Mission Accomplished?


Mission Image

A personal essay given to my students at the end of The Iraq War in Literature and Film, a Fall 2015  general education literature course that I developed and taught for the first time.

The guest speaker at the Veteran’s Day event at Lewis talked enthusiastically about the contribution that veterans can make once they turn to civilian life. He also pointed out that he, like many vets, has enthusiastically worked to assist his fellow vets who may be having a hard time making the adjustment.

In his advocacy of vets as prospective employees, he pointed out a number of virtues that they possess that would make them desirable workers in all sorts of professions. He noted that they are dependable (they know how to show up), they are cooperative (they know how to work in teams), they take initiative (they have experiences as problem solvers) and they are task-oriented (they know how to complete the mission that they have been given).

If indeed these are the traits that are instilled and deepened through military service, it’s hard to quarrel with the positive effects that they will have on the American workplace and on a happy and productive society.

The one trait that causes me to pause is the one about mission. The big question is this: what happens when one’s small-scale mission is placed in the context of a larger mission?

The micro-mission is usually short term. Military personnel are called upon to secure a neighborhood or to provide security for supply trucks moving through dangerous territory or to target an enemy’s weapon warehouse for a bomb drop. As circumstances change, new micro-missions are assigned. Troops are moved from one theater of war to another and are given different assignments, some of which may not be related to the training they have received.

But each micro-mission is embedded in a series of increasingly larger macro-missions. Local tactics are part of larger strategies. A neighborhood is sealed off so that the entire city can be secured so that insurgents won’t be able to use the place as an operations base so that the enemy can be degraded across the country so that some even larger mission, determined, not in Falluja at the moment, but thousands of miles away three or four years before. Take your pick: eliminate a horrible tyrant and/or foster a democratic, Western-leaning government in the country and/or change to whole dynamic of a volatile part of the world.

Now a soldier may choose to be or is ordered to be unmindful of the larger macro-missions. After all it’s the sworn duty of the military to execute the plans and strategies of the Pentagon brass and of the Commander in Chief. Better to compartmentalize, paying attention only to only those things in your field of vision and over which you have some measure of control.  Better not to keep your eyes on the big prize but rather to fix your attention on making it through the day and caring for those closest to you.

But what about the existential moment when one  contemplates the relationship between one’s micro-mission and the various macro-missions, especially those that encompass all of the others – the big rationale for waging war?

This semester has presented us with a number of accounts of individuals who work through one of these existential moments. They experience, and in some cases are able to act upon, cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance occurs when the actions that you perform (or that you see others on your side perform) violate your belief system and/or the belief system that you supposedly embraced when you joined the cause set by others. The crisis for the individual may be large or small. It may take a day or a lifetime to work through. It may be paralyze or animate action.

Our interest in Bartle (Power’s The Yellow Birds), Billy Lynn (Fountain’s Billy Lynn’s Long Half Time Walk) and Roy Miller (The Green Zone) comes from wondering how they will deal with their discovery that their conduct is out of sync with their belief systems. We watch the collision between the micro-mission and a number of macro-missions. The imprisoned Bartle literally tries to connect the dots by graphing episodes on the wall while in prison; he tries to determine why his buddy Murphy committed suicide-by-enemy. Lynn sees that the banal America for which he fights is an America not worth fighting for; he discovers that the war is another manifestation of dysfunctional culture. Action hero Miller becomes a whistle-blower once he experiences directly the lies that motivated the war and sees the incompetence of the Americans sent to Iraq, almost as an afterthought, to administer the country once Saddam had been toppled.

Our guest speaker Rory Fanning, a Special Forces guy, realized shortly after arriving in Afghanistan that it was a poor, backward, dysfunctional country. And more powerfully he realized that the order to round up terrorists, to make the quotas set by the higher-ups, was a disaster, a strategy that fingered innocent people and seldom resulted in useful intelligence. He made his separate peace, willing to be a shunned by members of his unit for his new conscientious objector identity. He chose to act in such a way that he did not violate his own beliefs. Fanning has no body injuries, but he speaks about the “moral injury” that he has suffered.

So as I sat and listened to the guest speaker, I wondered if while flying numerous sorties over Iraq, he everythought about the possibility that the macro-mission that drove his micro mission was misguided, futile, or counter-productive. Did he ever wonder if America’s occupation produced more harm than good?.  Did he ever wonder whether the alleged accidents that resulted in civilian deaths were really intentional? Did he ever contemplate the idea that America may not be as blameless or innocent as it often projects? Or that the US military, often through the fault of its civilian leaders, has had more defeats and stalemates than victories since Viet Nam.

He was a cheerful, upbeat man who said that he is now working for a telecom company. While I believe that blatant corporate malfeasance is relatively rare (the occasional Enron and VW do capture headlines) and our pilot unlikely to encounter any egregious harms to humanity, I do wonder if he vetted the company before joining it. I do wonder what will happen if he discovers that the company for whom he works has defrauded the public or taken on projects that have resulted in human catastrophe. How will he be able to reconcile the tension between his micro-mission (to support a family, to realize the American Dream) and the macro-mission (corporate profit and shareholder satisfaction)?

The employer of most of my adult life has been a university, a university whose broad mission I support. Like any large institution, the university has imperfections that have bothered me: the continued employment of unqualified classroom teachers, occasional arbitrary decisions on promotion of faculty, an imbalance in spending for athletics and academics, the recruitment of students incapable of doing college work. But these imperfections do not undermine or render fraudulent the mission of the university, and so I continue my employment with it. I’ve never been approached with the challenge: “How can you work for a place like that?” Maybe the pilot feels the same way about the organization in which he served. Maybe he would find my question “How can you work for a Pentagon like that?” insulting.

I hope that the pilot might be able to add to his list another trait of veterans that would be attractive to employees: that they not only be mission-oriented, but that they also possess the desire to examine the overlapping missions in the system. A personal strategy of compartmentalization is necessary to stay alive on the battlefield, but personal survival cannot be used as a strategy for putting on blinders in the safe spaces of American work sites.

About Dr. Michael Cunningham

Dr. Michael Cunningham is Professor Emeritus in English.

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