Many years ago, I began working on a project that eventually became this article. It started when a friend of mine, a fellow veteran, sent me Victor Hanson’s 2007 piece “Why Study War.” One of the many things that stood out to me about that article was a line from Margaret Atwood’s poem “The Loneliness of the Military Historian:”
“Confess: it’s my profession that alarms you. This is why few people ask me to dinner, though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.”
My first thought upon reading those words was, “I know exactly how this feels,” a sense that increased when I looked up the poem and read it in its entirety. Although Atwood was talking about the loneliness and disconnect that she felt as a woman in the male-dominated field of military history, I empathized immediately with the emotions expressed in her verse. I also wondered what Atwood’s poem, published in 1995, might look like if it were written not from the perspective of a woman struggling in a male-dominated field, but instead from the perspective of a post-9/11 veteran struggling with his or her own demons and trying to make sense of life back home. I could certainly relate to that.
Inspired by Atwood’s moving words, I re-wrote “Loneliness” from a veteran’s perspective in 2013, soon after I completed graduate school and was teaching at West Point. As I have done with many topics over the years, I wrote it for myself as a form of therapy, never intending to share it. I thought of it again years later when I watched the Netflix series “Alias Grace,” which was an adaptation of Atwood’s novel of the same name. But again, I did nothing with my Atwood-inspired poem.
In the summer of 2021, though, a few things happened that made me dust off this eight-year-old, uncompleted work. Afghanistan fell to the Taliban, and, having served four tours of duty there, it affected me more than I thought it would. And then, in preparation for a new-to-me course, I’m teaching at West Point this semester called “Leadership in Future War,” I picked up a copy of Lawrence Freedman’s book “The Future of War.” To my surprise, the very first thing in the introduction to that book was an excerpt of the very same Atwood poem. In the context of the fall of Afghanistan and my serendipitous re-discovery of “The Loneliness of the Military Historian, I thought it was time to finally publish this.
I am a military veteran. Being a soldier is what I do, and it’s closely tied to who I am. I am also a veteran of the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, although some context is in order. While I am a seven-tour “war” veteran, I do not consider myself a “combat” veteran. The situation was sporty enough that I earned a Combat Action Badge and four Bronze Star medals, but I never killed anyone directly, and never even fired my weapon under hostile conditions, as that simply was not my job. All of my tours were with elite Special Operations units, I had an important and exciting but nonetheless very safe desk job, my times away from home were frequent but relatively short, and most importantly I always returned home with the same number of holes in my body that I had when I left. But not all of my comrades were so lucky. Many American service members who did manage to return home did so with psychological scars. I was fortunate to avoid those as well.
Re-integration was and is a huge concern among my veteran friends making the transition from warfighter to civilian. Many veterans chose to pursue undergraduate or graduate-level education after returning from war. I was one of the veterans who chose the higher education route. After trying—and failing—for several years, I was finally accepted to become a West Point professor. Part of the program is two fully-funded years at the best graduate schools in the world.
No one was more surprised than I was that I got accepted to Yale. After all, I started off in junior college and partied my way through five years of a four-year degree… as my grades showed. I liked college, but I didn’t like studying. The only thing I wanted to do was to be in the Army. In fact, the only reason I even went to college instead of enlisting was that my father told me it was the only way I could be an officer like him. It wasn’t until several years into my military career that I began to value education and learning. I got my act together academically and got a master’s degree or two on my time and the Army’s dime, which helped show I wasn’t a complete idiot academically.
So, as an Army major, off to grad school I went. Many veterans wonder as they face the prospect of joining their non-military social peers in a classroom setting, things like: How will I fit in? Will the other students like me? Will I represent the service well? How will the professors and staff react to war veterans in the classroom? Do I even belong here? There’s even a term for it: “imposter syndrome.”
Being older than the average graduate student, a veteran, and from Alabama, I had these and other concerns as well when I arrived at Yale University to start graduate school classes in the Fall of 2011. At that point in my life, I had already been in the Army for nearly 16 years. I was married, 40ish years old, and had deployed to Afghanistan and Iraq multiple times. I was worried about going back to school, especially in a top-tier school “up North.” I had been out of the classroom for a long time, I was significantly older than my classmates (in some cases, twice as old) and my life since college had been dramatically different than theirs. I had preconceived notions about what Yale and its students would be like, and frankly, I expected the worst. In fact, the only reason I even applied to Yale is that a former commanding officer of mine from my time in the Joint Special Operations Command, General Stanley McChrystal. taught there part-time. The chance to work with him again was an opportunity I couldn’t pass up. I had no expectation that I would actually get accepted, and even if by some miracle I did, I was convinced that there was a high probability that my two years of grad school would be rough.
