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Who Says The Elite Aren’t Fit To Serve?

“J ohn!” called my brother from the living room. “Are you coming out or not?”

He and my sister-in-law were eager to start the movie we had rented, but I, lurking in my parents’ darkened study, waved them off. While they and the rest of the family were distracted, I had private business to attend to on the home computer.

It was December 2001, and I was a New Yorker.

Of the innumerable moments of surreality accompanying Sept. 11, 2001′s fracturing of our daily lives — fighter jets circling the city, a pillar of ash rising to the stratosphere, New Yorkers engaging in spontaneous conversation — here was a doozy: finding myself at my parents’ in California for Christmas, nosing furtively about the Internet for information on getting into the U.S. Army’s Officer Candidate School (OCS) at Fort Benning, Ga.

It seemed on the one hand an entirely reasonable thing to be doing, and on the other an outrageous one. Reasonable because the military would probably need the services of motivated citizens in the near future, and I was a motivated citizen. Outrageous because I, a lawyer with no military experience, knew virtually no one from my own background — comfortable childhood, good education, white-collar career — who had ever been in the service.
Nor had my prior life experience reduced my ignorance of things military. After high school, the students who joined up were the ones I would have expected to do so — rough dudes with pickup trucks who shot guns on the weekends. In college, I was barely aware of ROTC, except that I would occasionally see groups of cadets jogging in formation across campus and think that they must feel so awkward. In law school, I did sign up for “informational interviews” — they didn’t dare hope for actual employment interviews at Berkeley — with some of the services’ JAG Corps representatives and was later informed by a fellow student that I was the only bona fide interviewee. The other students on the roster intended to read statements of protest regarding the Defense Department’s “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy.

Such experiences over a young lifetime coalesce into prejudice: People like us — the privileged, frankly — don’t join the military. We wonder about the military world occasionally, and a few of us may actually grow curious enough to investigate serving in a halting sort of way — lurking in our parents’ studies at Christmastime, perhaps — but that’s about as far as it generally goes, or ought to go, we think. The armed forces are for another sort of American. Right?

It took me most of a year to get serious and walk a block from my apartment to the recruiting center at 22nd Street and 6th Avenue in Manhattan, and another year to slog my way through the Army’s truly dysfunctional officer recruiting process. During this period I harangued myself continually: How does one train physically for this? Will my 29-year-old body hold up? Am I mentally resilient enough to handle the “suck factor” of an intense program such as OCS? Am I personally forceful enough to be a leader in the military?

In short, can I hack it?

Which is exactly the question that ought to occur to a rational person in my circumstances. But I think that having no one close to me — no one I considered like me — against whose military experiences I could gauge my own potential, caused me greater doubt and anxiety than would have been the case otherwise.

Today I am a first lieutenant with a platoon of 50 men. As of October, I have been in the service for three years, and I have spent the past year in Iraq. I believe I’ve been as successful as any of the other junior officers in my unit.

Which ought to surprise me, given my prior prejudices about what sort of person is fit for the military. I was never the captain of the team. In Little League, as George F. Will once confessed, I prayed to walk. I “played guns” as a child but never owned one as an adult. I enjoyed camping and hiking but was hardly a mountaineer. I never took part in an Ironman competition. My pastimes and recreations, in short, little resembled what I imagined to be the off-time activities of the mud-smeared troopers I’d seen slogging through the woods on the Learning Channel.

Then one day in 2005, I found myself geared out like those Learning Channel guys, face painted, lugging a 60-pound rucksack and a rifle across Fort Benning and rappelling and picking my way through a dark forest with night-vision goggles on my face, and in my head the prospect of swift punishment at the hands of my trainer should I lose my way in the dark or lose track of any member of my squad.

After that, I was on to my first unit to flounder about and find my way as a new officer. Then last year, I found myself amid the maddening impenetrable politics of Anbar province — sipping chai with sheiks, doling out reconstruction cash, living in an Iraqi police station and wondering just how much good will our hosts really bore toward me and my guys.

Along this road I discovered something about myself, and about the military.

About myself, I discovered that there were within me — within everyone — latent abilities, tendencies, temperaments that only an environment such as this will bring out. And yes, I’m speaking to you bookish types now. However well you may think you know your own pacific constitution, be assured that there is someone more physical and forceful within you — someone you will meet, given the right circumstances.

About the Army, I learned that it can be a hard — and hardening — environment, but by and large the people in it are just people. They are not uniquely tough by nature, though they become so through training and preparation and habit. And their toughness is leavened with a deep sense of common humanity — a basic unquestioning take-them-as-they-are compassion rarely found in the “softer” cosmopolitan world of ambition and sophistication from which I hail.

The privileged of prior generations were more likely to consider military service a natural expression of their own privileged relationship to the state — the least, you might say, that they could do in return for the opportunities the nation had granted them. Consider a young John F. Kennedy working connections to obtain a commission that his health would have denied him otherwise. How many from Harvard pull such strings today? To chalk this up to the ethos of a “simpler,” less questioning time would be easy, but it would also be facile.

All else being equal, staffing the armed services with citizens from the broadest range of backgrounds is still the best course. Further, we are in a time, and a conflict, in which the unique demands placed upon the military make the need for innovative leadership acute. (My artillery battalion, for example, conducts foot patrols in Ramadi, performs base security, trains Iraqi police recruits, mans outposts in the desert, forms neighborhood councils, oversees reconstruction projects and . . . oh yes, shoots artillery.) How better to achieve this than to cast a wide net?

Am I simply recruiting among the elite, then? No. But I would regret knowing that some who might have served did not do so because of the same lazy prejudice that I once held — the barely conscious assumption that some Americans are at once too good, and not good enough, for the military.

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