Keith Boyea's Blog

Notes & Commentary on National Security, Current Affairs and Bourbon

War & Identity

Thesis:  My identity died and was reborn in the crucible of my war experience.


** This post was originally written as a 3rd person, research type post.  But since I had only one data point, me, I rewrote it as an autobiographical piece.**


In order to “prove” my thesis, I’ve got to give some biographical information, so please indulge the short life story.

I grew up the prototypical American boy.  I grew up in a small town, played football, baseball, and basketball, and did well enough in academics to go to college.  I choose the Air Force Academy because they let me play football and I adored the idea of serving the country that I loved.  The idea of war didn’t really come into play, because in 1998, no one expected war.

The military academies are good schools that are highly regarded American cultural institutions.  Even prior to 9-11 they received effusive praise from almost all quarters.  Post 9-11, it went up several notches, and now watching a service academy football game on television is almost an exercise in American jingoism.  (“These guys LOVE their country AND play FOOTBALL.  What great Americans!”)

I feel safe saying that upon both entry and exit from the Air Force Academy, I bought in.  I bought in, not only to the veneration of the Air Force Academy, but also to the post 9-11 veneration of the military in general.  I was a true believer—America and its military were a force for good that could and would transform foreign societies in our image.  Our image, of course, was the objectively right, history had proven it so—I was Fukayaman though I’d never heard the guy’s name.

When I finally got to Iraq in 2005, after literally months of lobbying (no one really wants AF contracting Lts), I hit the ground with effort and passion.  I worked as hard as I possibly could, made good faith efforts to leave Iraq better than I started, and probably annoyed everyone with my earnestness and eagerness to please.  I’m still proud of what I accomplished there.

When I got back, something felt off.  I was living in Los Angeles at the time, and even given LA’s laid back nature, the country didn’t seem to be at war.  But I KNEW we were at war, cause I had just came from war.  Even my friends that were in the Air Force didn’t get it.  I didn’t understand what I was feeling…like, what was there to get?  We were at war.

So I did the only thing I could think of doing, I volunteered for another deployment.  With the great relief of my office mate, I took the deployment to Kabul that he was tapped for.  (He was married; I was single.)  So three months after returning from Iraq, I went to Afghanistan.  If my eyes were beginning to open in between the deployments, there were shocked when I got to Afghanistan.

My time in Afghanistan wasn’t so much of an effort to rebuild the country as much as it was an effort to keep the Generals and Colonels as comfortable as possible.   In Iraq I wrote contracts for school buildings, courthouses and the like, while in Afghanistan I wrote contracts for conference room chairs, flat screen television sets, computers, and Commander’s Coins.  In fairness, I did some work for the fledgling Afghan National Police, but it was dwarfed by the “sustainment” work.  I remember calling my parents and telling them that I couldn’t support a war so profligate.

When I got back from Afghanistan in 2006, I separated from the Air Force and took a job in Kabul working for a small trading firm.  This time I lived in Kabul—first at the Intercontinental Hotel and later at a small guest house in Shar-e-Nau.  It should have been self-evident, but Afghanistan, even in Kabul, looks far different when you stand outside the gates of Camp Eggers or Bagram.  I began to realize how far Kabul (Kabul! The “cosmopolitan” Afghan city) had to go, the entire enterprise made even less sense.

Kabul, at the time, had almost no reliable power—every guesthouse has a backup generator.  There was no discernible sanitation system, no traffic laws, no system for traffic law enforcement, homeless men and women beg in the middle of the street, and packs of children wandered the streets.  At first, it was chaos, but eventually I got used to it.  But getting used to chaos is exhausting.

When I returned in 2007, I was tired and primed to rethink things.  (This partially explains my Ayn Rand period.)  I picked up a copy of Imperial Hubris, and while at first I didn’t agree with its conclusions, it eventually integrated with my experience.  Its thesis, that we’re making things worse by intervening in the Middle East, is one I generally agree with to this day.

