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Patrick O'Mahen: Keeping the war close to home

BY PATRICK O'MAHEN

Published March 21, 2010

This weekend, the seven-year anniversary of the start of the Iraq War passed without fanfare. U.S. involvement in Afghanistan will reach its ninth birthday this fall. The recession has caused the wars to fade from our national consciousness. But they’re still out there. They have ramifications for millions of people in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as for U.S. troops — many of whom are our classmates.

As we go about our everyday business here in Ann Arbor, it would do us well to remember these stakes in human life. I needed a stark reminder of this and got one last November. I was working in my office when a knock on the door brought a distant war to my doorstep.

I answered it, and found a tall, well-built man standing there. He had a military bearing and looked vaguely familiar.

“Hi, I don’t know if you remember me, but … ” And then I remembered him. His name was Oliver. He had been in a section I taught on contemporary issues in American politics in 2007. He was in ROTC at the time and brought serious gravity to the discussions the class had on U.S. Iraq policy. He had thought he would be going to Iraq when he graduated. He’d impressed me with his honesty and intellectual rigor during discussion. Recognizing that your life, your fellow soldiers’ lives and the lives of the civilians you interact with depend on getting things right does tend to influence one’s thoughts. He graduated in 2009 and shipped off to Fort Sill in Oklahoma to learn the fine art of using 155 mm field howitzers.

Then, shifting foreign policy emphasis sped up a withdrawal from Iraq and increased troop levels in Afghanistan. Care to guess where Oliver is going later this spring?

“I spent all that time learning about Iraq in college, and now I’m going to Afghanistan,” he chuckled dryly.

He came to ask for help. “I don’t know much about Afghanistan,” he said, adding that he was looking for scholarly work on Central Asia so he would be prepared for the culture he was going to face on the ground and more aware of Afghanistan’s history and politics. He told me that his comrades at Fort Sill had a much higher aptitude for the mathematical aspects of artillery than he did, but he figured as a political science graduate, he could provide the unit with useful knowledge of the political context.

I was flattered. A former student respected me enough to return to me and seek my counsel in a serious situation. The only problem was that I didn’t know anything about Afghanistan either. That’s when the weight of the world deposited itself squarely on my shoulders.

Fortunately, being a graduate student means that I know people who have more information than me in a variety of topics. One of my colleagues, Megan Reif, happens to know a lot about democratization, elections and violence in Central Asia and has traveled extensively in Afghanistan and Pakistan. I introduced Oliver to her, and she gave him some authors and her e-mail address. I think (I hope) that it was useful.

But I still worry about Oliver.

I’m a politically active person. I’m so interested in politics and public policy that I study them for a living. But there are only so many things I can pay attention to. I study media and public opinion. I’m an educator and a union member, so I have a deep interest in education and labor issues. And, based on some of my own worries about insurance, the fact that my mother and girlfriend work as a nurse and doctor and having seen some of my own students with serious chronic health problems, I have spent a lot of time reading about health care reform.

In contrast, Afghanistan is far away from me geographically, emotionally and intellectually. Although I study political science and know plenty about elections and democratization, I don’t specialize in security studies, civil wars or international relations. Nor do I know much about Central Asia, beyond the limited amount of information I glean from the news or in conversation with colleagues like Megan.

But with Oliver’s visit last November, Afghanistan became just a little bit more personal for me. That’s probably a good thing. Wars have consequences, so it’s useful for all of us to have some personal skin in the game — whether in increased tax dollars, ourselves or family and friends who might be in harm’s way — to focus our thoughts on their importance.

Oliver, take care of your command, help as many Afghanis as possible, do the best job you can in a messy situation and please come home in one piece.

Patrick O'Mahen can be reached at pomahen@umich.edu.