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. ...

Flickr
Flickr
Flickr

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.

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

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.