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Examining economic revival efforts in Ghazalia, Western Baghdad. (photo by John Goodman)

Growing up, my view of the military and how it works was heavily influenced by my grandfather's stories and opinions. His father, Angelo Agro', was an infantry officer in the Italian army, serving in Turkey, World War I, Ethiopia, and eventually World War II. By the time he was captured by American forces during the Allied invasion of North Africa and Sicily, he had risen to the rank of general, and was in command of Sicily's troops. His family didn't hear from him for an entire month, but when they found out he was safe and sound in an American POW camp in North Africa, everyone breathed a collective sigh of relief. Italy changed from a monarchy to a republic in 1947, and Generale Agro' resigned his commission, simply because when he had taken his oath as a second lieutenant in 1912, he had sworn allegiance to the king. Swearing allegiance to someone or something else didn't make sense to him, and he was at the end of a long career anyway.

My grandfather and all of his brothers also served as officers in the Italian army as well, with my grandfather doing a one-year stint in the Corps of Engineers, and his brothers staying in for much longer. In Italy, those with a university education automatically served as officers, and almost everyone from privileged families attended university. To serve in the ranks was simply unheard of. Really, that comes from a military structure fashioned by centuries of class-based society which became more formalized during the 18th and 19th centuries. Men from the upper classes were officers, and led. Lower class men were enlisted, and followed. For instance, on the battlefields of the Napoleonic Wars, officers led troop formations from the front, enlisted soldiers fought behind, and non-commissioned officers - sergeants, or senior enlisted personnel - led from the back, ready to run through with a pike anyone who turned coat to run away. Military theory was based upon this structure for years to come, and its students still study the legendary work of Prussian general Carl von Clauswitz - On War.

Things have evolved a bit since then, and due to the foundations I had formed on the subject growing up, it took me a while to realize this. Today's military - especially in the U.S, which arguably has the most powerful military in the world - is organized in a completely different manner. Officers no longer lead from the front in most cases, but from the rear, where they manage all of the unit's logistical details. Typically, the ones out leading and doing are the NCOs that used to goad the troops from behind. While not every soldier is motivated, the army is not made up of conscripts, as it often was in the past. The military of today is entirely volunteer, so its entire character has changed. Furthermore, many NCOs have degrees and advanced degrees, and enter very specialized fields within the military. As they say, NCOs are the backbone of the armed forces.

Modern NCOs are no longer of a lower class than officers, and often come from similar socioeconomic backgrounds. It's not uncommon to find an NCO with a higher level of education than many officers. Regardless of that, they still have to salute and do what they're told...sort of. Although the Uniform Code of Military Justice - the official set of laws and regulations governing the Armed Forces - requires displays of respect due to certain rank, any officer worth his salt knows that if he or she wants to be successful, he or she would do well to listen closely to the enlisted adviser - usually someone senior in years - attached to them. Then again, it's still common to see a private pushing a broom in most places.

Imagine my grandfather's shock when I told him that I was going to enlist in the Marine Corps two weeks after graduating with a bachelor's degree in history. To him, it seemed unfathomable that someone with a university education would serve in the ranks. But there I was, a private first class with a degree in one hand and an M16 rifle in the other. Lucky for him, and in many ways lucky for me, I was injured, diagnosed with a genetic nerve problem, and kicked to the curb before too long, so his disappointment and concern that I was not serving in the officer corps was short-lived.

That brings me to another subject: a personal redemption served in part by my recent military embed in Iraq. I was medically discharged from the Marine Corps a full year before 9/11 occurred, and faced it with mixed feelings of guilty relief, regret, and rage that I had failed. For a while, I clung to the military lifestyle; running, doing push-ups until my arms tingled, and keeping my hair cut short. While I was pretty happy not to have to deal with any of the chickenshit rules and pointless waiting that being a marine - especially a junior enlisted one - often entails, the gnawing discomfort of rejection and a feeling of obligation to finish what I had started tore at me. This was especially true after the World Trade Center crumbled into a dusty heap in 2001 and President Bush began sending troops to Afghanistan. I tried in vain to get back into the military, going through all the different branches of the service - what I thought would be less intense ones in order to avoid the injuries I'd received in the Marine Corps. But the Navy, Army, Coast Guard - none would take me.

