Welcome to Rank and File, a series that tells the stories of young veterans and the changing face of the military. Read our first piece in the series here.
Mary Tobin never meant to go to war. She wasn’t the kind of kid who grew up dreaming of military glory. She didn’t know how prestigious West Point was, or how impressive her scholarship—until the local Atlanta radio stations started reporting on her, a rare black female cadet.
Attending the military academy in the years before 9/11, Tobin had hoped to deploy to Korea, maybe party with her friends for a year or so. But six months to the day after she graduated, in 2003, she was leading 50 men in a field artillery unit in Iraq, darting out into combat zones and analyzing the craters rockets left behind. She’d go on to serve through two deployments over five years, where she told me her leadership abilities were measured not by combat action badges or keeping soldiers safe but on how she clocked in against the boys on a two-mile sprint.
“I do 50 pushups and come in with the top guys in the unit, and then all up a sudden it’s like, ‘Aw, Mary’s a hell of a leader,’” she said.
I started talking to Tobin last fall, as campaign season rolled towards its harrowing conclusion and the presidential candidates traded lists of the generals who’d endorsed them. And because I’m paid to wrestle news angles out of stories like Tobin’s, and because no one could really think about anything else in October, she and I spoke about Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump.
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Which is part of the challenge when it comes to writing about the military and veterans in America: It isn’t just politicians who are inclined to interpret service members’ experiences as grand political allegories, or to seek comment as if their shared duty gave them a monolithic voice rather than a collection of individual perspectives forged both in the service and out.
At the end of World War II, nearly 10% of the American population was on active duty. Today, it’s about .05%. If you’re a civilian and you don’t come from a military family, it’s statistically unlikely you know anyone who’s enlisted—but you’ve sure read the stories and seen the movies and have some opinion on patriotic duty and the business of war.
Some of the common military narratives of valor and sacrifice, toxicity and abandonment, are as true today as they were 20 years ago: Sexual violence plagues every rank. Our veterans are sidelined and neglected, left drug-addicted and homeless and sick by the same country they served. And though the enlisted swear an oath to defend the Constitution rather than an individual leader, they will always be uniquely, directly affected by our politicians’ whims.
But the rank and file is also in the middle of a dramatic, longterm demographic shift. It’s only been six years since the repeal of Don’t Ask Don’t Tell and eight months since transgender Americans have been cleared to serve. Today’s military is far more racially diverse than it was in the ‘90s; its members are more educated than ever and have probably served under female command. The number of women in its ranks is projected to more than double over the next 40 year, and more than half of them believe America’s post-9/11 wars just weren’t worth fighting.
Rank and File is a series about the military as it’s changing. It’s about a group of people, increasingly alienated from the rest of America, whose stories are too often told during campaign season or alongside scandal.
And it’s about what our country’s urgent political crisis looks like from the perspective of those who have served, or are planning to. Last spring, at West Point, more than a decade after Mary Tobin graduated, 16 black female cadets were nearly expelled for posing for a photograph with their fists raised in a black power salute. A young veteran in Texas told me recently using his tactical skills to assist water protectors at Standing Rock and Trans-Pecos kept him from being haunted by his time in Iraq, where he used that training for a “dishonorable cause.” And in the wake of the Trump travel ban, U.S. veterans have been particularly visible voices of dissent.
When we spoke, Mary Tobin told me the veterans who were coming home now, the ones in their twenties and thirties, were “hiding it well, but we’re all messed up.” Tobin is an optimistic reformist: She isn’t upset she was disabled, or that she played a role in a foreign intervention she long ago stopped believing in. “When I’m going to the VA for treatment, when I’m waiting six months, a year for an appointment, I have to be okay with my service,” she told me. “Or else I’ll be bitter.”
Between offering the election-pegged opinions I’d so thoughtlessly solicited, Tobin told me stories. She told me about the time a private asked her, on a three-and-a-half day convoy from Kuwait to Iraq, why they were in this country and she gave him both the official answer—”freedom”—and the unofficial, which was that she had no fucking idea. She described, with admiration, a military diverse on the institutional level—the service was integrated before the American school system, she pointed out—but that was still slanted towards traditions invented by the “white male mind.”
She expressed disgust for civilians who would call for a Muslim ban while having never spent time in the Middle East themselves, and deep pride at having rising through the military’s hierarchy, collecting more rank on her shoulder, until she could take the Confederate flag out of the office and ban sexists jokes among her ranks.
Tobin is one of the faces of a changing military; there are many more. When I started interviewing veterans, I was told two things by nearly everyone I spoke to: that there is, under no circumstances, a “military perspective,” and that most people like to say “Thank you for your service” and move on.
In Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk, a novel that follows the eight surviving members of Bravo Squad, a group of soldiers are transformed into viral stars when a Fox News crew films one of their battles in Iraq. It’s a caricature of Everyday Americans who want nothing more than the halftime-show version of patriotism. The majority of it takes place on Thanksgiving Day, at a Dallas Cowboy game, where the soldiers have been invited to appear onstage with Beyonce.
The book opens with Billy, one of the soldiers, being cornered by an over-excited guy in expensive cowboy boots. “‘Was never in the military myself,’ the man confided, swaying, gesturing with his giant Starbucks, ‘but my grandaddy was at Pearl, he told me all the stories.’”
Billy Lynn was written as an indictment of a culture, divorced from the military except in symbolic terms, that thinks “the war” and what comes after is a single, timeless experience—that believes it’s possible to know “all the stories.” Our aim here is to work towards the opposite.