Tuesday, January 4, 2011


Hello, friends. Long time, no see, I know.

I'm currently working on applications to business schools, which means I've been writing a lot of essays.  Tonight I was working on an essay about a time in my life when I took a risk.  I'm going to have to do some major revision in the morning, but I think this is too good not to share, even in its rough state.  Let this be an object lesson of the risks of writing application essays late into the night:

When a paratrooper is asked about risks he’s taken, the immediate thoughts are of risks quite concrete, of literal leaps of faith out the doors of perfectly good airplanes, but I don’t expect anyone wants to read about all the routine parachute jumps I remember.  Rather more interesting is the jump I can’t remember, the one that nearly killed me, but since everything I know about that jump is hearsay, I don’t feel right repeating that, either.  I took more than a few risks in Iraq, too, some for better reasons than others.  I took a risk every time I entrusted my life to a complete stranger with a GED and an ASVAB waiver, but in a combat zone that’s a risk common enough to become banal.  It was a greater risk when I entrusted my safety to Iraqi soldiers who might well have been al-Qaeda sympathizers, if not active members, but that’s how building legitimacy works, and anyway, I had orders to follow.  So maybe it’s more useful to take a couple steps back and look at the first big risk I took, the one that got me into the Army in the first place.

Unlike most servicemembers, the military wasn’t something that loomed large in my family background. The last contact my family had had with the Department of Defense was my grandfather’s service in the occupation of Japan, and I made it to my senior year of college without ever considering military service a plausible option.  I was on a solid path to an undistinguished but comfortable career in academia when a visit to the Commonwealth cemetery at the World War II battlefield of el-Alamein, Egypt, challenged my assumptions about my role in the world and planted the seeds of my dissatisfaction with the prospect of a sedentary academic life.  As I approached graduation seeking opportunities for intensive applied language training, I was pointed again and again toward the military’s language training program.  I looked into what the military language program had to offer, and something just clicked.  It all made perfect sense: I would enlist in the US Army as an Arabic linguist and make my career as a military man.  All that stood in my way was the minor practical matter that I was 70 pounds overweight and so desperately out of shape I couldn’t run a quarter of a mile without stopping.

The reality of weight loss and exercise is irredeemably dull, and if this essay were a movie, this sentence would no doubt be replaced by an eighties-rock montage.  Suffice it to say that over the course of the summer following my college graduation, I had lost weight and gained stamina sufficient for me to ship off to Basic Training in the fall.  I arrived at Fort Knox with absolutely no context or outline of what to expect beyond the vague Hollywood conception of “Boot Camp”, and faced a culture shock more extreme than any I ever felt circumnavigating the globe.  I had joined the US Army as an Arabic linguist during the darkest period of the Iraq war.  I knew where I was headed.  What it would take to get there was a bit hazier.

I realize I’m writing an essay, not trading war stories at the VFW, so I suppose I should get to the point: what I learned from taking my big risk.  I learned a bunch of little things, only some of which are motivational poster cliches:  Meritocracy is the ideal, but patronage is the reality.  Compliance is generally valued higher than competence.  Always, always, always pay your mercenaries.  I also learned a few big things: I am capable of working harder and enduring more than I ever thought possible.  Individualism is bunk; my proudest moments have been as a cog in the best machine.  And the antithesis of fear is not courage, but trust in the man ahead of you and behind you.