.
T

here is a curious juxtaposition of our perceptions of the military as one of, if not the, most trusted institutions in America and, yet, less than one-half of one percent of America’s population serves on active duty. Americans are increasingly less likely to serve or know someone who serves, yet look to the military as a trusted, non-partisan, and apolitical institution, perhaps the last bastion of the values of duty, honor, and country to which we all, in one way or another, hope to ascribe. The military is perceived as a paragon, an embodiment of the virtues on which our country was founded and at the same time is the very defender of those same values. Men and women who nobly raise their hand and swear an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  

Walk in My Combat Boots | James Patterson & Matt Eversmann with Chris Mooney | Little, Brown | February 2021.

Without question, America’s military is worthy of praise and recognition, but there is a danger in the lionization of the services at the same time there is a growing gap between the military and civilian worlds. That simultaneous separation and idolization lead to a lack of understanding of the services, their internal challenges, their missions, and indeed their needs. This is to say nothing of the public’s projection of domestic political issues onto an institution that is, by design and intention, supposed to be separate from these debates. Yet, the military often is subsumed into empty “dialogue” by those who wish to cloak their ambitions or policies in the flag. Look at the recent brouhaha by a cable news commentator and the role of women in uniform.

The military is by no means a perfect organization. It faces real and serious internal problems that must be addressed—not the least of which is modernizing an industrial-era institution to fight and win America’s future wars while creating opportunities for those who wish to serve to be able to do so without fear, and supporting them accordingly. Yet, judging by the discussions on social media or cable news, the military faces very binary decisions that often miss the point and oversimplify complex issues.

The debate is not about lethality OR prevention of sexual assault or harassment. It is about recognizing that sexual assault and harassment are real obstacles to achieving lethality, and not just when it is exposed on social media. It is not about eliminating “toxic masculinity”, reforming the physical fitness standards, OR beating China. It is about harnessing the skills, talents, and expertise of all those who want to serve, assigning them to where they are best suited, and focusing their efforts on great power competition.

The military should not be a political tool for “social justice warriors” nor conservative cable news pundits but should reflect the values of American society and the principles of the Constitution. At the same time, American society must recognize and understand that the demands of combat and military service are unique, and require a concomitant unique culture that is different from the civilian world. At the end of the day, the military is designed to fight and win wars, to defend America, to uphold the Constitution, and the culture that enables that is fundamentally different from the civilian world. That understanding is becoming increasingly difficult when so few Americans serve and the only exposure they get to the military is, at best, through popular culture, social media, or the odd friend or relative.

In a very small way, attempting to bridge this gap is Walk in My Combat Boots by James Patterson, the prolific novelist, and Matt Eversmann, a former first sergeant in the U.S. Army. It is a collection of stories from current and former service members divided into sections on “a call to duty”, training, in-country, the home front, and an afterword. Each chapter is written by a different service member and offers a small biographical vignette to start, placing the author’s service and experience in both time and place. They are notably more diverse in terms of the servicemembers’ experiences than other, similar books, but still predominantly focus on combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—unsurprising given the title.

The promotional blurbs from Admiral William McRaven, General Stanley McChrystal, and President Bill Clinton are all unsurprisingly positive and bombastic. Admiral McRaven writes that these stories are “raw, authentic, and, above all, inspiring”. General McChrystal writes that they are “painfully raw, improbably funny, and completely human.” For his part, the former president says it will “take your breath away, break your heart, and leave you in awe.” The statements by these three accomplished individuals are not wrong at all. The stories are indeed raw and powerful. They offer insights into the reasons why men and women don the uniform and swear the oath. It also shows them on their best days and at their worst.  

The problem is that Walk in My Combat Boots skirts real issues and borders on hagiography, and this is a disservice to the men and women in uniform. Military and veteran suicide, substance abuse, mental health, sexual assault and harassment, military spouse unemployment, the impact of multiple deployments on families, et cetera… are only very tangentially touched upon (if at all), and are unexplored with any depth or gravity. Of course, one does not expect a policy-length book or exploration of any one of these individual issues from Mr. Patterson.

Mr. Patterson would have been better served had he taken a more forward-leaning approach to the American military today and, had he done so, he would have better served both the book’s subjects and the American people. Given Mr. Patterson’s reach and audience, doing so could have raised any number of these issues to real, national prominence. For example, military suicides rose 20% in 2020 over the same period in 2019. Mr. Patterson’s engagement on this issue would have brought it to the attention of Americans in a way other advocacy campaigns have not yet been able to do.

