The School of War
Wisdom and virtue deployed.


Overall this has been a good week. We’ve captured Tariq Aziz, the lights are coming back on in Baghdad, and artifacts are finding their way back to the National Museum of Antiquities. For our family it has also been a good week because we received the first phone calls from Ian since the war ended. On his base in Kuwait, each call is strictly limited, but we have been grateful to hear his voice. Our son sounds calmer and more self-assured than he did the last time we got a call from him. That was back in early March, before the war broke out, and he was struggling more than anything with how he’d handle the fear of dying.

Ian continues to write e-mails, long e-mails seasoned with more perspective and insight than the first ones he sent out. For instance, he recently wrote about what motivates him to do a good job as an A-10 crew chief:

Whenever I launch a pilot, I wonder if I will ever see him again. That fear sustains my drive to be the best crew chief I can be. It commits me to do an outstanding job for his sake. Pilots and crew chiefs have a special relationship. The pilots put their lives in our hands. When they fly into combat, they expect perfection from the aircraft. We must provide that perfection. And crew chiefs rely on the pilots to keep them safe; they defend our skies and our bases. This unique life-and-death relationship forms an unbreakable bond.

I truly felt sick when I heard [two weeks ago] that the two pilots from my unit were shot. I felt even sicker when I heard one had to eject over Baghdad. I am close to the one who ejected. Whenever he flew in my jet, he would get out after the flight, shake my hand, pat me on the back, and thank me for “the great jet” and my work on it. My work on that plane meant the ejection process went as it should. This reaffirms my commitment to overlook nothing. Attention to detail is not a just cute saying from Basic Training — it saves lives.

I read this and thought to myself: what responsibility war puts on a 19-year-old. Of course, it is precisely this responsibility that is making Ian wise beyond his years. Just seven weeks ago he was a freshman in college, enjoying classes, basketball games, and parties. But in recent phone calls he has revealed that college seems distant now. Having been to war, he has crossed a Continental Divide in life, and he is beginning to wonder what it will be like to retrace his steps into the flatlands. What will he think when he hears a professor who has no experience of war theorize about war? What will it be like to encounter his peers marching in a peace demonstration? How will he respond the next time he sees an American flag being burned?

Intellectually Ian senses that he will bring more rigor and passion to the national debates that interest him. Should young people be required to devote 18-24 months of their lives to national service? How should immigration policy be reformed? What should America’s next moves be in the war against terrorists and the regimes that harbor them? For Ian, these questions are no longer merely academic.

Plato said the purpose of education is to grow in wisdom and virtue. Serving his nation in time of war, Ian is getting both. He has acquired practical wisdom and developed time-honored virtues during his tour of duty. He is learning how to work, how to follow, how to lead, and how to keep his act together in the face of physical danger. Incredible, when you think about it. I mean: He’s just 19 years old and he’s already a veteran.

Despite the excitement, Ian is ready to get Gulf War II behind him. He does not glorify war. He wants to come home. Returning to his life as a student looks pretty good. As he put it in yesterday’s e-mail, with characteristic brevity:

This has been an extraordinary adventure for me — hopefully one that will end soon.

Gleaves Whitney is editing a book of the wartime speeches of American presidents. His son Ian serves in the Michigan Air National Guard.