we are the ones talking about it, we should charge ourselves with fixing it.

Imagining an end to the civil-military divide

Getting back to my parents’ bathroom, the problem with the entire civil-military divide debate is the lack of vision. A lot of time and energy is spent thinking about what constitutes authentic appreciation of the military and what is just political theater. There is little, though, offered in terms of solutions.

What would the country look like if the divide was completely eliminated?

Alas, I don’t have the answer to that question. But I do have some ideas.

Not being outright disrespected is a good start.

ROTC in more schools is good too. Active student veteran clubs at college is good (so long as the club interacts with the rest of the campus and doesn’t become a Fortress). It would also be helpful if military service was not always cast as the last refuge of the downtrodden.

Strangers thanking the military for their service is nice. Awkward, yes. But not a bad thing.

But, if the divide was completely eliminated, would that mean that stopping to thank a service member would be all the more strange, since interactions between society and the military would be the norm?

If the goal is to close the gap, I argue the more interaction the American public has with the military, the better. Until the Zombie Apocalypse, the American public is unlikely to swarm any military bases in an attempt to get to know them better. In the interim, it would be helpful if all the energy spent grumbling about the civil-military divide was instead invested on imagining and ultimately enacting solutions.

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Veteran Theater Review: Go To Your God Like A Soldier

“War stories aren’t really anything more than stories about people anyway.” Michael Herr, Dispatches

Taking a cue from my friend, Jason, this is my first theater review. It’s not a pure theater review, but my experience there plus a review.

Through a friend, I learned of a preview performance of ‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ in London before it heads up to Edinburgh Fringe in August. Before going, I knew absolutely nothing about its content, purpose, or background. With nothing else to do on a Sunday evening, my wife and I set off.

The preview was shown at the Old Vic Tunnels, close to Waterloo station. Entry is gained through a dingy fire door along an innocuous wall. I only spotted it because of the huddle of well-dressed theater-seeming people drinking beer out of plastic cups gathered outside. Inside, the tunnels are dark and scarcely lit. A damp, white mist hangs in the place and the air stinks of unfinished basement.  If I hadn’t paid to get in, I would have thought it was gross.

Making our way past the box office, we reached the bar, situated right outside the theater. We arrived only a few minutes before showtime, so we didn’t have time to get a beer. I got the impression from the faces around me that this was the first time many of them were at this venue, and they didn’t know whether to be charmed or disgusted. People looked like drained zombies, watching each other nervously and critically. It was very quiet.

Standing around, not drinking, my mind wandered. I’m always a little nervous when the military is put on display for the masses, or in this case, the theatre crowd. Most people do not have any connections to the military, so this might be as close as they’ll ever get. An anti-military performance or a caricatured performance might confirm forever a person’s impressions.

Shortly thereafter, the doors opened and the ushers began letting people through. We pushed to the front of the gathering crowd and slid through the doors. The theater was long and narrow. The ‘stage’ was not elevated and neither were the seats. We moved to about the mid-section and sat behind a couple of teenagers with small heads. The seats looked like old vinyl movie theater seats. Some of them had sheets of paper on them that said WET SEAT. Water dripped from the ceilings and ran in quick streams down the brown, rocky walls. The stage was eerily-bathed in low light, and a deep, steady humming sound rolled slowly and loudly from the speakers.

Sitting, I began reading the program. I got nervous when I spotted a reference to the “purported” death of Osama bin Laden in the ‘Note from the Director.’ Purported? That loaded word invoked conspiracy, and my stomach turned at the thought of having to sit through a 55 minute lecture on the lies and atrocities of the Great Imperial War Machine. Aside from that, everything else looked good in the program, and I was happy to see that they used a military advisor (Sapper Rob Grover) to ensure accuracy and realism (the most important thing to a veteran audience, mind you). Still, you never know what you’re going to get. A military advisor disgruntled with his service may see things through a very different lens than others. His short bio said he is still serving, so I wasn’t too worried.

