An interview with a 24-year old US Army officer on his way to Afghanistan.
I met Thomas when we were both still teenagers, at a High School event in Pennsylvania, where we exchanged HipHop CDs and joked around. Fast forward 8 years. My friend Thomas has spent the past 5 years training to become an officer in the US Army. That means that this summer, at age 24, Thomas will be commanding his first own unit. His job will be to lead a group of soldiers between the ages of 18 and 35 through Afghanistan: Hunting terrorists. Befriending the locals. Staying alive. During a recent Skype interview, we talked about his training at the US Military Academy at Westpoint, his reasons for joining the army, and his view on combat, war and violence.
Hey Thomas. Where are you at the moment?
I’m at Fort Benning, Georgia. Fort Benning is the major training post that the army has.
What’s going to happen after that?
Whenever I leave here, I go to Germany, and depending on how they are staffed, they may have a platoon for me immediately.
What kind of platoon would you command?
Guys with guns.
30 guys with guns.
And you tell them what to shoot at?
I get told a general idea of an area we need to go to and things we need to accomplish there. My command will give me a mission that is suited for about 120 people to accomplish.
And I suppose the whole idea for you is to be deployed, right? I mean, you guys have lots of action going on these days.
Yeah, more than we want and need, right?
Well, that’s actually one of my questions. It seems like that’s what you train for, years and years, and that the whole idea is to see combat. I get the feeling that it’s a distinction for a soldier to go into combat, that it’s an important part of being a soldier. Is this something you look forward to or are excited about?
Well… there’s sort of two aspects to it. People are complex organisms. On the one hand, you don’t want there to be war, because as a soldier, that means time away from your family, that means physical danger for you and people you care about in your unit. Also, it’s not that enjoyable to go and be in a foreign land and work long hours day after day. It wears on you. Also, and this is something I have no experience with but only heard about, there is the very real consequences of having to kill somebody and having to deal with that. Everyone does that part regrettably, because it’s your job. In that respect, people don’t enjoy combat. It’s not an intrinsically enjoyable thing. It’s bad. People die, it’s tough work, you’re separated from your family, it’s dangerous. But on the other hand, because there is a greater sense of purpose for doing it, there is really a desire, for me at least, to go and contribute something to the world with the training you have received. I have been training for what, four years, going on five years now. Four years of academy and almost a year here at Fort Benning, it’s like five years and there are wars going on, so if I wouldn’t go fight, I’d feel it’s all wasted. So people around here want to go and want to contribute with their skills, because they have been training hard day after day after day for five years, and they want to go and contribute to the effort.
And the prospect of actual combat is more a sense of contribution than just being deployed at some foreign base? How would it have been 25 years ago, in the mid-80s, when there was no major combat going on?
I see what you are saying. First of all, I wasn’t in the army in the eighties, but the idea back then was to produce readiness, to prevent the Soviet Union from doing evil deeds. But I have no experience with that. All my experiences in the army are post 9/11, so it’s been a different world for me.
I was wondering about that. So I suppose 9/11 was the decisive turning point in the psyche of the US military?
Well, I’ve heard people say, like upper level leaders, they’ve seen a shift in the seriousness of soldiers training, and people taking it more personally, as the threat is more real now. If you don’t train well now, you will definitely be unprepared for combat, which you will definitely see. There’s a definite shift post 9/11.
Is this a constant presence during your training? Like: You will see combat, and this is why we’re doing this?
Definitely. The people that train you will engrain that into you so much. Any sort of mistake, they will always imply that there are life and death consequences to it. Say, you’re trying to lead people through the woods, and you get lost or whatever, the people that are training you will say: “Your failure to lead people through the woods here, in a real combat scenario, could cost the lives of all your men. You just killed thirty of these people. Everybody here is dead now – because of you.” And they will say it right to your face: “Your failure has killed everybody here.” And they say that all the time.
What kind of feeling is that kind of pressure? How do you handle that? You’re like what now, 24?
So you’ll be 24 when you command 30 people, right?
So you’ll probably see combat before the age of 25, while commanding 30 people. That, to me, seems like an awful lot of responsibility. It’s quite heavy to think about. How do you handle that?
Well, there are a couple of things. Personally, there is a personal faith in God, you have to have that. If I hadn’t had the belief in a greater power, it’d scare the shit out of me to do this. So that’s something I take personal comfort in. But as far as professionally handling the situation and the pressures, I think a lot of the reasons why the trainers will always mention death, and why oftentimes in training the mission will go awful and tons of people will “die” and you have to carry them out on stretchers and all, so that you’re prepared for it combat. So you can say, I’ve done this before, multiple times. So there’s confidence in the training you have received. And it’s not like that happens over night. The first year at Westpoint, you learn to follow. The second year, you’re in charge of one or two other people and teach them how to follow. The next year, it’s ten people. You grow.