However, my experience at Yale was far different than what I expected, in an extremely positive way. Far from being confrontational or narrow-minded, my classmates were, for the most part, curious and accepting of me as a veteran. There was even another veteran in my cohort. We disagreed frequently about a variety of different topics, and sometimes those disagreements were heated, but they were never disrespectful or overly emotional on either side. Yale has a moderately-sized veteran community in the undergraduate, graduate school, professional schools, and even faculty ranks. Yale’s veteran alumni organization, the Yale Veterans Association (YVA), and its student complement, the Yale Student Veteran Council (YSVC), are small but well-organized and extensively involved in the greater Yale community. Air Force ROTC and Navy ROTC returned to Yale’s campus during my second year of graduate school, after a long absence. In short, Yale is a school that believes in the validity of many forms of service, including the military.
That is not to say that everything ran smoothly all the time. While I had certain preconceptions about my classmates-to-be before I arrived at Yale, I found they had preconceived ideas about me as well. One of the most persistent annoyances was when people asked where I was from. “You don’t talk like you’re from Alabama,” meaning “you don’t sound like an ignorant redneck,” was a common feature of many first conversations I had with my classmates. This was most often said by people who, as far as I could tell, had never met anyone actually from Alabama and instead got their prejudices of Southern people from entertainment television and Facebook memes and expected everyone from Alabama to talk like Forrest Gump. I thought it was more than a little ironic that the same people who would never dare tell my classmates with an urban upbringing, “you don’t talk like you’re from the inner city” thought it was totally fine to stereotype the place I call home, especially when they had absolutely no basis for comparison.
I also found myself regularly dispelling many persistent and irksome myths about the military. The first was the “Soldier as victim” myth, which usually holds that people in the military are there because they lack other options. Many of my highly-accomplished graduate school friends had never met a veteran before. To me, as the son, grandson, and husband of Army officers, this was astonishing. This was often accompanied but the observation, “Wait a minute, you’re in the Army … and you got into Yale?” –as if the two were mutually exclusive. They also tended to assume that I had “the PTSD,” because, you know, all war veterans apparently do (I don’t).
We veterans did a number of things to help close the gap between perception and reality; our own civil-military relations effort. We hosted a civil-military conference, we did several iterations of an “Army 101” class session, and we invited our classmates into our homes. And they did the same for us. I frequently told the Yalies I was in class with that “people like me grow up to work for people like you.” They usually thought I was kidding, but I was completely serious. People who go to schools like Yale end up in the highest levels of our government, and us old Soldiers follow their orders and carry out their policy decisions. As such, it is in our interests that they get to know us as people instead of abstract concepts.
Syria was falling apart during my time in grad school, and I was asked several times when “we” (i.e. the U.S. military) were going to “do something.” My usual response was that I was personally tired of getting involved in other peoples’ civil wars and that they were certainly free to go over there and “do something” themselves. Or, I could go with them to a recruiter’s office. No one ever took me up on that offer, but I was very proud of one of my classmates who traveled in-person to help refugees on the ground inside Syria. “Doing something” is always easier when it’s someone else “doing” it; that was something I reflected on often during my studies.
My time at Yale also coincided with the “99%” and “Occupy Wall Street” movements. I was very impressed with the dedication I saw when several young Yalies pitched tents on the Green in the snow and cold, to show that even though they were at one of the most elite schools in the world, they were still down with the struggle. Or whatever. I was far less impressed when I learned that they were leaving their tents and returning to the warmth and security of their dorm rooms at night. I also thought it more than a little ironic that they were protesting against the 1% when they were students at one of the most elite schools in the world, and the military veterans of the wars that they had stopped paying attention to were something like .01%. But at least they were “doing something,” I guess.
West Point is only a short drive away from Yale, so I am able to go back there often. One of the projects I’m most proud of is being involved in the Peace and Dialogue Leadership Initiative (PDLI), a joint Yale/West Point endeavor that selects top-performing students from both schools for a yearlong Fellowship that includes two weeks of “boots on the ground” in Israel and Palestine. There’s a lot that can be learned, about so many things, in a program like that.
I think I’ll wrap this up before it gets too long. I’m glad I went to Yale, I loved my time there, I’d go back, and I encourage other vets to consider the school as well. And I’d encourage others, who are not military veterans, to consider the words of “The Loneliness of the Military Professional.”
The Loneliness of the Military Professional
by Charles Faint
Confess: it’s my profession
That alarms you.
This is why few people ask me to dinner,
Though Lord knows I don’t go out of my way to be scary.