But the story isn’t really how Michael Scheuer changed my mind.  It is the story of how my identity, once wrapped up in the righteousness of American militarism and exceptionalism, was destroyed.  Iraq, of course, was a shit show from the start, but Afghanistan, through a number of factors not worth recounting here, became one several years in.  It became obvious that the people entrusted to run our country were either ignorant or liars.  As a result, I felt that my willingness to serve and sacrifice was exploited.  Put differently, a bunch of chuckleheads exploited my identity.

As it turns out, this isn’t an uncommon feeling.  Nancy Sherman, in her book The Untold War, writes of veterans, “None want their willingness to serve exploited for a cause unworthy or for a cause or for a war grounded in unjustifiable fear or waged in pretext…when they believe that has happened the betrayal felt is profound.” (Page 47)

I certainly felt betrayed, but it went deeper than that.  The illusion of American exceptionalism was shattered.  I no longer believed in the objective rightness of America (which meant I could no longer be a Republican).   To look around and not think some of what we were doing was fucked up, was a pretty strong denial of reality.  I had lost the security of the “cultural lie.”

In the course of my graduate studies, I took a class on Existentialism.  At the end of the course, we were assigned Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.  Becker is a radical—he posits that the sum of one’s character is a response to the fact of your death.  Your character, and mine, is simply a coping mechanism.  It is not a pleasant read.

But one passage in the book struck me:

Man needs a second world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, and nourish himself in.   Illusion means creative play at its highest level…Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the cultural symbol.  To lose the security of a heroic cultural illusion is to die. (Page 189)

My heroic cultural illusion was American exceptionalism.  If we take Becker seriously (and I do), when I stopped believing in American exceptionalism, I died.  I really think that for a year or so, my behavior can be mostly explained to my reaction to this death.  To Becker though, it isn’t possible to live without a cultural illusion, but it is, apparently, possible to choose which illusion to live by.  One illusion gives way to another.  My identity was reborn.

In this way, I think I’m better off now. (Though I suppose one could object by saying, “Of course you think that!”)  I accept a kinder illusion, one of a more peace and just world where people can make a difference in other people’s lives.  It is, admittedly, as naïve as American exceptionalism.  But it is something I can live with, a way of presenting my identity in a kinder light.


Written by keithboyea

September 20, 2011 at 2:27 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

15 Responses

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  1. Even though living in an indifferent & sometimes hostile world, one still has to take responsibility for their actions.
    Some give up saying, “what’s the use.”
    Some turn to religion and insist their way is the only way for everyone.
    As you did, one should choose their own illusion, and accept others as they accept yours.


    September 20, 2011 at 11:47 pm

  2. I think you bring up a good point; one that a grappled with while writing this post. My illusion is relative–when I say that our leaders are ignorant or liars, I’m not making an appeal to the objective truth of the matter (if that even exists). I’m saying that’s how it looks from my perspective. That, however, opens the door to relativism–a controversial idea for sure. It deserves a full post in the future.


    September 21, 2011 at 7:05 am

  3. The myths we create and live, often have drastic consequences that either serve to unveil and destroy the myth or lead us to bury our head in the sand and deny reality.

    Eliot Rosewater

    September 21, 2011 at 12:22 pm

  4. It’s always very odd that in order to have peace, we seem to use war to get to that place. No one’s identity can accept that premise…you fight, destroy, kill and then, all of a sudden, you have to change your thinking, adjust your training and attempt to live and deal with the same people you were at war with only days before.

    So, when the basis of your thoughts change, you become another person and one that has been used to the full extent of those in power. It doesn’t seem to be a death, as Becker stated, as much as an epitome that allows you to realize who you really are, rather than what others demand of you. And that is freedom of the mind (and identity) which should be the basis for everything that is done in this world. But, considering the actions of those that only want some sort of control, whether racial, religious or political, it may never be achieved.

