The Post-9/11 Veteran and Middle East Studies

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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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A Dark Imagining – the dwindling flash-to-bang ratio of the internet

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A few months ago, I tweeted about how demoralizing it would be to go to war in the Twitter age.

My point, was that as someone who is now plugged into the social media universe, I can imagine how demoralizing it would feel to be suddenly unplugged, deployed, and forward in a fight, fully knowing that there is a cadre of Twitterarti in Snarkistan talking shit about my every move. Things that happen today on the battlefield are instantly captured, written about, analyzed, and then snarked-up before lunch.

General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently hinted at this at a recent talk:

“For the first time our competence and character are being evaluated by experts and pundits while we fight.”

I also saw it a couple of days ago, as another Egyptian leader was deposed through the massing of people in Tahrir Square. Less than 24 hours had passed and already people were decrying the whole thing as a fraud or an American plot, before the party in the street had even ended.

I’m really not making any striking points in this post, but to say this is the way the world is heading, and it is high time to accept that instead of lament and thrash at history. Future war will involve us going forward, doing things, and having those things beamed back and dissected and becoming memes before we re-enter the forward operaring base. Raging against the machine will just make you nuts.

Just something to think about.

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Radical Islamists or football hooligans looking for a fight?

“You won’t understand the Middle East until you get lost in Cairo.”

That’s a piece of advice I received from a former American ambassador who spent a great deal of time living and working in the Middle East. What he meant is that understanding the Middle East is difficult and things are not always what they seem. To grasp what is going on, sometimes you have to go a lot deeper than what feels comfortable.

With images of violence streaming in from Egypt and across the Middle East, it is understandable that some would respond with anger – anger over the senseless death of one of our ambassadors, members of his team, and the Libyan guards who died trying to protect them. While the events in Benghazi appear to be a departure from the norm (the norm being violent protest at US embassies, but not resulting in the deaths of American personnel), it is hard to understand how anyone can protest on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks and continue to do so after the violent attack in Benghazi. I get the sense that there are many who don’t want to “understand,” but rather want to “do something.” To react.

For those who simply want to react, there’s probably not much I can write here that will convince them otherwise. If a person get punched in the face, it is completely appropriate to punch the person back. But nations are not people. Nations have responsibilities that go far beyond the immediacy of emotion and reflex. It would be too easy to declare a simple cause, like “they” hate us or this is “their” religion. It’s easy to reach for that because it requires no extra thought or work. It’s the reaction of ignorance and laziness. It’s a way to cast things in stark contrast to one another. Right and wrong. Good versus evil.

If only things were that simple.

So the rest of this post is intended for those who understand and agree that the world is a complex place.

There are a number of things at play when trying to discern why there is violence against our embassies. Without question, the inflammatory video the “Innocence of Muslims” served as the catalyst for the inexcusable violence. But underlying this is a history of deep mistrust of the US because of foreign policy decisions and interventions of the past, anger over US support for Israel and our inability to mediate an end to the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and the constant stoking of emotions by leaders in these countries to push blame for almost anything on foreigners and meddling. This does not excuse the violence, but rather lays out that there is no single motivation for the behavior of a violent protestor.

In the case of Egypt, and probably other nations as well, domestic politics are influencing these events to a greater degree than is given credit. Since the beginning of the Arab Spring, a “protest culture” has emerged which has proven that massing people for a common cause can effect real change. In Egypt, much of the violence between police and the population is accredited to the “Ultras” who are essentially what we would call football hooligans. Originally I wanted to write this entire post about the ultras, but I’ve found a couple of good sources that do a better job (The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer and “Egyptian Ultras Emerge as Powerful Political Force“). And like in London last year, I suspect there are a lot of people that simply come out and do it for the lulz.

Among these protestors, there are radical Islamists. These are most likely the ones who are carrying the flag of al-Qaeda and pushing the violence to more extreme levels.

All of these actors come together with their different grievances and mass them against something they don’t like; in this case, the US (for whatever reason). Someone who protests at the embassy isn’t by default a radical Islamist. She could be an Egyptian college student who is angered by the United State’s refusal to take legal action against the producer of the inflammatory film (the notion of Freedom of Speech protecting even inflammatory speech is not always understood or respected). It can also be a member of a football club who showed up for a good fight. Or it can be a radical Islamist, who seeks to take advantage of a dangerous situation to advance his own agenda.

The point of this post is to hopefully encourage anyone interested in what is happening across the Middle East to dig deeper than the headlines and try to understand what is going on, instead of simply lumping millions of people together into a mush of anti-American radical Islamists.

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The Pat Tillman Military Scholarship

I wrote a short OpEd that appeared in the Arizona Republic over the weekend about my experience as a Tillman Military Scholar.

I was able to study in Egypt because of a scholarship I received from the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2009. Studying in Egypt was the defining experience of my undergraduate education and prepared me well for what I would face in graduate school – especially in terms of field work for my dissertation. The Pat Tillman Military Scholarship will be taking applications for its next batch of scholars between February 13th and March 16. If you are a veteran, service member, or spouse of one and are interested in the scholarship, you should strongly consider applying.

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Introduction

I’ve toyed around with blogs in the past. I had a blog while I was studying at the American University in Cairo. It was shortlived, though, since it was soley based on me being in Egypt. I enjoyed the process, and enjoyed writing.

Since then, I’ve started a few blogs for a day or so, and then quickly deleted them. Always too worried about taking on the added responsibility and feeling compelled to produce, while putting myself out there for criticism.

I thought about doing an anonymous blog, but why? I don’t intend on writing anything nasty towards anyone, and wouldn’t that be the purpose of an anonymous blog? To be able to say what you want without worrying about being revealed? Then, though, I would worry about being revealed.

So here I go again. This will be my personal blog. The title comes from a line that caught my attention from executed ex-President of Iraq, Saddam Hussein. You can read about it on the About page. The blog is centrally about soldiering, writ large. Sometimes, I’ll write about things only remotely connected to soldiering, but there will be a connection there, somewhere.

From time to time, I’ll also write about some of my other interests, like Arabic, the Middle East, or the arts.

I don’t anticipate posting daily. Maybe weekly. Maybe longer. I’d like to write longer pieces. With good research and an appropriate number of hyperlinks. A lot of people blog about other blogs, or post news links. I don’t want to do that.

I have a good feeling about this one.

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