Shortly after taking our seats, the theater went dark (except for the stage) and the performance began. The theater was full.

The deep humming noise crescendoed into a bass-heavy techno track as four actors stormed the stage in British military combat gear and began ‘clearing’ the room. Methodical, realistic, and well-choreographed, it looked like dance. Is this going to be performance art, I wondered? I hoped not – I wasn’t mentally prepared for that. I never realized just how choreographed and dance-like room-clearing can look, all sharp gestures and angles. Once the room was cleared, the music faded and the dialogue began (phew).

Three men and a woman.

The story attempts to tackle a number of important issues through showcasing the “experience of war for the men and women who serve.” The role of women in the military and combat (and the supposed protective instinct of men), mental health and stigma, counter-insurgency, military families, and civilian-military relations all get a fair treatment through the course of the story.

The first thing that struck me was the female cast member. Obviously, I was watching some kind of British combat unit. Do the Brits allow women in the infantry, I thought? I don’t think so. I wrote it off as artistic license, and assumed that since this was being performed by a small troupe, a woman would have to play a man’s role. That, or pure ignorance of the military by the theater group, despite having a military advisor. As the play developed, I learned that ignorance or artistic license wasn’t the cause, and gender plays a powerful and central role in the story. I had automatically assumed the troupe got it wrong. When it comes to accuracy, veterans rarely give the benefit of doubt.

The story is about four British soldiers who barricade themselves in a room in Afghanistan. Something bad has happened shortly before, and we only learn the details as the story develops. The situation in the room grows more tense as the enemy (Taliban? We don’t actually know) gets closer pressuring the team to do something. One of the soldiers presses the leader to quit waffling and ‘make a decision.’ This character, a young soldier, but seemingly combat experienced, is convinced that violent aggression and decisive action are the only solutions to the problem. He is a War is War(rior). His superior also seems tested and combat experienced, as he weighs the available options. The main conflict in the story is not the Brits vs. gunmen, but the aggressive British soldier vs. his more cautious superior.

We learn about the individual characters through ‘flashback’ scenes, accomplished through sudden changes in lighting accompanied by sound and robotic movements by the cast as they get into position. The first couple of flashback scenes are strange. The audience (or at least I) wasn’t ready for it. Plus, the actors are still wearing their uniforms, despite flashing back to scenes where they are in their homes, the supermarket, or a doctor’s office. After a few of these, though, they become more believable.

The troupe did an excellent job in nailing these tough issues without caricaturing the military.

In the best scene, I sat cringing as a military character argued with his ex-wife over her refusal to let him see their child. Although she had valid concerns, she was being rude and unreasonable, and he was getting angrier. As the situation escalated, and pleading turned to yells, it seemed like the military character was going to snap and do something stupid. But he didn’t. His character came off as intelligent, if emotionally distressed, but good. It would have been very easy, and more dramatic, to have him do something else (like hit her). I think the audience (and I) expected him to do something stupid, or at least, expected to see him do something stupid. He is a combat veteran dealing with incredible pressures, and it seemed like he was ready to burst. Good on the company for portraying such a complicated character as he is, and not as we expect to see him.

Speaking with my cousin over the weekend, who works in film, we discussed the failure of war movies at the box office. We agreed that contemporary war movies don’t do well because it is hard for (non-military) people to connect with them. Most people don’t understand the military, so how are they going to understand a war movie (the military in the most extreme situation)?

‘Go To Your God Like A Soldier,’ does a good job at connecting with the audience because half of the performance is not at war at all, but back home, at places and with people familiar to everybody. The group does a good job at taking something that is abstract to most people (men and women in the military at war) and deconstructing it to a form that is recognizable and digestible, without relying on stereotypes. It is an exciting performance that leaves the audience thinking. Highly recommended.

‘Go To Your God Like a Soldier’ plays at Edinburgh Fringe from August 4th to August 28th. You can follow :DELIRIUM Theatre company on Twitter @DelirumTheatre.

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