An interview with One Bullet Away author and former marine Nathaniel C. Fick.
This is the full interview with Nathaniel Fick. An edited version was printed in Santa Clara Magazine.
After studying classics at Dartmouth, Nathaniel Fick enlisted in the Marines and led his platoon into Afghanistan and Pakistan in autumn 2001. As a Recon Marine, he took part in Operation Iraqi Freedom. He left the Marines in 2003 as a captain and wrote One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer. He now heads up the Center for a New American Security, a think tank in Washington, D.C. This September, he came to the Mission Campus to deliver the Regan Lecture, sponsored by the Markkula Center for Applied Ethics. Afterward, Fick spoke with SCM.
SCM: What do you see as the role of ROTC programs at colleges?
Nathaniel Fick: My serving in the Marine Corps goes back to a conversation at my alma mater. In the late ’90s, Tom Ricks, who was then the Wall Street Journal’s military correspondent, gave a talk about the military and civilian relationship, and he advocated for ROTC on campus. Afterward, a professor stood up and said, “Mr. Ricks, ROTC will militarize our campus and threaten its culture of tolerance.” His response was, “No, you’re wrong, what it’ll do is liberalize our military.” He meant that it will help ensure that the military is a cross-section of society, and that when the military goes to war, everyone in our society goes to war.
SCM: How is ROTC changing?
Fick: The big obstacle to ROTC on college campuses has been “don’t ask, don’t tell.” The claim on the part of many was that DADT was a discriminatory hiring practice, so you couldn’t have recruiting officers or ROTC on campus. With the repeal of DADT, it will be interesting to see if that was the real reason to campus opposition to ROTC or if it was a fig leaf for something else.
SCM: Have you seen any indications as to what reactions to the DADT repeal will be?
Fick: Just a couple. I’ve had the privilege of being out with some military units since the repeal. In the ranks this is the dog that didn’t bark—nobody really cares. We’re a decade into fighting a pair of wars and people care a whole lot more about the competence of the people to their left and right than their personal behavior. You’re also seeing the return of ROTC to some college campuses. In one high-profile example, President Faust of Harvard has very publicly announced his support of ROTC.
SCM: What about the gulf between military and civilians?
Fick: I had a lot of college classmates and some professional colleagues who don’t understand why anybody would serve. That feeling is based on misconceptions, primarily that the military is all about being a goose-stepping automaton, and that’s not true. The reality is you’re hard-pressed to find a place in American life where young people have as much leadership, authority, and responsibility as they do in the military. There’s a sense among many in uniform that they are a class apart. That’s helpful to a point, but you don’t want a warrior class that holds the society it’s defending in contempt. One of my favorite lines about civilian-military relations is: A nation that draws too great a distinction between its scholars and warriors will have its thinking done by cowards and its fighting done by fools. We can’t afford either.
SCM: I’m glad you mentioned Tom Ricks earlier, because I wanted to ask you about something I read on his blog. He mentions an idea proposed by professor Andrew Bacevich of forming a bipartisan commission that would “evaluate the military experience of the last decade.” If asked to join that commission, how would you sum up the last 10 years?
Fick: Bacevich teaches at Boston University. He’s a fascinating guy. Not only is he a trained historian and political scientist, but he’s a retired Army colonel and one of the most outspoken challengers to the notion of American imperialism. He’s quick to suggest the limits to American power. He also has a personal connection because his son was killed as a junior army officer while serving in Iraq, but professor Bacevich is on the record with all of these arguments long before his son’s death.
First of all, I think having such a commission is a great idea, and I would be thrilled to serve on something like this. The biggest conclusion I would draw from this past decade is how much we’ve become acculturated. I remember being on missions early in the Afghan war back at the end of 2001 and there was enormous reluctance to take on a mission where we ran the risk of killing one or two Americans. There was a huge casualty aversion on our part.
It’s hard to remember that era of restraint. Now, a decade on, thousands of casualties on, billions of dollars on, we don’t really talk in terms of trade-offs and restraint, because we’ve become acculturated.
Imagine going onto an army base in the year 2000 and saying that some of the members of this group are going to do seven, eight, nine, even 10 combat deployments. No one would have believed it, and looking back that’s exactly what has come to pass. I think in some ways society has become inured against this just by experience.
That extends across the spectrum: the number of deployments, not paying attention to the number of servicemen being killed, and spending. Defense budgets have grown significantly since 9/11, and the notion to paring them back to pre-9/11 is met as some kind of unilateral surrender. But in the year 2000, if you talked to our senior defense leaders, nobody would have suggested that we were being negligent—we were spending a lot on defense. But now the idea of reducing spending is greeted with resistance.
My big theme would be: Let’s take a look at the overall sense of how we’ve become inoculated against the shock of [these wars] and how it’s become routine.
