Good Things

Today seems like a good day to again acknowledge that I feel tension about the institution for which I worked as a soldier, from 1992 to 1996, and again work for as a professor, since 2006. When I was a soldier, the Army was the best group of people I’d ever worked with, and after a couple years — first as Corporal Edwards, and then as Sergeant Edwards — the job was the first time I’d ever been genuinely good at something that challenged me. It was also the first time I felt I was doing something important; something bigger than me. I feel the same way now: after graduate study and a few years as a professor, I’m again feeling like I’m getting good at what I do, and again welcoming the feeling that I’m doing something important, serving something bigger than me.

I know the Army does good things sometimes. (Sometimes it doesn’t. We know that. It’s important to acknowledge.) I know it’s full of people who are enormously committed to doing good things, and to doing things that they believe are good. Like the American culture from which it draws its soldiers, it has its share of stupid and vicious people as well — Steven Green, Lynndie England, William Calley, the helicopter pilot identified as Crazy Horse 18 of the 227th Aviation Regiment — but they are the exception to the rule constituted by men and women I served with in the 24th Infantry and the men and women I work with now; people who are good-hearted, caring, massively and intimidatingly competent, and committed to an ideal of voluntary service that many folks can’t imagine.

But I’ve been strongly opposed to the second war in Iraq since its inception, and agree with the argument that basing a decision to go to war in which humans will die upon pretenses that one knows are false can only be characterized as evil. The fact that over 100,000 Iraqi civilians have been killed in that war is an after-the-fact measure of the magnitude of the effects of that evil. Some American soldiers, like Steven Green, Lynndie England, and Crazy Horse 18, bear willing and active complicity in that evil. Worse to me, it seems, is the way that such evil contaminates even those who try to do the right thing: those who serve well in Iraq, who do good deeds, build schools, protect innocents, and even those at home who allowed or promoted the election of a President who made that decision to go to war on premises he knew were false — we’re all brushed by that evil.

I try to do the right thing. I talk to my students about what might and might not constitute the right thing to do when they become officers. The Orientalist gives up lunch hours each month to facilitate discussions among those officers-to-be about ethics in the military. And as wrong as I feel Iraq was (and as strongly as I support those over there trying to put together the pieces so we don’t leave the place even worse than when we went in), I want to believe that we’re doing the right thing in Afghanistan. I’ve just finished Amin Saikal’s Modern Afghanistan, and have begun Neil Moran’s Kipling and Afghanistan and Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea, with Sarah Chayes’s The Punishment of Virtue and Margaret Mills’s Rhetoric and Politics in Afghan Traditional Storytelling on deck. The Taliban’s corrupt medieval thuggery and support of al Qaeda’s vicious tactics, its brutal and hideous misogyny, and its opposition to education, enlightenment, and fundamental human rights seem to me to entirely merit (and, in fact, morally require) the presence of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF). Afghanistan is a place where 14% of the population is literate, and where soldiers — and civilians — have begun to do good things.

That’s a project to which I hope to contribute. Next year, I deploy to Afghanistan for six months, to help with language and literacy education. I’ll be in tension about it then, perhaps much as I am now. But I’m hopeful.

I think we can do good things.

As with all material on this blog, the opinions in this post are my own, and do not represent those of any institution with which I am associated.

Good Things

8 thoughts on “Good Things

  • November 12, 2010 at 7:25 am

    Mike- great post. While I think I agree with you on Afghanistan, I think similar arguments can be made about Iraq (oppression, lack of education, opportunity to do good things). Afgh. might, however, be a place in which it is easier to actually make that impact, since the local population is (I suspect) more receptive to it than the Iraqi population.

    But I am still not sure that it is a strong enough argument for a sustained conflict. One thing that continues to bother me about OEF is that our purpose in being there has changed entirely. While I don’t necessarily think our presence is a bad thing, it bothers me that we are at nebulous war with an idea in Afgh. to the same extent that we are in Iraq. And it bothers me that we crafted that war contrary to our original purpose for entering it. Same for OIF (although the principle part is worse here of course).

    Nevertheless, I also felt like I was doing “good things” among a receptive local population while in Afghanistan. Which is kind of a necessary thing to know and feel when you give so much of your time and effort to them. I think you will enjoy it!

  • November 12, 2010 at 9:36 am

    Nice job characterizing both serving in a large organization based on violence and the obscure nature of doing violence as a state. If we assume or believe we know anything about big government and war, then we invite delusion. That we are (still) in Iraq due to WMD and that we are (still) in Afghanistan to prevent the Taliban from using the land as a breeding ground for terrorism is open for debate. Who knows why we remain in Afghanistan? Rather than argue or explain why we are fighting war X in Z, we might look at the situation in terms of what we /can/ know. Is federal government transparent? Is transparency a driving force in human nature? If we are willing to serve in a large and bureaucratic organization, then we should probably be well aware that we will know what /they/ want us to know.

  • November 12, 2010 at 10:37 am


    I feel sheepish and humbled when I see scholars like you being so committed to enacting change in the world. It prevents me from feeling jaded about gard school and life. You are awesome.

    Will I see you before you leave? Are you coming up here at any point? The job market has me working my fingers and brain to nubs… Hopefully I’ll get to talk to you in person about my expereinces. It’s been a heck of a ride so far.

  • November 12, 2010 at 3:45 pm


    What a beautifully-written post about the complexities of your position as a critical yet active member of the military community! When are you heading over to Afghanistan? Are you doing literacy education through the military or through a private organization? I ask because it’s interesting for me to think of English literacy in relation to hard power/soft power. Also, I was just curious because a friend of mine who was on the same English Language Fellowship in Indonesia that I was on is teaching over there now. Be in touch.

  • November 13, 2010 at 1:23 pm

    Mike: I enjoyed reading this thoughtful post. I predict that like most of us who have had a chance to work closely with Afghans you will be charmed by your counterparts and will be heartsick at the thought that the progressive, Westward-leaning Afghanistan they represent is in such jeopardy. I can’t wait to see how your perceptions of these matters will have been sharpened by your experience when you return next summer. Stay safe, and enjoy to the maximum extent possible. -Pete

  • November 30, 2010 at 12:30 am


    Thanks for being a good soldier and a good scholar, and I’m glad you’re finding a way to serve both traditions next year. If good is to come from any of either of those wars, it’s going to come from people like yourself doing what they’re best at, doing it honestly and ethically, doing it compassionately and courageously, and doing it humbly and hopefully.

    I can’t see you doing this any other way.

    I look forward to hearing what you will have learned, perhaps in Ann Arbor if you’re back by then.

  • December 21, 2010 at 8:20 pm

    Thanks for writing this thoughtful post, Mike.

    Sort of related – I was in Arabic courses last year with four people in different branches of service (one guy had just returned from two tours in Iraq with no language training other than a few checkpoint phrases), and after taking the time to study MSA Arabic, three of their units were instead deployed/redeployed to Afghanistan. I know that there are larger bureaucratic/political reasons for this kind of problem, but I think that they were pretty frustrated with the irony of the whole situation.

    Stay safe over there, Mike. I look forward to seeing you at our next conference.

  • December 22, 2010 at 12:55 pm

    Mike, I, too, enjoyed reading your post – you’ve demonstrated how complex the situation is, and articulated well what I also believe. I admire your decision to go act on what you believe, to work at a personal level to bring about a positive change. Stay in touch; we’ll be thinking of you.

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