What made you enlist at Westpoint? Why did you choose the Army, and would you say the reasons have changed over the years?
My reason for joining the Army has consistently been the same. You know how you have in High School that time when you have to grow up and figure out what to do? I heard a lot of my friends talk about jobs, and what kind of job gets you the most money. I had a moment where I realized I wanted to look back and see that I had made a contribution to society, that I made a difference in people’s lives. So the main reasons for joining the Army were that for one, the operations you’re doing can make a difference in people’s lives, whether it’s doing disaster relief, or peace keeping, or all-out war fighting. Your actions affect people’s lives and you have the ability to make those better. Another reason was that taking care of your own personnel, the people you’re in charge of, is really important and can also affect their lives for the better.
Did you actively choose to go into combat?
Yeah. I could have chosen a different branch and gone into an office somewhere. I was able to pick the branch and the post I want to do, so I chose infantry and Germany, which means I will go to combat at some point.
I’m really curious about the concept of violence in your life. I mean, as a soldier, your main objective is to prevent violence and at the same time you are subject to violence and you use violence. You do both, you do shoot and you get shot at. What’s your view on that?
Well, the Army has a lot of contradictions. In order to avoid a greater suffering, you have to cause the suffering of other people, and it is difficult to resolve that contradiction. While we were in the academy, they emphasized the importance of being able to justify killing the people that you kill. Because you can train soldiers to kill people and not think about it, you almost have to do that so they can function in the heat of the moment. But it is the responsibility of the platoon leader to assess whether it’s right to use lethal force or not. How do I handle that responsibility? In some cases it’s really complicated, in others it’s not. In my mind, if you feel like somebody is posing or could pose a lethal threat, you’re justified in killing them. Are the NATO forces justified in being in Afghanistan? If you say “yes” to that, because it’s dangerous for terrorists to be committing acts of terror worldwide, then your presence there is justified, and then your self-defense in that area is justified. And then you’re justified in killing people who want to harm you for being there. You have to start at a higher level and sort of work it down to: “Is it okay that I ordered those people on that ridge line to be shot at and killed?” You have to resolve that with yourself.
I guess the question is not all that hard, because when you’re a platoon leader in Afghanistan, and you’re getting shot at, and you’re such a closely-knit group of people that spend all this time together, obviously there is no question, because they are shooting at your friends. But then again, it must be a lot more complicated when you say, okay, we go out and attack someone now.
When given a situation as straight-forward as: We’re walking down the road and people are shooting at us, there are very few people, who would say you’re not justified in shooting back and killing them. But as a platoon leader, you often run into a problem like: We capture someone, and you suspect them to be a terrorist, but you don’t have the required evidence and the person is not cooperative, but you know he has information of a roadside bomb or something. The natural thing to do would be to kick the guys ass so your people don’t die as a result of that bomb. But as a platoon leader, you are morally responsible for the situation and you can’t do that. You have to assess the situation and you have to turn the guy over to the appropriate authorities who will question him properly. You have to maintain the moral high ground. If you were to ignore the rules of warfare and start beating detainees, that makes you no better than the terrorists that you’re fighting. If you go in and kill bad guys, you will have no regret killing bad guys, but if you’re killing guys who just act the same way as you do, then it’s just guys killing guys, and that’s when people start having regrets about what they do in combat.
The soldiers in your platoon, they tend to be younger than you?
Well… both. But that’s really the challenge. You’ll have a good number of people in your platoon, you know, 18, 19, 20 years old. They’ll be the lower level enlisted personnel, you know, privates and specialists. But then, the leaders you’re in charge of, the squad leaders, they will be older than you are and more experienced in the Army. And then your platoon sergeant…
What’s a platoon sergeant? Is he your right hand man?
Yes, exactly. He’s also responsible for the platoon, but for different aspects. It’s up to you and the sergeant to separate the duties. And this is one of the most interesting aspects of the Army. I’ll be a platoon leader at age 24, and I’ll be the boss of somebody who has been in the Army for 10, 15 years and has probably seen three to four deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan. Obviously it’s a give and take relationship. You’d be a fool to go in there and think you know more than him.
So on the one hand, you get the older, experienced platoon sergeant, and on the other hand you get 20 kids at the age of 18, 19, for the first time away from home, and you have to lead this group in a combat environment in Afghanistan…that’s a nice start for world travel.
Haha, yes it is.