The Transition Home

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.

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9 responses

  1. Tauseef

    Superb post. Keep ’em coming 🙂

    11 November 09 at 07:34

  2. Matt P.

    “It is a frustration brought on through a hegemonic world presence with a rapidly diminishing value of returns. ”

    This quote is America’s current status in a nutshell.

    11 November 09 at 14:02

  3. Rajiv, hello to you.

    This is a wonderful post. Happy Veteran’s Day .. and please know that you and your men are in my thoughts and prayers.

    Donna Dilley

    11 November 09 at 20:10

  4. Clay Davis

    “It is foolish, if not dangerous, to simplify dynamic conflicts and identities into emotional catchphrases to address isolated events.”

    This.

    Another excellent entry – be safe over there please! In no time we’ll be at your 24th birthday party, so hang in there.

    Happy vetrans day by the way – thanks to you and everyone out there with you.

    11 November 09 at 20:31

  5. beans

    As always, I have to reply. I was actually waiting for your post since the shootings, because I thought of you, how all that relates, and knew you’d comment…

    By the way, Hasan’s parents did live in Roanoke too, but died back in early 2000’s and were against him joining the military…

    Lovely post, as always. Keep your unique voice heard!! You gonna make it to Oprah one day, yaar! Can I be your PR Consultant?

    12 November 09 at 01:24

  6. Haily

    One more masterpiece of writing…

    When I heard about that incident, I was shocked but it wasn’t new to me… there is so much happening these days….everywhere….and I think that it is due to frustration in minds.

    Society has created an image for some religion inside them.

    Somewhere personally I think Hasan is a victim of such frustration about his religion.

    If one has done something wrong, it doesn’t mean that whole society should suffer.

    But I am confused too, that who is right and who is wrong.

    I think, It all depends on how we see a person, circumstances, what he thinks,how he behaves and to understand him

    Anyway I respect your feeling and you know it’s funny but you can become a good counselor (think about that)

    12 November 09 at 02:25

  7. Bill Kinzie

    Rajiv,

    You’re at the epicenter of where large tectonic forces of history are grinding on each other. I lived in India as a missionary’s son for 12 years so just maybe, just maybe I may have a more valid insight. You have a penetrating understanding of the variables, but don’t be too lenient on the Texas terrorist. Of all people, he should have had the mental tools to understand his twisted motives. He chose not to use them for good but to justify the evil he perpetrated.

    We are in a war against a radical Muslim view of the world that feeds off ancient historical grudges as well as envy of Israel.

    Be as compassionate a soldier as you can be. War is often not rational…but part of a long working out of the human experiment. God bless!

    12 November 09 at 03:42

  8. Meredith

    Dear Rajiv, wish I could have bought you lunch yesterday for Veteran’s Day! Thank you for another wonderful post. We’re all such complex creatures….each a product of so many inputs and subject to daily fires in the kiln.

    One of the things that I would like to see come out of this tragedy is more support for our troops. I don’t mean to push aside religious ideology or discrimination, but I kind of honed in on how it feels to face deployment and what kind of horrors our soldiers see and experience. I believe I read a while back that U.S. soldiers who are victims of suicide here and in Iraq and Afghanistan are increasing in number. The mass murder-suicide act is exponentially more devastating, but some of the root causes are probably the same.

    It seems that money should be no object when it comes to ramping up mental health care and other types of support for our vets upon their return to the U.S. I look forward to reading your next post, be safe!

    12 November 09 at 19:00

  9. Cam Srpan

    Good questions you write in this post. Knowing your parents I understand WHY you turned out to be such a fine young man. Yes,you are blessed!
    Hang in there!!
    Cam

    19 November 09 at 23:08

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