Leafing through my copy of the most recent Yale Alumni Magazine, I arrived at an interview with President Levin about the role of university presidents in public affairs. When asked about his participation in the Commission on the Intelligence Capabilities of the United States Regarding Weapons of Mass Destruction, he observes that he “was asked by the president to serve the nation, and [he] considered it [his] duty.”
In times of war, the rhetoric of service to the nation and duty takes heavy abuse. Just yesterday on the radio, I heard an advertisement for a local car dealership offering $500 discounts on new vehicles to soldiers and their immediate families to honor their service. When I hear that word, I try to picture President Levin and a feisty platoon of car salesmen bravely manning the barricades and fighting for freedom, or maybe, like my father, bandaging the wounded in the jungles of Vietnam in 1968. The uncomfortable truth of the matter is that the definition of “service” varies widely, and when the service flag goes up in the front window at 43 Hillhouse, it’s because President Levin has shipped out to Washington, D.C., not to the Iraqi desert.
While he’s in Washington, I hope that President Levin has time to stop by Fort Belvoir and visit my brother Colin, a Specialist in the U.S. Army. Colin enlisted in November 2002 and completed his basic training shortly after the war in Iraq began. His first assignment was to South Korea. Now, as the third and final year of his enlistment begins, he is stationed in the nation’s capital, charged with security for communications infrastructure and occasional ceremonial appearances, which to date have included veterans’ funerals and the inauguration of President Bush. Colin, like a substantial number of my own high school classmates, joined the Army because it offered a path out of western New York’s Rust Belt and its lack of jobs, an opportunity to acquire skills and discipline, and to hopefully save money for college. He felt no zeal for Sept. 11 vengeance when he joined up — he simply wanted to get further ahead in life, and in exchange pledged to put his life on the line, if necessary, to defend his country.
Two weeks ago another group of soldiers in Colin’s unit received orders for Iraq, including his sergeant, a father of two young children. While Colin’s enlistment is supposed to end in April 2006, he would be exceptionally lucky to not have his service extended. When he was sent to Korea, our family breathed a sigh of relief, because the remote nuclear threat was far preferable to snipers and roadside bombs. Thanks to video-conferencing, he was with us on holidays. In Washington, he’s a few hours’ drive from home. But we’re afraid, of course, that our good luck will expire. My mother has remarked that she feels incredible guilt for thinking it shouldn’t happen to her son, because that in turn hands that fate off to another mother’s son, and what agony our family is able to escape, thousands of others must endure.
We wait, and hope, and consider ourselves fortunate that Colin’s life is not in the extremes of jeopardy it could be, and that he does not yet face the dangers many of his friends and fellow soldiers do. People like him carry this enormous burden professionally for about $1500 per month; President Levin braves the guns of Capitol Hill as a voluntary gesture, and when he retires, he’ll live off about $42,000 per month of pension alone. The kind of service to our nation President Levin is rendering is very different from that performed by my brother, his sergeant, and our families; but once the rubric of duty is dispelled, it is clear that war is hell for some, and networking for others.
President Levin, you’re going to have to earn the right to say you’ve done your duty before you further usurp the nobility of service. I hope you and the Commission have come up with some good answers as to what intelligence failures led to our invasion of Iraq, and why I’m so terrified my brother might be sent there. Next time you’re in Washington, please visit my brother and explain to him why he and thousands of other soldiers are plagued by nightmares and a terrible sense of betrayal.
Evan Matthew Cobb is a fourth-year graduate student in the Department of Germanic Languages and Literatures. He teaches German 130 and is an organizer for GESO.