Forest Edge Drive
I remember watching news reports from Iraq and Afghanistan as a cadet at West Point. I thought to myself, “Wow…my friends are there. They’re making history!” I envied the pride and fulfillment they must have felt serving at the tip of the spear of American foreign policy. Now that I’m in their shoes, it turns out the gravitas is not quite as remarkable on this side of the ocean. We don’t get to see ourselves on CNN. We don’t get to read much about the war in the New York Times. We do have military-catered newspapers for some general information about what’s going on the world, but for the most part, traditional news outlets on a Forward Operating Base are few and far between. Thus, the significance of our daily patrols, the weight our actions carry in directing world events, often evades us.
Internet time on a FOB is like gold. There are seven computers on this FOB and well over a thousand soldiers, contractors, interpreters , and other enablers who wait in line patiently to use them. There’s a conservative 30 minute limit, but that only yields just enough time to check a few emails and a bank account with the lethargic speed of the internet out here. Hence, most soldiers are not inclined to waste such precious minutes checking out CNN.com.
Earlier this week, I decided to break the mold and find out what was going on in the world. Ironically enough, it was the day of the recent shootings at Ft. Hood, Texas. As an Armor officer, the majority of my peers from my Basic Officer Leader Course all serve at Ft. Hood with the 1st Cavalry Division or the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment. I thought of them. But it wasn’t until I saw a picture of the assailant that a very important piece of this puzzle drew my attention…the shooter was a Muslim.
As with any shocking incident, we all point fingers in a thousand different directions. It’s human nature to undertake grave generalizations in order to rationalize such chaos. I’m sure some blame American society for ostracizing those who practice faiths and cultures outside of the acceptable norm. We could blame the ethnic diaspora’s elders—the shooter’s parents and mentors—who were unable to raise this individual with a plural identity between his ethnic heritage and his identity as an American citizen. Perhaps the onus is on the military. Maybe our profession has gone soft in enforcing its institutional culture of respect and allegiance to the constitution and the United States. Have we made it too easy for those who antagonize our values to join our ranks? Of course, we could also argue our military as too hostile of an environment towards Muslim Americans, thus provoking such tragedies upon ourselves; nearly 10 years of warfare against Muslim extremists doesn’t do much for the faith’s reputation among most soldiers.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in Afghanistan, it’s that you cannot fight a generalization with yet another generalization. It is foolish, if not dangerous, to simplify dynamic conflicts and identities into emotional catchphrases to address isolated events. But there’s no such thing as an isolated person, no such thing as a heart untouched by such sorrow. There is no such thing as a soldier, father, mother, sister, brother or child without an emotional pull to this story. I understand how difficult avoiding rash judgment can be.
In many ways, the cultural challenges that the Ft. Hood shootings represent to the institutional Army mirror the same challenges that most platoon leaders and company commanders face in fighting a counterinsurgency. When we lose our own, we must somehow prevent the rest of the unit from unfairly assigning generalizations to the demographics of the one responsible. Each time an IED strike occurs, each time a soldier is hurt, we Platoon Leaders stand in front of our soldiers—most of whom are about our own age—and we must explain to them the importance of carrying out future operations with the tact and grace needed to win a counterinsurgency. But how do you keep a young soldier, whose squad-mates are his closest family, from aggressing out of control onto a population which he has generalized as evil to cope with the pain of loss? How do I convince him that “not all Afghans are bad. Not everyone is our enemy”?
Well, I’m still working on it…but I’ll let you know when I find out for sure.
Whatever progress was made in bridging Muslim relations with the U.S. Military is surely set back about five years as a result of this shooting; as is most progress I made in trying to get the word “Hadji” out of my soldiers’ vocabulary (Here’s that post in case you missed it: Hadji). I won’t give up though. To stop now would mean to surrender to extremism…not necessarily of the Muslim variety, but the extremism that festers deep inside the American soul. It is a frustration brought on through a hegemonic world presence with a rapidly diminishing value of returns. It’s the human nature of self-interest which goes unspoken as we send billions of dollars overseas every year despite the millions of problems we still have at home. It is the fervent cry to “forget diversity, forget the rest of the world…what about me?! What about my family and friends?! What about my way of life!? I’m sick and tired of helping people, tolerating the religions that keep hurting us! How bout we start helping ourselves!” This too is a form of extremism. Is this extremism more justified and rational than the brand we’re fighting here in Afghanistan? Perhaps, but unfortunately it is still potent enough to undermine whatever ambitions we have of winning the peace in the War on Terror.
On a more personal note…the shooter, Hasan, had many roots close to my own. We both grew up in Southwestern Virgina. He attended Virginia Tech just down the road from my hometown in Roanoke, VA. We both grew up as religious and ethnic minorities in an area where our identities were tolerated, though not so much understood. Even more coincidentally, our paths both led us to careers in the military. Yet somehow, our abilities to reconcile our cultural identities with our communities differed greatly. Somehow, I became a benefactor of the American dream where Hasan felt as its victim. I can’t help but wonder, if I grew up in so many of the same communities as Mr. Hasan, where did our callings part ways? Why did I turn out like me, and why did he turn out like him? Where did America fail Mr. Hasan…or where did we fail him?
Despite the appearance of similar childhoods, I am secure enough to identify the nuances in our upbringings; nuances that the vast majority of Americans probably wouldn’t comprehend, but would ultimately make the difference between our lives.
I was blessed with loving parents who never pressured me into my faith or heritage, but allowed me to find it on my own. I grew up in a safe neighborhood with neighbors and friends who took care of me in spite of, or even because of, the difficulties of reconciling an Indian Hindu Vegetarian lifestyle in rural Southwest, Virginia. This is the meaning of opportunity for an immigrant child. Unfortunately, the “Land of Opportunity” comes in varying doses to different people. While I certainly do not condone Hasan’s actions, I am aware that we all are products of our environments. It takes a village to raise a child. With our similar backgrounds, I can’t help but wonder…what if I had grown up on his street? What if he had grown up on mine? Would our lives have continued on similar paths? I don’t know, and we never will…so in the time being, I guess I’ll just be thankful for the blessing of growing up on Forest Edge Drive.