September 14, 2005: Perspective
I joined the Army
By Graham E. Phillips ’05
Graham E. Phillips ’05, the salutatorian at Princeton’s Commencement in May, wrote this essay for PAW before reporting for combat training at Fort Knox, Ky., in July. Phillips, of Westford, Mass., expected to serve in a tank crew.
All seniors eventually get tired of the inescapable question: “What are you doing after Princeton?” It’s a perfectly polite and understandable question, but even the most prestigious future is tiresome to describe for the 300th time. I think I have found the question more daunting than many of my classmates because I can’t fall back on an abbreviated response such as “I’m working in New York,” “I’m going to Stanford Law,” or even “I don’t know.” I rarely can get away with my short answer: I enlisted in the United States Army.
Why enlist in the Army? Why now? Why me? I’ve been struggling with the best way to answer these and many other questions I have been asked since I made my decision to enlist last October, around the beginning of my senior year at Princeton. In fact, a combination of motivations led me to this decision.
The military has always intrigued me. As a child, I read about military technology and military history, and by second grade I felt sufficiently competent to compile my own (self-illustrated) history of the Persian Gulf War. I grew up hearing the occasional war stories told by my grandfathers, especially my late paternal grandfather, who had been a captain and tank commander in the Canadian Army during World War II; after he reached Germany, an enemy shell destroyed both his Sherman tank and his left leg. My grandfather offered a positive example of military service and sacrifice.
The idea of joining the Army entered my head in June 2004, when I was spending the summer working in Princeton, unsure about what I should do with my future. One Sunday morning, as I watched two political pundits on television argue about whether the American military was making progress in Iraq, I realized that I didn’t want the perspective of yet another pundit from Washington; I wanted the perspective of a soldier. And I wondered: Why couldn’t I become that soldier?
The idea of joining the Army appealed to me morally as well as intellectually. As a member of this democracy I have tacitly asked soldiers to risk their lives for my well-being; now I could help share that burden.
As I began to think seriously about becoming a soldier, I identified another attraction. Succeeding in the Army — heck, just making it through basic combat training — would be very difficult. Like most Princetonians I thrive on challenges, but whereas I was well-suited to the academic trials of a university, I have neither the physical build nor the macho temperament of the stereotypical soldier. But instead of dissuading me, the challenge attracted me — and it still does. I want to prove that the stereotypical soldier is just that — a stereotype — and that even a nerdy 98-pound weakling (OK, a 138-pound weakling) can make the cut if he tries hard enough.
By last September, my plans to enlist were taking shape. I talked to my parents about the prospect. I didn’t know how they would react, as they are peaceable, intellectual, and displeased with the Bush administration’s handling of the war in Iraq. The last time we had spoken about my career plans, we had discussed the possibility of my attending graduate school or becoming a high school history teacher — so the Army was quite a shift. On the phone that day my parents listened quietly as I explained my reasons for wanting to join; I could sense that they were both surprised.
When I finished speaking there was a short pause before my father began to respond. To my great relief he was immediately supportive. Neither he nor my mother tried to talk me out of my decision. My mother said she knew I was responsible enough to make this decision. I think the examples set by their fathers — my grandfathers — helped my parents to understand the honor and importance of military service.
Yet my grandfathers lived in a very different age and fought a very different war than I might have to fight. In the minds of many Americans, our current foreign policy lacks the moral clarity it had in World War II. Should we have gone into Iraq? Should we still be there now? Is military force the proper tool for winning the war on terror? I had to come to grips with these questions before enlisting, for I knew that as a soldier I would not get to choose only those missions I considered morally and politically right. The possibility that I might be a tool of American aggression troubled some of my friends and family members, most notably my brother Ian, who was teaching English in Turkey and was not happy with the thought that I could be part of the occupation of Iraq. My own conscience is satisfied that, however misguided our government was in the lead-up to the Iraq War, our troops are now there to bring security and stability to a nation struggling along the road from despotism to democracy. I cannot deny that the possibility of going to Iraq is frightening, but for as long as the Iraqi government requests the presence of American troops, I would be proud to serve there.
I don’t think such a response was wholly satisfying to my brother or to other friends who believe that the American occupation of Iraq is immoral. But I asked them to consider the following: My enlisting or not enlisting would not affect the government’s ability to carry out its foreign policy, though it might, in some small way, affect the skill and humanity with which that foreign policy is executed. If there is one thing I’ve learned from the past few years, it is that individual soldiers can, for better or for worse, make a difference. In a war that is more about hearts and minds than bullets and bombs, the callous brutality of one soldier can spark an international incident that will turn thousands more against America. In Iraq and in the war on terror as a whole, each American soldier is not just a soldier; he or she also is an ambassador. In addition to being an excellent warrior, the ideal soldier must be someone who appreciates the greater political and cultural ramifications of his or her actions, who is educated, tolerant, and liberal-minded (in the original sense of the term). Princeton produces such young men and women in droves. I hope that I am one of them. I hope that during my military service I find personal satisfaction and that I am a worthy ambassador of both my nation and my university.