It was during a coffee break outside Bliss Hall that an Army colonel from Virginia shared his exasperation with TV news.
“I was in one of those tanks,” he told me, clearly angry, “rolling down a street in Iraq. FOX, CNN, the networks, they all showed us throwing fistfuls of candy to crowds of kids with the caption ‘US troops greeted as liberators.’ I was so dang mad. Those kids weren’t the welcome wagon, they were starving.”
This conversation took place well into my week at the U.S. Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, where I’d been invited to sit in with 330 colonels (on temporary leave from command) for lessons like The Economics of National Security, Terrorism in the 21st Century, and The Human Dimensions of Warfare.
I’d been instructed personally by the college Commandant that he’d invited me for one reason: to openly share my views, liberal or otherwise, to help his colonels “get a more rounded view on the diverse society they serve.”
“My guys are world-class in debate,” the Commandant warned when I arrived, shaking my hand. “I need you to stand your ground.”
I’ve been thinking lately about my week with the colonels. I wonder what they’d say about a president who tweets about nuclear weapons and North Korea. I wonder what they’d say about a president who talks about eating “the most beautiful chocolate cake you’ve ever seen” while launching missiles.
I wonder, is there any such thing anymore as civilized political debate?
This past weekend, the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll wasn’t canceled but delayed to Monday and decreased by half.
It may sound trivial, but I assure you this event is a very big deal, particularly for its primary invitees: military families. Moms and dads excited to take once-in-a-lifetime photos of their dressed-up little ones running across the White House lawn, playing games with the President and First Lady, and listening to the likes of Robert DeNiro read a bunny book.
But how many military families can take off work on a Monday? And why so few invitees?
Several of the colonels I met at War College had been to events like the Easter Egg Roll, and they had the pictures on their walls to prove it, pictures I spotted when their wives hosted me for backyard barbecues and late night poker games at their kitchen tables.
After their kids were in bed, we got quieter but continued the days’ debates on everything from Limbaugh and Hannity, whom they dismissed outright as infotainment, to our disparate views on presidential powers, torture, the Middle East, and the pros and cons of closing Gitmo.
We agreed. We disagreed. We shared a lot of laughs. But never once, as surprising as it sounds today, did any of them call me a Snowflake or a Libtard or a Whore for Hillary. Not one of them threatened me with physical violence—“maybe one of those refugees you love so much will rape or murder you in your home”—for holding an opposing view.
My husband and I have since visited the colonels in their Pentagon offices. I’ve been inside the offices of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs and run from his speeding motorcade. They’ve taken my husband and me out by boat to see our incredible Capitol and monuments lit up, at night, from the water. I’ve hosted them as weekend houseguests.
We differ. And yet, we remain great friends.
On one of my last days at the War College, I followed three colonels out the revolving doors to get some fresh air. We’d been talking about what it was like to have the first black president, and we kept at it on the patio.
It was a colonel who’d deployed several times who said, “Think about it this way. Forty years ago, who would have thought we’d have a black president? Forty years from now, we’ll have a gay president and nobody will care. All the stuff people are fighting about today will have been a big waste of time.”
The world, the colonel assured us, is not black and white. The world is gray. And gray is uncomfortable. Unnerving. Hard work. Gray requires detailed study, other-thinking, and compromise.
It is in the gray where those we most often prejudge and pigeonhole can surprise us, and even earn our respect.