    D L Johnson

    September 21, 2011 at 1:20 pm

  5. Thank you. I really identified with this post. I spent more than two years in Iraq, in a position where I talked to Iraqis on a daily basis about their conditions, opinions, etc. I spent little time outside the wire, so I can’t quite appreciate the chaos you saw, but my contact was enough to convince me that “To look around and not think some of what we were doing was fucked up, was a pretty strong denial of reality.” I went as a loyal neocon and left as a European-style Social Democrat, so strong was and is my disenchantment.

    I’m still trying to figure out who I am, almost four years after I left that horrible place and all associations with it (I worked as a contractor both in Iraq and back at the Army Intel School, where I to my continued shame sent others to war for my own enrichment, long after I knew the whole enterprise was inexcusable). I agree with DL’s association of losing my old identity with “freedom of the mind,” with the caveat that being betrayed by your leaders tends to contribute to PTSD, and no one I know with PTSD would quite describe their mind as “free,” to put it mildly.

    I labor under the (likely false) belief that we can remind ourselves that the things we believe are to some extent shadows on the wall in front of us, and we’d better check to see if our head is stuck. One can never completely rid oneself of “cultural illusions,” as you note, but one ought to be able to put up a fight against using them as premises, at the very least.

    Sean Nelson

    September 21, 2011 at 10:37 pm

    • Sean,

      Exploring the PTSD implications of “cultural illusions” was why I started writing this, but I eventually backed off and wrote is as a 1st person narrative. I did that not because I don’t think that there is definitely some relationship between the two, but because I don’t have the ability to study it in such a way to draw a valid conclusion. Sherman’s book is pretty good at coming to terms with the issue, though she doesn’t make a specific link.

      I worked for a Defense Department contractor for several years after I got out of the military, so I can relate to your “continued shame.” I asked of the DoD contracts because I didn’t want to be a part of the DoD. Like you said, I didn’t want to be a part of an organization that prosecutes inexscusable wars.



      September 22, 2011 at 7:30 am

      • I appreciate your care about drawing broad conclusions, Keith. PTSD isn’t very well-understood anyway.

        Sean Nelson

        September 22, 2011 at 9:43 am

  6. Keith,

    Very interesting read – thank you for sharing. I’m just two months away from the end of my deployment to Afghanistan with the State Department. I’m posted in Zharay District, Kandahar Province acting as the political advisor to the Brigade Commander. I spend a lot of time with my gung-ho Colonel on battlefield circulations in sectors where the simple fact that I’m wearing civilians duds makes me the prime target for the Taliban sniper teams working this district. And of course, just walking a dismounted patrol around here is an agonizing exercise in denial; the knowledge that every step taken might be the last on my legs as I know them must be suppressed lest I freeze up and my body refuses to self-locomote. It’s my second tour. My first tour (2004-2005) was spent with a special operations team in the northeast (we didn’t really worry about VOIEDS then). I don’t expect you to say, nor would I want to hear you say, ‘thank you for your service.’ It’s such a trite statement from those who really don’t know how to feel or don’t really care about what the tens of thousands of people like you and me have gone through.

    I’m really interested in the notion of the death of identity and the thesis you’ve sketched out. It helps me understand a lot of what I’ve gone through both on this deployment and during the intervening period between my two experiences here. For the life of me, I couldn’t really express adequately what brought me back here for a second tour, but after having read your post, I’m starting to feel like I may have come back to find the person that stepped off a plane at Bagram in 2004. I haven’t yet, nor do I expect to by Thanksgiving Day, when I’ll return to my pregnant wife and three beautiful girls. Rather, I think the person who left Afghanistan in 2005 and suffled along through the intervening six years died during the course of this deployment. In some ways that’s good, and in other ways I’m in mourning.

    But what I find the most startling is that the anger that has welled up in me over the futility of this war every time I’m standing at a COP or SP hearing a young specialist cry recollecting the memory of a friend he saw die, has made me feel even stronger about the original ideals that our country was founded on and the more nuanced principles we’ve sought to pursue as our nation matured. I’m angry because we continue to double-down on a losing bet. And I’m angry because young Americans are dying here (everyday where I am) in pursuit of a policy that any rational person can see will fail. But my anger is directed, mostly, at the people who have allowed us to stray so far from our national values that they can no longer see that we don’t belong here. I want our nation to stay true to its better instincts – and we’ve deviated so far from those that I dare say few Americans could actually articulate what they are anymore.