SCM: Since 9/11 there also seems to be this difficult balancing act between security and freedom. Do you think we’re getting that balance right?
Fick: The temptation in situations like this is to always say that we need both. We have an inability to prioritize. The analogy that I would point to in the military is the tension between mission accomplishment and troop welfare. This idea that you have to both accomplish the missions you’re given and take care of your people. But the reality is that if you’re always choosing mission accomplishment you’re going to get everyone killed, and if you’re always choosing troop welfare you should be back in the barracks playing basketball because you’re not going to get your job done. So at every point along the way you’re making a point decision that prioritizes one over the other.
Which is similar to what we do here. We make a series of point decisions between security and freedom. In some instances we quite clearly choose security over freedom, and in others freedom over security, and in aggregate we hope we get the balance right.
I personally—personally now—will always choose freedom over security. That means accepting a lot of risk. I just have a personal philosophical sense that the alternative is worse. A society of perfect security and no freedom is worse to me than one of greater freedom and less security. But these things are easy to talk about in the abstract and harder in the specifics.
If you look at airport security I think [giving up] the freedom to enter the cockpit of a commercial aircraft strikes me as a good trade-off. But an expansive no-fly list that sweeps up innocent people in its dragnet is where you begin to tilt too far in favor of security over freedom. I know two people who share names with people on the list, and traveling [for them] is a nightmare.
SCM: One of the things you mentioned in your talk at SCU was that there seems to be these big lessons about war—the range of its impact and its overall unpredictability—that each generation learns through conflicts, whether they be Vietnam or Iraq. Do you think this current generation is learning those lessons?
Fick: I feel like we have become acculturated to so much. Take the Libya campaign: Policy aside, I don’t have to agree or disagree with it, but I do think it’s odd and ahistorical that the U.S. would be using force in Libya for so long with so little attention paid to it. Compared to the air war in Kosovo, the Libya operation is similar in intensity, scale, and duration, but I don’t think it will receive nearly the historical attention because it’s lost in the shadow of these other wars.
President Obama, someone I’ve been historically quite supportive of, tells us it’s not a war. I’m sorry, but tell that to the Navy fighter pilots who are flying off the deck and are getting shot at and dropping bombs. We’ve reached a point where we allow ourselves these rhetorical gymnastics. I think it’s kind of crazy and a result of 10 years of acculturation.
SCM: Why is it you think that people cling to terms like “intervention” in place of using the word “war”?
Fick: I think part of it is that we have European partners who are nominally in the lead, and their populations are much less tolerant than ours of the use of force. I think you have a lot of political imperatives in the U.S. of opening new fronts and spending more money at a time when there’s huge popular pressure to prioritize other things. But it strikes me as disingenuous. And one of the first imperatives of leadership is to tell the truth.
SCM: On the subject of leadership, what are some lessons that you learned as a Marine officer that you think will inform the rest of your life?
Fick: The first is the basic leadership philosophy of the first commander I worked for. He said to us on the first day that everything we need to know about leadership could be boiled down to three words: Officers eat last. That’s how he ran his unit. The senior Marines in the unit didn’t use their rank as a road to privilege. If you were an officer, congratulations, it means you get up earlier, go to bed later, carry more weight, and you eat last. That leadership philosophy can carry you a long way.
The second lesson is the difference between legal authority and moral authority. In the military you wear your legal authority on your collar with your rank insignia. I found that legal authority would buy me three minutes in a conversation and buy me three seconds in a firefight. What really mattered was that moral authority, the informal authority. The people who had a lot of this kind of authority did a couple of things well. They understood their jobs and did them well, and they genuinely cared for the welfare of the people in their charge.
It was striking to see that moral authority was uncorrelated with seniority. You had very junior people who had a ton of moral authority, and very senior people who didn’t have much at all.
SCM: There was an interesting discussion on a few military blogs this year about the best way to approach and thank people in uniform. What are your thoughts on this?
Fick: I still don’t like it when people thank me for “what I did over there.” It implies that everything I did over there was good and everything was the right decision and everything was well considered. The reality is that you make a lot of decisions and a lot of them are good, some of them are bad, and you just hope you have more good than bad.
I do think it’s important to thank people who are making a sacrifice on behalf of all of us, to embrace them when they come home, and to recognize the burdens borne by their families. We’re at a point now where we have had over a million people serve in Iraq and Afghanistan, and these people will be in every community in the United States for a generation to come. Reintegrating them is a societal responsibility. We elected political leaders who went to war, we re-elected political leaders who went to war, and we elected other political leaders who continued war. And that’s okay. War is not the worst thing in the world.
But when we do go to war we all bare the responsibility, and we have a sacred, solemn obligation to share the sacrifice with the people who really bore the burden.
SCM: If war isn’t the worst thing in the world, what is?
Fick: Losing to whatever it is you’re fighting against.
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