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"De Exercitu", an Essay
I've been in the Army for almost three years. And reading back through my site, I was surprised to notice how little I've written about Bush, Iraq, the election, and the intel community during that time. Mainly I was really busy, but I had a lot of mixed feelings about what was going on and was trying to reconcile things internally. By the time the election heated up, I was too disgusted with political blogs and personal sites. They'd talk about how they were freeing the truth, changing the face of political media, presenting the REAL picture of what was happening in Iraq, etc. etc. etc. I didn't find a single site that was giving me coherent content, and I wanted nothing to do with it.
But now I think I'm ready to start writing about it all. I've figured out what's behind the feelings I have. Things are making sense to me now. So, let me start at the beginning.
Way back when I was at the University of Texas at Austin, I was splitting my time between going to classes and designing web sites. Designing web sites was something I knew how to do because I'd been playing with my own site for years, and at that time people were paying a lot of money to designers. It provided some nice income for me while I was in school.
At the same time, the Dow was hitting record highs and I'd check the index tickers every day through the window of the graduate business school building while I walked from my intro business classes inside the University Teaching Center. It was a solitary affair for me to watch the stock market at my school -- all these prospective business students, and none of them seemed to know about what was happening on the stock market. I often felt like what I was learning in school was not keeping up with what was happening in the real world -- in many ways I'm glad I opted for a tried-and-true approach to education, which was studying the classics and languages. Studying Caesar's "De Bello Gallica" and ancient Greek was a lot more rewarding than studying 80's-era, Chainsaw Al Dunlap business theory.
Daytrading Instead of Studying
I rolled up some money from designing web sites and began trading NASDAQ stocks as it started to really get frothy in 1998. You probably know how that story went.
I made a lot of money longing AMD. I made a lot of money shorting Redback, Tibco, and other bloated techs when the bubble burst after Christmas, 2000. I think I'd turned $15,000 or so into $85,000 at my highest point. I thought I was really showing natural talent at this. As the market started to move sideways, though, I gradually lost money. A little bit at a time. It's the whipsawing that kills traders. Trending is easy to make money off of, whether it's going long or short. By the time I quit to join the Army, I'd lost a lot of that $85,000 but still had far more than what I started with.
The market slowed down a lot in 2001. Volume decreased. Stocks wouldn't move as much. CNBC was losing viewers and traders were quitting. The action was gone for then.
I realized I had a lot to learn before I could really consider devoting my life to daytrading. I knew when tech stocks will hit the mainstream, and I knew which tech stocks are worth watching, because I knew the Internet well. I have excellent intuition, but no long-term market experience to relate my intuition to real-world performance. I also didn't know if I wanted to trade stocks intra-day, or hold on to them. Like I said, I had a lot to learn, not just about the market, but mainly about myself.
That alone wouldn't have stopped me from trading, though. You have to gut things out sometimes in order to learn. But to be honest, daytrading is isolating. You sit in your room all day watching numbers flip by. It's grinding for a living. You can make more money by barely watching the market at all. The only good moments in daytrading are when you get into a stock before news hits the wires, or when the market is trending. Then you can make some real bank!
I got really bored. And watching numbers is not very intellectually stimulating or challenging. Economics and technology and politics fascinate me, but that doesn't really affect the minutiae of the day's trading activity. The only people I was meeting were other daytraders -- online. It's a relatively small community. It's isolated. You don't get to travel, go to conferences, get promoted to management. You just sit on your ass and look at a screen.
I was going to the gym every day and playing basketball or lifting weights. I had a lot of excess energy. Now I realize that what I wanted was a challenge. I was frustrated with not being stimulated.
9/11 directly impacted the stock market by shutting it down for a week. It shut down lower Manhattan. It killed almost all the employees of Cantor Fitzgerald. It shook the media. It shook international politics. It shook everyone.
But for me, 9/11 got my blood flowing again! The effect on the stock market itself kind of bored me -- the market dipped, but it recovered quickly -- all while the press spread fear about how tourism would drop, people would no longer want to travel, and all that other bullshit. Once again, I felt that a lot of people were out of touch with reality, just like those business students at UT.
9/11 also of course shook the military. Now, I knew absolutely nothing about the military. I grew up in the wealthy suburbs. I grew up thinking all the kids in ROTC were losers and geeks. Some of my classmates went to the Ivy Leagues. Being in the military really wasn't something people from my school did. We had one person who went to West Point and one who went to the USAF Academy. No one cared. Suckers, we'd say.
I don't know why, but in 2001 I started getting really interested in joining the Army. Bush still hadn't sent soldiers into Afghanistan at this point, which seemed weird considering we'd just been attacked on our own soil, the enemy was said to be in Afghanistan, and the US is supposed to have this lightning-fast military that can strike at a moment's notice. The military seemed to be caught up in another example of cognitive dissonance -- and I wanted to know why. I was attracted to it in a way I couldn't explain really well.
