I am unusual, apparently. It’s not because I am a coffeehouse dweller, or an NPR listener, or prone to wear loafers with jeans. In the world I inhabited until recently, all of these are quite normal. Rather, it is that I am also a field artillery officer in the U.S. Army. Which places me in that subdemographic of New York lawyers who wear suits and work in office buildings until they decide to join the military and blow things up. (Trust me, there are some; just not many.) For this decision, I now endure lingering looks of concern from people who care about me.
I knew that friends and colleagues would be surprised. Prior to 2004, the year I left for basic training, I had shown no tendency toward reckless acts like joining the military. Nor did my colleagues know that members of my family had, in previous generations, routinely done stints in the armed services during times of national need. So I was prepared for a certain range of responses in New York, from puzzlement to backslapping support to outrage.
What I wasn’t prepared for was the quality of some people’s reactions—not simply surprise or distress, but something deeper and more permanent. People I had known for years started behaving differently toward me. This is a tough thing to put your finger on—but you can sense it. You can tell when you are being discussed, when people are trying to decide if they know you as well as they had thought.
At first, I thought this deep concern was mostly grounded in politics: a good proportion of my friends and colleagues in the civilian world had opposed American action in Iraq. But that wasn’t it. At the time, at least, even adamant opponents of the original invasion tended to agree that our continued presence in some capacity was now necessary in order to “do right” by Iraq. Nor was it my age (I was 32 when I left for basic training). To the extent that my former colleagues knew people in military service, those people were largely reservists—JAG lawyers in mid-career, for example—who tended to be older than the average active-duty service member of equivalent rank. Nor had I started speaking in military lingo and wearing ranger T-shirts.
No, at the end of the day, the issue was simply that I had joined the military. And that act was just too foreign for some in my old circles to recognize as having arisen from the normal range of motivations—chosen as one might choose to go back to school, or perform charity work, or embark on any other course that might prove rewarding. In their cosmopolitan world—my former and sometime world—wartime stints in the military just aren’t done. Not when one has other options—which everyone in that world always has.
Thus my decision demands psychological explanation. Perhaps I am in personal crisis. Perhaps I believe that Saddam Hussein knocked down the buildings that used to stand a block from my old office. Perhaps I am angry. The possibility that I am doing an ordinary thing done by many ordinary Americans at all times seems not to have occurred to them.
And so their puzzlement continues. One distressed friend, hearing of my present employment, pounds the table and unleashes obscenities. Another tells people she thinks I’ve “changed.” (My oldest friends tell me I haven’t, which is a comfort.) And another tells me that she’s happy “that you’re doing something you care about,” with the forced enthusiasm of a supportive parent. All of which I try to take with good humor. But I wonder how we came to a point at which young persons—of a class that once viewed military service as an ordinary expression of its own privileged relationship to the state—could come to see the act of entering service as an oddity requiring special explanation.
I say to those concerned looks and furrowed brows: Relax. I’m still me. I’m not suffering an early midlife crisis (or any other kind). I’m not searching for something or running away from something else. I’m not angry, and I’m not trying to make a statement. I’m just doing some military service, at a time when that service can do some good.