Columbia University has the highest proportion of undergraduate military veterans in the Ivy League. Not surprisingly, these 430 individuals enrolled in GS are somewhat different from their undergraduate counterparts. For professor Rashid Khalidi, it’s more than just the fact that they are “extraordinarily mature,” and “usually more diligent.” It’s the fact that these individuals have unique perspective on US foreign policy. For them, “it’s lived history.”
This difference is no more apparent than in classes associated with Columbia’s department of Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies (MESAAS). Khalidi, the Edward Said Professor of Modern Arab Studies, notes that there is always a concentration of veterans sitting together in his lecture, History of the Modern Middle East. Yet while rehashing the area’s history can be an ordeal for veterans, it is perhaps MESAAS’s theoretical emphasis that proves the most difficult to swallow.
When I asked Kevin Anderson, GS ’16, what he thought of Edward Said’s canonical text Orientalism, he said he felt as if he’d been kicked in the balls. He likened the affair to a grieving process: “Originally, Edward Said greatly offended me. His approach to things and his view of the US as occupiers. Coming to terms with, well, was I an orientalist? Was I a part of his gaze? It’s a painful process to come to the realization that, yeah, I kind of was.”
Kevin served two tours of duty, one in Iraq, and the other in Afghanistan. He worked in Civil Affairs and Nation Rebuilding, as well as a medic. While it was “nice travelling on someone else’s dime,” there is something disheartening about reflecting on his experiences now. “The work that I did, and the money that I spent, and the people I thought I helped, I didn’t help. So there is something depressing about that.”
Kevin ended up in MESAAS almost by accident. He took a class, got an A, and thought to himself, “This will work.” Still, it can be tricky given his experiences. Many of his classmates haven’t taken too kindly to him. “Let’s be honest,” he said, “being a white veteran in the MESAAS department, you don’t always get a friendly look when you walk into a room.” Nonetheless, the department prompted an intellectual breakthrough for him. Reflecting back on what he saw in Iraq, Kevin observed, “A lot of it was derived from the intellectual basis from which the book Orientalism originates.” He continues, “You see these attitudes with the youngest, simplest soldier running around on the ground—saying ‘sand niggers,’ ‘hajjis.’ Anything you can think that was negative, made them the enemy. To isolate them as a group, to keep them as the Other. These patterns of speech and language floating around do this. So taking action upon them, killing them—it becomes trivial.”
Cody Wiles, GS ‘16, another former serviceman in the MESAAS department, echoed this sentiment. In the Marine Corps, he “felt like there was so much bigotry and racism, just a lack of understanding and not even a desire to understand.” MESAAS merely confirmed these sentiments, and gave him a language with which to express them. “I mean it just confirmed to me that the narrative that was being pushed was essentialist, it was formed in a way to mobilize military support, but it was just wrong. I think it was morally wrong, and strategically wrong.”
For Cody, the biggest takeaway seems to be his disavowal of American exceptionalism. As he explains, “You don’t have to go as far as very anti-establishment Marxism, or deep critical theory to just think: are we doing more good or bad?”
Mike Small, GS ‘16, has a different perspective. He says he never thought the Iraq War made sense in the first place (he joined the Marines because of Al-Qaeda, not Saddam Hussein). Still he maintains, “I don’t think anything I personally did was morally repulsive, so in regards to the time I spent personally as an individual, just me, in Iraq and so on, no, my time in MESAAS hasn’t made me think twice about what I did.”
As Kevin notes, their actions were a matter of procedure. He describes his service as a bunch of 20-something-year-olds trying to accomplish x, y, or z objective, and they didn’t know what for. “You honestly don’t care about cultural and political realities as you are shaping them,” he adds.
Kevin says MESAAS has left him disillusioned, but has also instilled in him a new sort of urgency. “You can only tell an idiot he is wrong so many times before you get tired. He’s not going to change, but if you find the smart guy teaching the idiot, maybe you can help.” Still, there is a sense that the policy making apparatus might just be a bit too warped to even try one’s hand. MESAAS’s anti-institutional bent has made Kevin think twice about joining the State Department, or trying to “change things from the inside.”
If there is a way, Kevin insists, it’s through education. Citing the parochialism of Americans as part of the problem, Kevin tells me it’s all about “getting them while they’re young.” For Cody, one the US Foreign policy’s problems is deferring to the military on too many issues. It’s good at killing people, he says, and there are times when that is helpful. “But the guy you have trained to be a vicious killer is not the person that you need helping you figure out how you interact with that region.” When I ask Cody whether he is bound for the State Department, he tells me he’s conflicted. Cody spent his entire undergraduate career thinking that was where he would end up. He is no longer so sure he wants to take the plunge. “This is a legitimate crisis which has taken me quite some time to get to.”
Mike is less ambivalent. He tells me he has no intention at all of heading to Washington. But he reasons that for the lessons of MESAAS to have any purchase, someone has to. “It would be better to have a State Department that has a contrarian and constructive point of view within its policy making apparatus,” he says. But then again, people want to make a good living, get promoted. The idealism of collegiate life inevitably fades, and people find themselves treading much the same path as their predecessors.
Therein lies the fundamental irony at the heart of studying MESAAS as a military veteran—the department equips its students with the skills that would prime them for a career in the intelligence community or a think tank, while its classes warn students not to contribute to the military-industrial complex. After listening to the likes of Rashid Khalidi, Joseph Massad, and Timothy Mitchell decry the ills of American foreign policy and its policy making apparatus, some MESAAS military veterans have been compelled to reevaluate their pasts. In the process, many have become less certain of their futures.