Acknowledging or addressing issues with the military is not un-patriotic or “undermining the troops”. It is a hallmark of the principles of civil-military relations and civilian control of the military. Fundamentally, the American military is not an either-or proposition—it is neither all good or nor all bad; it is a human institution that reflects America’s greatest values, but also some of its most pressing challenges, albeit in a concentrated microcosm with a uniquely violent mission. Its members are neither all closeted extremists nor all virtuous angels. Military housing is neither all mold-infested slums nor is it perfect five-star basing. Yet, those issues—extremism and poor housing, among others—are real and must be addressed. If Americans are to truly support the military, they need to understand what the real challenges facing our service members are, and that requires a much more honest (and uncomfortable) conversation and less passive adulation.

I suspect that Mr. Patterson (or, rather his publishing house) wanted to produce a book that promoted the military, recognized the sacrifices of the servicemembers, extolled its virtues, and brought the experiences of serving men and women into the homes of the other 99% of Americans. In that, he is successful. However, if I were a more cynical reviewer, I would think that this book profits—intentionally or otherwise—from the breakdown in our society’s relationship between the public and the military, by offering the former an easy way to “connect” or engage with servicemembers, but avoiding the really difficult conversations that must be had. At the same time, the book reinforces the separation between the civilian and military worlds by making the latter out to be something to be observed and applauded, and not a fundamental part of society.

In either case—cynical or not—Mr. Patterson falls short of the dust jacket’s goal: “Readers who next thank a military member for their service will finally have a true understanding of what that thanks is for.” What America’s servicemembers need more of, and deserve more of, is not simple and passive thanks, but a society that understands their needs (and those of their families), engages with the very real issues, and, more importantly, supports them accordingly.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.

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www.diplomaticourier.com

Book Review: Walk in My Combat Boots

April 10, 2021

Walk in My Combat Boots | James Patterson & Matt Eversmann with Chris Mooney | Little, Brown | February 2021.

T

here is a curious juxtaposition of our perceptions of the military as one of, if not the, most trusted institutions in America and, yet, less than one-half of one percent of America’s population serves on active duty. Americans are increasingly less likely to serve or know someone who serves, yet look to the military as a trusted, non-partisan, and apolitical institution, perhaps the last bastion of the values of duty, honor, and country to which we all, in one way or another, hope to ascribe. The military is perceived as a paragon, an embodiment of the virtues on which our country was founded and at the same time is the very defender of those same values. Men and women who nobly raise their hand and swear an oath to uphold and defend the Constitution against all enemies, foreign and domestic.  

Walk in My Combat Boots | James Patterson & Matt Eversmann with Chris Mooney | Little, Brown | February 2021.

Without question, America’s military is worthy of praise and recognition, but there is a danger in the lionization of the services at the same time there is a growing gap between the military and civilian worlds. That simultaneous separation and idolization lead to a lack of understanding of the services, their internal challenges, their missions, and indeed their needs. This is to say nothing of the public’s projection of domestic political issues onto an institution that is, by design and intention, supposed to be separate from these debates. Yet, the military often is subsumed into empty “dialogue” by those who wish to cloak their ambitions or policies in the flag. Look at the recent brouhaha by a cable news commentator and the role of women in uniform.

The military is by no means a perfect organization. It faces real and serious internal problems that must be addressed—not the least of which is modernizing an industrial-era institution to fight and win America’s future wars while creating opportunities for those who wish to serve to be able to do so without fear, and supporting them accordingly. Yet, judging by the discussions on social media or cable news, the military faces very binary decisions that often miss the point and oversimplify complex issues.

The debate is not about lethality OR prevention of sexual assault or harassment. It is about recognizing that sexual assault and harassment are real obstacles to achieving lethality, and not just when it is exposed on social media. It is not about eliminating “toxic masculinity”, reforming the physical fitness standards, OR beating China. It is about harnessing the skills, talents, and expertise of all those who want to serve, assigning them to where they are best suited, and focusing their efforts on great power competition.