I sent an e-mail expressing interest in the Army through their web site. I was surprised to get called by a local recruiter not long afterwards. Kind of creepy I guess. My recruiter spent a lot of time on me during the next eight months, driving me around, getting my paperwork ready. The common thing to bitch about for soldiers is how their recruiters lied to them, trapped them into a shitty life in the Army that they regret joining. But my recruiter didn't deceive me. She didn't know a lot about my job or related ones, but she didn't lie. I knew what I was getting myself into. To be honest, all I really wanted at the time was to get a job in military intelligence and to go learn a language in Monterey, California.
So I did. And I was happy. I met all kinds of people! I met a lot of close friends, many of whom I still talk to and are my best buddies to this day. Basic training and everything after it jarred me awake, to feel things, to look at life from interested, informed eyes. I was being challenged, physically and mentally. And I realized that I was a lot stronger than I thought I was. I learned Arabic. I was in really good shape. My social circle expanded rapidly. I grew up a lot, matured. Now I study Arabic, jump out of airplanes, and train with Green Berets. I get to live out a lot of boyish adventurous dreams that other people play video games to simulate. I've had days where I worked out hard with my team, then put in a long day at work, and then got that exhausted, yet satisfied feeling while kicking back with my buddies at night. Being in the Army can be a lot of fun, the perfect outlet for youthful energy, enthusiasm, and angst.
And here's the thing. I feel like I'm doing something important and challenging now. Designing web sites and trading stocks just aren't all that important in the grand scheme of things to me. I'm still going to work on my own web site and keep abreast of web tech, and I'm still going to be pretty active in my trading accounts, but in that way, they're fun hobbies, not a career. One day I will make a lot of money in technology, because I understand it so well in the context of the marketplace. And okay, obviously when I was doing the dumb tasks that privates are made to do, like pressure washing pavement so it looks brighter and picking leaves out of rock piles, I wasn't exactly making the country safer, but I was looking at the long-term.
To me, the long-term is an ambitious path. Joining the Army was just getting my foot in the door. I don't plan on re-enlisting. Obviously my sergeants are dismayed by that. But serving the country has turned into my career. I want to take my clearance and my Arabic training to other government departments. I want to go back to graduate school at Georgetown to get a masters in foreign service, then join the CIA or the State Department or the NSA.
I recently finished Thomas P.M. Barnett's "The Pentagon's New Map". This book made my life make sense. Barnett works as a think-tank kind of guy who comes up with contingency plans and possible scenarios for the future. What really made me interested at first was that he understood that there was a connection between his work with the military and the international marketplace, so he began to start talking to Wall Street people and not just military people to formulate his ideas. Once he began to look at more than just warfighting, events in the world could be assimilated into a new military strategy. He convinced many inside the Pentagon to look at its new enemy -- not China, the "enemy" virtually everyone in the US expects to fight with because of its resemblance to the Cold War Soviet Union, but instead a visually-depicted area or gap of disconnected states, countries that are not linked up with the global economy. He presented us with a visual representation of the enemy to focus on. He seems to understand that the military is only a complement to legal, political, and economic reform, and not a solution to all our problems.
What a great book. After reading it, I knew why I wanted to learn about the stock market when I was 20. I knew why I cared events occurring in other countries besides the US. I knew why I wanted to figure out first-hand why the military seems so disconnected from the American mind. I wanted to know why the Pentagon, State Department, CIA, and virtually everyone in the intel game seemed to be so out of touch and why Wall Street seemed to be more up-to-speed. I wanted to know the extent of the rift between the civilian world and the military world.
I joined the Army to contribute to security, not just the US's, but the world's as a whole. Most people in the military don't care about the rest of the world, but I no longer see countries but instead see the globe as a whole. I am an American technically, but I feel no more at home in the US than I do in, say, Europe. I want to retire and live in Italy, but I want to remain an American citizen. I don't think in terms of what would benefit the US. I tend to think about what would benefit people in general, no matter where they are. To me, the United States no longer stands for our country, but for the innovation and ideas and freedom that all people everywhere deserve and desperately want. I believe that all people want is to protect their families and be prosperous and happy. It's when they lose hope in the future that they commit terrorism and crime. I believe that the US has a responsibility to, as Barnett says, export security and hope for the future to the rest of the world.
I haven't said much about what I think of Bush and how I feel about Iraq. Reading Barnett's book helped me understand the mixed feelings I had about them. I think the US has been confused about how to act internationally. It doesn't really know how to explain what it intuitively understands to the rest of the world. It doesn't know how to employ its massive resources effectively outside of a free-market environment. Bush is a shining example of our confusion. He argued that Iraq needed to be invaded to rid it of WMD, which were never found. Later, his position changed to that of freeing a country of its brutal dictator. And now Iraq has turned into Bush's spearhead of democracy, a beacon of hope in the middle of a chaotic region.
