Best Defense

Thomas E. Ricks' daily take on national security.

Book excerpt: ‘The Frontline Generation’ veteran meets a snide college professor

I knew the drill — state your name, major, and something inter­esting about yourself.

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I knew the drill — state your name, major, and something inter­esting about yourself. They were small classes, approximately two dozen students, and most of us had already met and knew of each other. So generally we kept to the script, and this process moved along fairly quickly, without interruption. After all, this ring-around-the-rosy was really for the professor.

Heads around the room are following the person speaking. Next, next, next. ...My turn. Ready, go. “I am Marjorie K. Eastman, my major is International Security, and I am a veteran.”

My friend Jessica, who was sitting next to me, started in with her introduction, but was stopped.

I knew the drill — state your name, major, and something inter­esting about yourself. They were small classes, approximately two dozen students, and most of us had already met and knew of each other. So generally we kept to the script, and this process moved along fairly quickly, without interruption. After all, this ring-around-the-rosy was really for the professor.

Heads around the room are following the person speaking. Next, next, next. …My turn. Ready, go. “I am Marjorie K. Eastman, my major is International Security, and I am a veteran.”

My friend Jessica, who was sitting next to me, started in with her introduction, but was stopped.

“Wait.” The professor held up his hand. He was still looking at me.

Up to this point, he hadn’t said anything to anyone. He had only given us guidance to go around the room with the introductions, and had been nodding along.

“You are a veteran? What branch of service and what war?”

Now, I had read his biography before class and knew he had been drafted during Vietnam and served in the air force. I didn’t expect he’d want to be chatty, or confrontational, about my mention of being a veteran. I wasn’t sure what to expect now, since the tone of his questions was piercing.

“I am still in the U.S. Army Reserve and I was deployed in 2003 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom.”

He was sitting, rather leaning halfway on a desk, front and center of the classroom. He maintained eye contact, and I watched him slowly digest my response. After a momentary pause, he asked another question, which I can only describe as either awkwardly erudite or snide.

“Iraq. Well, yes, then, do tell us, how did you enjoy your travels over there?”

Travels? What was he talking about? I didn’t go on some all-inclusive paid vacation or sightseeing expedition. I knew he understood I was on a deployment because he asked me what war. I was cautious with his leading question. Veterans are those who serve in uniform, not just those who have served in war. I was not going to play this game of trying to guess what he meant, so I quickly decided to ask a clarifying question. I said, “Travels?”

“Yes, your travels, your trip. Did you enjoy your time in Meso­potamia?”

Okay. By this point, I was convinced he was being both awkwardly erudite and snide.

I replied with my best attempt to diffuse his interest. “I would have preferred to be there under different conditions.”

He smirked and with a broadening grin (as if to laugh before telling his own joke), he said, “Why yes, that’s because it is Mess-opotamia. And, we made it a bigger mess.”

We? We made it a bigger mess? There is nothing that my direct, German Shepherd side hates more than when a loose pronoun with no ownership is thrown like a bone. I wanted to pounce on him with my own list of questions: Do you mean we, as in the majority of Congress who voted to send troops over there, or we, as in the intelligence community who put too much weight on a sole source, or we, as in the Coalition of the Willing who found the premise for war just, or we, as in me, the soldier who was sent over there? Which we do you mean? And, how about the we who objected to the war, who did not find a way to change the course of history?

The world is all about we, isn’t it?

Did he anticipate my response to be riddled with theory on mankind’s human nature, or for me to acknowledge the seminal shift in national security policy post-9/11 and the vir­tues and consequences of preemptive versus preventive? Should I have offered my insight as a trained intelligence officer, or pro­vide a first-account experience of the dirt on my boots? Perhaps he wanted to get into the hot topic of the day, the surge of troops in Iraq, and share with the class the personal toll of that decision, since I am a spouse of a surge soldier who was on an extended 15-month combat tour flying close air support Apache Longbow helicopters — every day — over a very kinetic (would he say messy?) Sadr City.

I resisted the urge to turn it around, and I did not stick a finger in his chest or preach about the “mess” his generation made. No. I don’t know what he went through, just as he didn’t know what I had been through — or what was still on my shoulders.

Besides, soldiers do not choose the wars they fight — policymak­ers do. We all need to remember that.

What did I do? I looked right back into his eyes and gave him a warm smile. He probably thought I enjoyed his clever play on words. He smiled back, turned to the next person, and nodded. The procession of introductions continued. I stopped listening and internalized what had just happened. Mesopotamia, huh? He had no idea.

Excerpted, with permission, from The Frontline Generation: How We Served Post 9/11, by Marjorie K. Eastman. All rights reserved.

Photo credit: Amazon.com

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

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