The military should not be a political tool for “social justice warriors” nor conservative cable news pundits but should reflect the values of American society and the principles of the Constitution. At the same time, American society must recognize and understand that the demands of combat and military service are unique, and require a concomitant unique culture that is different from the civilian world. At the end of the day, the military is designed to fight and win wars, to defend America, to uphold the Constitution, and the culture that enables that is fundamentally different from the civilian world. That understanding is becoming increasingly difficult when so few Americans serve and the only exposure they get to the military is, at best, through popular culture, social media, or the odd friend or relative.

In a very small way, attempting to bridge this gap is Walk in My Combat Boots by James Patterson, the prolific novelist, and Matt Eversmann, a former first sergeant in the U.S. Army. It is a collection of stories from current and former service members divided into sections on “a call to duty”, training, in-country, the home front, and an afterword. Each chapter is written by a different service member and offers a small biographical vignette to start, placing the author’s service and experience in both time and place. They are notably more diverse in terms of the servicemembers’ experiences than other, similar books, but still predominantly focus on combat in Iraq and Afghanistan—unsurprising given the title.

The promotional blurbs from Admiral William McRaven, General Stanley McChrystal, and President Bill Clinton are all unsurprisingly positive and bombastic. Admiral McRaven writes that these stories are “raw, authentic, and, above all, inspiring”. General McChrystal writes that they are “painfully raw, improbably funny, and completely human.” For his part, the former president says it will “take your breath away, break your heart, and leave you in awe.” The statements by these three accomplished individuals are not wrong at all. The stories are indeed raw and powerful. They offer insights into the reasons why men and women don the uniform and swear the oath. It also shows them on their best days and at their worst.  

The problem is that Walk in My Combat Boots skirts real issues and borders on hagiography, and this is a disservice to the men and women in uniform. Military and veteran suicide, substance abuse, mental health, sexual assault and harassment, military spouse unemployment, the impact of multiple deployments on families, et cetera… are only very tangentially touched upon (if at all), and are unexplored with any depth or gravity. Of course, one does not expect a policy-length book or exploration of any one of these individual issues from Mr. Patterson.

Mr. Patterson would have been better served had he taken a more forward-leaning approach to the American military today and, had he done so, he would have better served both the book’s subjects and the American people. Given Mr. Patterson’s reach and audience, doing so could have raised any number of these issues to real, national prominence. For example, military suicides rose 20% in 2020 over the same period in 2019. Mr. Patterson’s engagement on this issue would have brought it to the attention of Americans in a way other advocacy campaigns have not yet been able to do.

Acknowledging or addressing issues with the military is not un-patriotic or “undermining the troops”. It is a hallmark of the principles of civil-military relations and civilian control of the military. Fundamentally, the American military is not an either-or proposition—it is neither all good or nor all bad; it is a human institution that reflects America’s greatest values, but also some of its most pressing challenges, albeit in a concentrated microcosm with a uniquely violent mission. Its members are neither all closeted extremists nor all virtuous angels. Military housing is neither all mold-infested slums nor is it perfect five-star basing. Yet, those issues—extremism and poor housing, among others—are real and must be addressed. If Americans are to truly support the military, they need to understand what the real challenges facing our service members are, and that requires a much more honest (and uncomfortable) conversation and less passive adulation.

I suspect that Mr. Patterson (or, rather his publishing house) wanted to produce a book that promoted the military, recognized the sacrifices of the servicemembers, extolled its virtues, and brought the experiences of serving men and women into the homes of the other 99% of Americans. In that, he is successful. However, if I were a more cynical reviewer, I would think that this book profits—intentionally or otherwise—from the breakdown in our society’s relationship between the public and the military, by offering the former an easy way to “connect” or engage with servicemembers, but avoiding the really difficult conversations that must be had. At the same time, the book reinforces the separation between the civilian and military worlds by making the latter out to be something to be observed and applauded, and not a fundamental part of society.

In either case—cynical or not—Mr. Patterson falls short of the dust jacket’s goal: “Readers who next thank a military member for their service will finally have a true understanding of what that thanks is for.” What America’s servicemembers need more of, and deserve more of, is not simple and passive thanks, but a society that understands their needs (and those of their families), engages with the very real issues, and, more importantly, supports them accordingly.

About
Joshua Huminski
:
Joshua C. Huminski is Director of the Mike Rogers Center for Intelligence & Global Affairs at the Center for the Study of the Presidency & Congress. He can be found on Twitter @joshuachuminski.
The views presented in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the views of any other organization.