I think what most Bush haters really disagree with is how Bush presented his case to Americans and to the rest of the world. They knew he was either deceiving them, or doing the right thing for the wrong reasons. Why was the US claiming it was doing something for reasons that everyone knew were not valid ones? Why wasn't it being honest? Or why wasn't it able to articulate its views? It must have had ulterior motives, people would argue.
I remember watching CNN in my Arabic class as the invasion began, and I saw my Iraqi teachers' reactions as missiles hit Baghdad. My teachers fled Iraq because of Saddam Hussein. And I cursed to myself and my friends that I was stuck in class while other soldiers were in Iraq. I wanted to be there. I wanted to help them. Dying wasn't really a concern. Some poor soldier was being shot at -- shouldn't I be there with him? Why was I stuck in class while fellow soldiers were in danger? These were the emotions I was going through at the time.
I supported the "war", but disagreed with Bush. I was damn shocked that we didn't continue our efforts in Afghanistan to capture Al-Qaeda leadership, but getting rid of Saddam Hussein and freeing up what is for the most part a well-educated and wise country in Iraq seemed like benefits that Bush discounted but I thought made the whole thing bearable. I never thought Iraq had WMD and I didn't think we were there for oil. The strategy out of the White House seemed extremely muddled. Chickens running around with their heads cut off.
One of the most recent times I was home to see my parents and brother, my mom and brother questioned why I chose to join the military instead of pursuing other paths towards helping people and securing the nation and all that. My brother would say that I might be responsible for killing someone else, someone who may be innocent, and that I wouldn't have a choice because someone would be ordering me to do it. How could I live with giving up control over my own decisions? That was a tough question for me to answer.
I knew the Army would be a world of shit at times. I knew that I could be exposed to the absolute worst things you could ever face. I knew that I'd be subject to the wills of other people. But I also understood intuitively that if I wanted to pursue a career in security and intelligence that I needed to understand first-hand what people on the ground and in the field go through. It sounds cliche, but if you've never been in the military, then you have no fucking idea. How can you make decisions or issue orders to people if you don't know what they're going to have to go through? Great sergeants will tell you that they won't ask you to do anything they wouldn't do themselves. This is something I have always carried in my heart; lead from the front. I had to know what it was like at the lowest level, to be faced with horrible decisions and circumstances. So, bro, I hope that answers your question.
The US's greatest failing right now is its inability to sell its vision to the rest of the world. Countries can have different ways of looking at the world, but working together legally, economically, and politically in order to ensure security and trust benefits everyone. Because the US hasn't explained itself, other countries suspect us of wanting to take everyone over. Other countries think we just want their oil. They think we don't care about them. What's worse, Americans think that the rest of the world is stupid and beyond hope. The 2004 election was horrible for me because Americans want to be led by someone who can find words for their feelings, but instead they're given mumbo-jumbo about protecting homeland security, and all their most basic instincts for survival are being kowtowed to. How can we convince the rest of the world that we're just trying to create a free-flowing system for prosperity if we think it'd be easier to just turn all that sand into a fucking parking lot, or invade the froggies, or destroy the UN?
The president needs to step up and be a true leader. I know it appeals to red-blooded Americans to have a guy who says he's going to take on all comers, but he's never fought! Other people have fought for him his whole life! In that way, he can never be a leader. What Bush really needs to do to be a leader is educate his own people about what the US is about and what responsibility we have as the only real versatile military in the world and the largest market in the world. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are things we can begin to guarantee for EVERYONE in the world, not just for Americans. Bush needs to say that our own security depends on giving hope to disconnected countries because when those people are protected and can provide to their families, then they'll eventually work to defend that on their own. Terrorists will become personae non grata there. More money will flow around the world, and terrorism will not have a home.
I desperately want to work in foreign policy, with a strong background in international security. I want the intel community to turn into a highly adaptive, versatile, and efficient powerhouse that is always many steps ahead of its closest competition, and not laughed at as a clueless, blinded bureaucracy. I want the military to be transformed into something more appropriate for today's environment. I want everyone to understand how business, politics, and the military can be used together in a constructive way, instead of how they're used now independently to intimidate others.
I know I haven't been deployed yet. That sets me back from all the experiences that fellow soldiers have faced. But I'm going in June. Gladly. I'm not bitter about having to go. I might get my limbs blown off, or I might die, but joining up made me see what is important in life, it made me start to really think about things, and it showed me how to use my heart. How could I live not having ever found that? As Scrap says in "Million Dollar Baby", it's about the magic of risking everything for a dream that no one else sees. Lastly, joining the Army helped me figure out why I love America, not because I've been brainwashed to be mindlessly patriotic, but because our markets, military, and pure brainpower and motivation are capable of providing peace and prosperity and the ideas of our Constitution to the entire world.
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