I came to realize that what those marine sergeants said to me as I turned in my gear, drew my final pay, and walked away with my tail between my legs rang true; everything happens for a reason. I did have the ability to serve - albeit not with the military - in the Middle East. It wasn't a hot war zone while I was there, and I wasn't wearing a uniform or carrying a weapon, but as a journalist in a place that corporate media outlets have largely abandoned (not completely, of course, as the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press, Reuters, and AFP still have people around here and there), I feel that I am fighting for diversity of information. Free speech is a cornerstone of democracy, and while servicemembers defend our physical freedom, it is my job and that of other journalists to maintain our First Amendment rights. Granted, I'm not going to kill anyone to do it, but I hope that just having made the effort to go and provide a set of eyes and ears for everyone who can't is making some kind of a difference.

That's undoubtedly one of the cheesiest loads of patriotic crap I've ever written, and I will probably make fun of myself later, but I am an idealist. I believe in it. That's why I do this job now, and that's why I signed up to become a U.S. marine years ago; because I believe in all of that cheesy, idealistic "serve your country" crap, too. I might not always agree with what our government does, and will certainly be extremely critical of it at times, but I love the land we live in, even if I'm sometimes ashamed at the way some of my fellow countrymen conduct themselves in the international arena. Not to mention, there's nothing like going to a place as screwed up as Iraq - yeah, our military had a big hand in messing it up, but it's always been somewhat of a mess due to the intensely fractional politics there - to provide a swift kick in the ass reminding you how good we have it in the States. As my good friend's Israeli father likes to point out, "Ben, we have a black president! Name me one country in Europe where that would ever happen." The United States, for all of its flaws, is truly a land of opportunity, and with some of the best real estate to be found anywhere.

As far as serving in the military goes, that ship has sailed, along with my desire to get on it. I extremely grateful that I was able to go to Iraq, but call my own shots. Personally, I have my own discipline and don't like having someone else tell me how I should do things, so I ain't really like one them roun' pegs, as Forrest Gump was when he joined the Army. I guess I've always preferred operating on the slightly under-the-radar fringes of any group I become involved with. I was, however, still subject to some of the bureaucratic tortures of the military by being embedded with them. If I saw stars, I walked the other way. Stars mean high-ranking officers. High-ranking officers means politics. Politics mean press conferences and unpalatable bullshit. High-ranking officers certainly play an important role in the grand scheme of things, but for my part, I'll rely upon my observations and the explanations of the NCOs and low-ranking officers who are out here doing stuff to get a better idea of what the military has going on. If I want big picture, I'll read a history book.

Comments

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I take issue with the way in which you described "modern day NCOs". As an officer in the US Army, I do know the importance of trusting and listening to NCOs, and you are correct, they are the backbone of the Army. However, it is UNCOMMON to find a NCO with a level of education higher than that of an officer. I don't know what type of unit you were embedded with, but active duty NCOs, on the whole, do not have college degrees. Also - they most certainly salute and do what they are told, there is no "sort of".

TheV31 (anonymous profile)
March 26, 2009 at 8:54 a.m. (Suggest removal)

Hello TheV31:

He is embedded with a reserve unit....and many of those reservists have higher education related to their civilian careers...so when they are called to active duty...they are called in with that civilian background..including their degrees...

I know..my husband is in that unit and he is a NCO with a degree as like many of his counterparts.

ssgwife (anonymous profile)
April 1, 2009 at 3:56 p.m. (Suggest removal)

Ive enjoyed the series and its nice to still see reporting from this part of the world. Its still hard to believe while the US is actively involved in a war that CBS News among others gave up reporting from there. Thanks for the reports and giving us a glimpse into this important story.

pointssouth (anonymous profile)
April 7, 2009 at 10:36 p.m. (Suggest removal)

"If I want big picture, I'll read a history book."

I suggest you read Howard Zinn's "A People's History of the United States." You'll find copies at the public library.

mwstowell (anonymous profile)
October 11, 2009 at 4:19 p.m. (Suggest removal)

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