    So thank you for making me think about the rebirth of my identity. Or perhaps, the death, rebirth, then death and rebirth again, of my cultural illusion. I’m going to stick with the new version of Ed because I think I can channel new-Ed’s energy into an effort to remind America of who we once were (when the Civil Rights bill was passed, for example), and who we really should aspire to be again.

    Ed Pressman

    September 22, 2011 at 3:26 am

    • Ed,

      A fantastic comment, thank you for sharing. The military is an exercise in death denial, but the existential terror of walking a patrol in a salty part of Afghanistan must be astounding. Any moment could be your last.

      I’m glad you brought up anger, because hell yes, I am angry about the whole enterprise. The dishonesty is almost comprehensive: From Ambassador Crocker’s “Traffic is the worst problem in Kabul” comment, to the repeated inability of any leader to explain why Afghanistan is THIS necessary to America’s security.

      Good luck finishing up your tour.



      September 22, 2011 at 7:26 am

    • Ed-

      Like you, I use my service to remind myself of what America can be. Yet too often, especially in Kandahar, we are the source of instability.

      -Alec A.

      Alec A.

      September 23, 2011 at 3:24 am

      • Alec,

        Excellent point – I was forced to participate in a seven-hour long Brigade staff exercise a few months ago in which we were trying to identify sources of instability in our AO. At the end of detailed discussions and analysis, I noted to the group that it was evident from our work that we were the source of instability in nearly every instance. It was astonishingly clear from the very exacting analysis we had just completed. And the next day we continued to pursue our objectives…which were apparently creating instability. Nevertheless, I must say that things in my little world do seem to be improving which I find perplexing.

        And for Keith,

        I was pretty shocked to see that comment – very poorly timed considering what happened the next day. As my brother always says, ‘life all comes down to either good or bad timing.’ Take care and keep posting.



        September 23, 2011 at 3:34 pm

  7. Good post and comments. I’m retired military and spent my career mostly in the Cold War, 1976 to 1999. I was always proud to wear the uniform around the world and still am proud of my service. I think the “Evil Empire” did a lot to define us as a nation back then – as a freer and more humane counterpoint to them. When the Evil Empire dissolved, we were free to indulge our own worst instincts without fear of global shame.

    I went to Iraq as a contractor in 2003 for the first time, and have returned a few times since then in various roles advising the Iraqi government. I was skeptical about the war, but thought some good might come out of it.

    The people I worked with, military and civilian, individually almost all “meant well” (see for the take of a former PRT leader), but the cumulative effect of the mission produced huge waste and inhumanity – to the troops who deployed and redeployed, and to the Iraqi people.

    I’ve lost faith in Americans, especially our governing elites, but still identify with the ideals of the Constitution. I took my oaths to the Constitution, not to the country. But if those ideals are only shibboleths mostly honored in the breach now, aren’t they an illusion, too?


    September 24, 2011 at 6:51 am

  8. Keith, thanks for sharing your experience. In time, you will come to realize that even with all our faults America is still quite exceptional. Mistakes, bad ideas, crappy leaders, political expediency trumping the welfare of soldiers– these aren’t just facts of history. It happens in every war. It’s still very honorable to serve; poor planning on the part of your leaders doesn’t diminish what you did. Remember, you can write this blog freely in this country, and be supported and admired for your honesty. No one is going to come knock your door down because of your opinions. That’s why we are exceptional, not because we are culturally superior, but because of our liberty.


    October 2, 2011 at 8:51 pm

  9. […] written about my feelings of betrayal before, and I come to this conclusion with a heavy heart–I want our […]

  10. […] written about how my identity has changed over time, but I’ve not discussed my “conversion” from Christianity to atheism.  I put […]

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