Those Goofy, Long Socks
Whenever I think of Chris, I can’t help but picture those socks. When I was in Officer Candidate School, he wore them with his PT uniform — which doubled as sleepwear, since that’s what we were required to wear to bed. We were also required to stand outside our doors just before lights out as our TAC NCO — the senior enlisted soldier whose job it was, along with the TAC officer, to teach us and generally prepare us to be officers — lumbered up and down the hallway, grunting instructions for the next morning and, without fail, scowling at Chris and his socks. Army regulations are very specific about sock length. When wearing the physical fitness uniform, “calf-length socks will end at the middle point between the ankle and the knee.” To say Chris flirted with this line would be kind. His socks stretched beyond that invisible boundary that separated right from wrong, compliance with regulations from violation — and it was plainly obvious. But they didn’t quite stretch far enough to persuade a Ranger-tabbed sergeant first class in the United States Army to sacrifice his dignity by dropping to a knee and pulling out a measuring tape. So he just fumed, Chris kept his ever-present grin, and we all laughed to ourselves at the same thing we laughed at the night before, and the night before that, and the night before that.
Everywhere in the Army there are people like Chris. People who everybody likes, who make small units closer, and who bring a little bit of joy to experiences otherwise devoid of it. I have no idea why Chris wore those long socks. We were actually wearing what was called a “modified PT uniform,” since we were going straight to bed. Instead of running shoes, we wore the flip flops that we had for the showers. Socks and flip flops: We all looked dumb. But Chris embraced the chance to look just a little bit dumber. Maybe it was his way of maintaining a sense of individuality. It certainly wasn’t outright defiance. He was a hell of a soldier who wouldn’t have done that. Maybe he knew we all got a kick out of it and that was enough. Maybe he was just being himself. It doesn’t really matter why. What mattered was that it, along with a thousand other things, made him the kind of person everybody loves to have in a unit.
A little over a year later, as I was preparing for my first deployment to Iraq, I got an email. It was from Chris’s barracks roommate and sent to the rest of our class. Chris was dead.
We didn’t know much else. I know I googled his name repeatedly for days, waiting for the Defense Department to release details. I don’t remember when I found out that he was killed near Balad, Iraq. I don’t remember when I found out that his vehicle was struck by an improvised explosive device, but I do remember that the day I got that email was the day war became real to me.
It wasn’t that I was naïve or that I didn’t understand that every single one of the names on a growing list of casualties represented a real person. But I didn’t know them. I didn’t feel it. I knew Chris, and I felt it.
Empathy is an extraordinarily important quality, but even the most empathetic people find it much easier to exhibit it when they have a personal connection. It’s difficult to fully understand a war — and the men and women who fight and die in it — without knowing any of those men and women.
Of course, no sane person would wish the pain of losing somebody on another. But when certain states and regions provide a disproportionate share of military recruits and military service is increasingly a “family business,” in which more than a quarter of new servicemembers have a parent who has served, a personal connection to the military is unevenly spread across the population. That means a personal connection to the wars we fight, and the understanding that comes with it, is equally uneven.
In strategic terms, when a country takes action in the world, including the decision to go to war, we apply means in certain ways to (ideally) achieve specified ends. Servicemembers are means, and a connection to a servicemember invests Americans in that formula in important ways. In a healthy democracy, the decision to go to war should be among the most sober ones a government makes. It should involve an engaged citizenry. The war should be real to them.
This is why no shortage of commentators have pointed to a side effect of the all-volunteer force: It widens the civil-military divide and detaches the American people from the military and the wars it fights in their name. Universal national service is often suggested to solve this problem. Perhaps because the majority of Americans don’t support a return to a military draft, though, such proposals typically envision many service options outside the military, like working in schools, with the elderly, or in disaster response — which limits the extent to which it would actually close the gap between the armed forces and American society.
Short of reintroducing conscription, though, there are other ways to reduce the unhealthy civil-military divide and better include the public in the decision to go to war. One of them — and the reason I’m writing this piece right now — is the way we commemorate Memorial Day. Several years ago, I wrote an article in these pages about that day. The point I tried to make was that the importance of marking this holiday is in the doing. “It doesn’t matter how we do it,” I wrote. “It’s just important that we do it.” I still feel that way, but recently I’ve begun to believe there’s more to it than that.
Last summer, I went home to Minnesota to spend time with family over the 4th of July. I drove instead of flying so my dog could come with me. By adding a detour of a couple hours to the 20-hour trip, I got a chance to do something I had wanted to do for years. I stopped by the cemetery where Chris is buried and visited his gravesite. I’ve often wondered why his death stuck with me the way that it did. I called him a friend, but he was the kind of Army friend everyone has lots of: You’re together for a few weeks or months or even years and then you both move on, without staying in close touch. He wasn’t the last person I knew killed in Iraq or Afghanistan and he wasn’t the closest friend I lost. But standing in front of his grave, I thought of two things. I thought of his socks, and I laughed. And I remembered the day war felt real to me for the first time.
And so Memorial Day is an opportunity. No, it doesn’t matter how you spend it. And yes, the important thing is that we remember those who gave their lives in the service of our nation. But it is also a chance to reflect on sacrifice — which entails not just the loss of life, but the loss of life for the sake of something else. For some purpose: In strategic terms, for ends. It is a chance to think about the human costs of war. Most of those who read this will agree, I believe, that there are causes and interests that are worth sending Americans in uniform to fight and die for. Memorial Day is an opportunity to honor those who have done just that in our name and to remind ourselves that we have a responsibility to demand wise decisions about when to send Americans into harm’s way again.
If you don’t have somebody specific to keep in mind this Memorial Day, keep Chris in your thoughts. I’ll be thinking about him. And those damn socks.
John Amble is the editorial director of the Modern War Institute at West Point and a veteran of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. The views expressed are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of the U.S. Military Academy, Department of the Army, or Department of Defense.