Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

From Ivy League to olive drab

After I spoke at Princeton the other night, I was surprised by the stream of young men who came up to told me that they are joining the Marines or Army after graduation. On reflection, I shouldn’t have been, because lately I’ve been noticing this phenomenon of graduates of elite universities going into the military. ...

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After I spoke at Princeton the other night, I was surprised by the stream of young men who came up to told me that they are joining the Marines or Army after graduation.

On reflection, I shouldn’t have been, because lately I’ve been noticing this phenomenon of graduates of elite universities going into the military. This isn’t a tidal wave, or even a fad, but I think a steady self-selection.

Lately I have spoken with three men, by coincidence all 24 years old, who have good entry-level jobs in Washington foreign policy and journalism circles, who are planning to chuck all that and become Marine officers in the coming year. I also know Matt Pottinger, once reputed to be among the best Wall Street Journal reporters in Beijing and a fluent Mandarin speaker, who signed up and went to Marine Officer Candidates School. He is now serving in southern Afghanistan.

What is going on here? I think two things, one negative, the other historical.

The negative trend is, I think, that a significant portion of students are finishing at our best universities feeling let down and unfulfilled by the experience. It just wasn’t all it they’d expected it to be. There is too much drinking and dope-smoking and too little sense of commitment to anything larger than one’s own ambitions and appetites. Ultimately, they tell me, they didn’t feel challenged to be more than themselves, intellectually or morally.

The historical moment is that these young men are from the 9/11 generation. Most of them were 13 or 14 years old then that attack occurred — that is, barely conscious of the larger world. Since then, for all their conscious lives, they have lived in a nation at war. So what I think fundamentally is going on is that they are deciding that al Qaeda’s attack and its consequences are becoming the defining event of their lifetimes, and they want to be part of that.

I suspect that is what is going on, but I may well be wrong. I’d appreciate comments from readers who discern other reasons for this new interest in military service among part of the economic and academic elite.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at ricksblogcomment@gmail.com. Twitter: @tomricks1