Narrative and Memory at War

I am aware that two war movies, “The Hurt Locker” and “The Messenger,” have received multiple nominations for the Academy Awards. Though I’ve enjoyed war movies in the past, I haven’t seen either of these.

I’ve stopped watching movies about our current wars for the same reason I don’t like recounting my scariest moments for voyeuristic friends. I am protective of my memories and don’t want them crowded out. . . .

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(This is the last of a five-part series, “Retelling the War,” in which veterans discuss how books, movies and other tales of combat shaped their perceptions of themselves and of war.)

Bidding Farewell to Arms

For the past year, I could only provide a frustratingly long answer to the simple, frequently asked question, Are you still in the Army?

When I commissioned as an infantry officer in March, 2000, my contract specified four years of active service and four years in the inactive reserve (I.R.R.) — a name on a list. During graduate school, my answer was simple: Sort of. I’m still a name on a list.

At the eight year mark, I would have been allowed to resign my commission and irrevocably separate myself from the military, but my number came up at the seven year and two month mark, mobilizing me, as the letter said in all capital letters, “FOR 545 DAYS UNLESS EXTENDED.”

Of course, the military had the right to do this according to the contract I signed back in 2000. I was not a victim of new policy. I either knew or should have known — can’t remember which.

The 545 days came and went and I returned safely and soundly from Afghanistan’s Kunar Province to Iowa City where I began reassembling my life. . . .

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On Readiness

Soldiers may be required to walk 12 miles with combat gear including boots, L.C.E., helmet and 40-pound ruck sack. Do I have any medical condition that prevents me from doing so? If no, skip to question 23, if yes, do I have any medical condition which would prevent me from walking eight miles with boots, L.C.E. and helmet, no equipment?

Do I have any medical condition that prevents me from doing three- to five-second rushes under direct or indirect fire?

I think: Does sanity count?

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Something Worth Fighting For

Something Worth Fighting For

A colonel once advised me to never, ever, under any circumstances feel like I’m pulling one over on the Army. We were friends despite his higher rank, and I had been struggling with a form DD 1351-2 to be reimbursed two bucks a day for laundry expenses.

“The Army is very good at treating you the way a juicer treats a lemon,” he went on. “You need to make yourself the juicer, and let the Army be the lemon.” This philosophy was easy to adopt.

It was summer, 2007 and I had just reluctantly returned to uniform after a few years of civilian life for a third combat tour . . . . (Read more at

Yes, I’ve used this title before.

Life Lessons

I’m honor to be participating in the NY Time’s homefires blog:


I’m occasionally asked what I’ve learned from my experiences in the military.

My responses, particularly before my third tour, have always involved leadership, confidence, knowledge of myself and of people in general. This hasn’t changed. I remain grateful.

Sometimes I feel the pressure of expectation to cast myself as a victim of my experiences, but in truth, I think I’ve benefited from them.

The Army, and especially the infantry, gives its junior leaders tremendous responsibility. The rough world of the 82nd Airborne Division was a steep learning curve for me, a freshly minted lieutenant accustomed to the studious habits of Stanford University, of its School of Engineering, no less. I learned an awful lot and, I think, emerged a better person.

More recently, I’ve realized some of my beliefs have formed so slowly and subtly that their learning has been entirely unappreciated. I’ve learned that no matter what, life goes on — it’ll do so with or without any one of us — and I’ve found a measure of respect for selfishness; for people who look out for themselves and their lives yet to come. This is surely cynical.

If there’s redemption in the selfishness, it has to do with loving life, with respecting yourself enough not to end your days prematurely or in futile pursuits. Yes, I said it. Somewhere between my second and third tours, I came to believe that our foreign, undeclared wars flaunted our Constitution and made us less safe — from terrorism, from debt and from tyranny at home. Believing this wasn’t easy, but I couldn’t help it. Without faith in our military endeavors, my long-held notions about duty, heroism and fighting the good fight didn’t survive long.

I think you’re only a hero for as long as your image is useful. . . . (Read more from

Now that I’m published in the NY Times, am I still allowed to complain about the media?