A few months ago, I received a letter from a cadet at one of the United States military academies. The cadet was a fan of my work and had met me at a convention, and felt comfortable enough with me to get in touch.
This cadet was struggling with their decision to join up. They joined because they believed in the ideals of honesty, integrity, duty, and helping others. They still believe in these, but were struggling with doubts as to whether the military was where they were supposed to be. The letter didn’t come straight out and ask it, but it was clear the cadet wanted to know if I thought they should stay in, graduate and commission, or ring the bell and head home.
When I first read the letter, I panicked with the kind of pompous overestimation of my own significance that is common to writers. Surely my answer would impact the future of this person’s life, the future of the military, perhaps even the nation? Then, I calmed the hell down, reminded myself that it was just my opinion and tried to give the most honest answer I could.
It took a long time, and by the time I was done, I realized that I had written about more than just military service. It wasn’t until my own decision to go IRR that I thought I might be ready to share my answer here.
Here is my response. To the extent that any of my readers find it helpful, I am gratified.
Cadet (name redacted),
I remember our conversation and am so pleased that it made an impression on you. Congratulations on surviving basic, and on now confronting the tough question that is before you.
I cannot give you a quick and easy answer, because there isn’t one. Military service (and, in my case, service in the Intelligence Corps) *is* conflicted. You will often be asked to do things, and work alongside people, that are distasteful to you. You will often roll your eyes at stupid decisions, and be forced to knuckle-under to stupid people. You will often feel the tension between your oath and your sense of what is right. This isn’t just the case with the military. It’s the case with *all* large institutions that rely on bureaucracy to get things done.
When I was a spy, I often felt this disconnect. The question I asked myself at the time was: “Can I do more good by working *inside* the system and being a positive force, either to change the system or to use the system to positively impact the world, or is it time for me to quit the system and work outside of it?”
The answer, for nearly 20 years, was that it was better to stay inside. When the answer changed, I left the intelligence services. I recently made the decision to move from the Select Reserve (SELRES) into the Individual Ready Reserve (IRR) because that answer changed for the Coast Guard too. I currently work for the police, and I *still* ask myself this question all the time.
The questioning will NEVER change. Smart people will ALWAYS question where they are and what they are doing. They will ALWAYS feel a sense of dissonance. This is a good thing. It means you are intelligent and a critical thinker. It means you are ethical.
Here’s the good news: You are too young to make a mistake. If you decide to stay in the military, you will be a fine officer and have a great career. If you decide to get out, you will still have a fine life and find a way to be happy and successful in a different path.
You, and the world, will be okay, and you will have my support and admiration no matter what path you choose. This is the case for all who care about you.
But, in the end, you are training to be a military officer. You are a leader. You are paid to make tough decisions. This is excellent training for you. Make the call, Cadet. Take your time, think it through and make the call.
I’m with you either way.