I wear clothes of sensible modernity with long sleeves
And unalarming logos and graphics
I smell neither of gunpower or blood and seldom visit the barber
No warrior’s close-cropped mane of mine
Or tattooed limbs bearing snakes, or daggers, will frighten the hipsters.
If I roll my eyes and mutter, at questions insensitive or inane
If I wake up and scream in horror
Over bodies chewed up in a mad scene
I do it in private so nobody sees
PTSD? No, not me.
In general, I might agree with you:
The would should not tolerate war
Should not “reflexively defer” to the military
Or use the word “Victory.”
You should accept all sides and denounce nothing
Because it is easier than taking a side
You should march for peace
And look down upon those who serve.
Suckers, chumps; war is always “for someone else.”
That, and bumper stickers “I Support the Troops!”
And all sorts of moral cheerleading
Also: mourning the dead
If you remember them at all
Between Facebook, sports, and “reality” entertainment:
The new opiates of the masses.
Instead of this, I tell
What I know si the truth
A blunt thing, not lovely.
The thrust is seldom welcome
Especially at dinner
Though I am good at what I do.
My trade is courage and the prevention of atrocities
I embody one and confront the other
I do what I can, where I am told to do it
By you, the American People
I don’t ask why, because it’s mostly the same
Wars happen because the ones who start them
Never have to fight them
And to 99.9% of America, the wars are not “real.”
Not you, not your father, not your daughter, not your friends
Not even your money
Why should war end, when most of the people never have to pay the cost
In money or blood
Or dreams unrealized
Limbs, lives, and futures gone in an instant
You are the 99%, but we are the .015
And proud of it.
Some days I am the hammer, some days the scalpel
But always the upright defender of our ways
But because I did what you did not, dare not,
You fear me. You don’t understand why someone with options in life
Would risk life and limb for ideas written hundreds of years ago
By “dead white men”
And that’s OK.
I don’t need you to understand, I do not need your pity. I chose this life.
And it chose me.
I would choose it again
But I will accept your friendship if you will give it; and I offer you the same
There is much we can learn from and teach to each other
Even if we don’t always agree. Especially if we don’t always agree.
You need not fear me, no more than the flock fears the dog that guards them
At night. I am no threat to you if you are no threat to me.
In my dreams, there is no glamour
For I know what others do not, date not know:
That there is evil
In the world
Evil men, evils systems, evil beliefs
There is not the way of reason, of sanity
There is the way of the gun and the bomb and the knife
Of murder and mayhem
Who will confront them? You?
With your delicate sensibilities and your moral rationalization,
you who say, “everything is equal nothing is better or worse than anything else”
No, not you. Who, them?
“Here I am, send me.” But know what sending me costs.
And let me win.
An airplane crashes
Into a tower. Fire against metal. And two tall buildings fall.
And the world changes forever
The asinine might say: “came home to roost.”
Those awake, they no better
Evil exists. It must be confronted. And destroyed.
Despite the propaganda, there are in fact monsters.
And they only deserve to be buried.
But finish one off, and circumstances
Or domestic political crises
And the Internet creates another.
So who do you want me to fight, and where, and when?
Everyone. No one. Everyone? All the time?
Believe me: whole armies have prayed fervently
To God all night and meant it,
“Let war not come” and it came anyway.
We in uniform do not have the luxury of choosing who,
Or when, or where, or why we fight.
If we did, the results might surprise you.
Some men throw themselves on grenades and burst like paper bags full of guts
To save their comrades.
Maybe it makes the news back home.
“Traveling Soldier,” If anyone watches. If anyone cares.
But rats and cholera have won many wars too
Those, and public support
Or the absence of it.
The word “hero” figures on a lot of talk shows
Of course, I accept a platitude or two
And press newspaper articles into a scrapbook
For a souvenir
I’m just as human as you.
But it’s no use pinning all those medals
Across the chests of the dead
Keep our medals, your tiny bits of ribbon
Give me back my friends
Give me back their limbs
And their mental health
Or let us honor them with victory.
But it’s no use asking me for a final statement.
As I say, I deal in tactics
Also, statistics: .01%
If you want peace, you must prepare
With acknowledgment and appreciation to
The Loneliness of the Military Historian
by Margaret Atwood
This first appeared in The Havok Journal on September 27, 2021.
Charles Faint is a U.S. Army officer currently serving as the Deputy Director of the Modern War Institute at West Point. He holds an MA in International Affairs from Yale University and served seven combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq while assigned to the 5th Special Forces Group, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment, and the Joint Special Operations Command. This article represents his personal reflections on the war in Afghanistan and his experiences as a student at Yale and is not an official position of the United States Military Academy or the United States Army.