During my freshman year of high school, my history teacher turned on CNN after a phone call interrupted his lecture. Two minutes later, we watched the north tower of the World Trade Center collapse. I was too young to understand that this would be the defining moment of my generation. I wouldn’t have guessed that this event, planned by men in caves in a country I had never heard of, would change my life.
Four years later, most of my close friends joined the military. I had already decided to join — fighting the Taliban seemed more worthwhile than college — but I hadn’t decided what field to go into. A family friend who had served in special forces asked me what I enjoyed doing. I told him that in my free time I liked to sneak around and blow things up. It probably wasn’t a great answer when looking for a job, but it was honest. He suggested I join either the cavalry or military intelligence. One of those sounded more interesting than the other.
Six months later I was in Arizona taking an Army HUMINT course. HUMINT, or human intelligence, is a boring term for a boring job, or so the course made us think. Our interrogations were mostly talking to grumpy actors in plastic sheds while writing everything they said on a laminated folder. When recruiters are trying to sell you on HUMINT, they don’t mention how many soldiers have to sniff hand sanitizer to stay awake during the course. The day I finished the course was a great day.
After the HUMINT course came the main reason I chose HUMINT over other intelligence fields: language school. I went to the Defense Language Institute, the Department of Defense’s main language school, to learn Farsi. Farsi is spoken in Iran but is mutually intelligible with Dari, Afghanistan’s predominant language. For a year, I went to class six hours a day, five days a week, studying Farsi and learning about Iran’s culture, history, and politics.
After finishing the course, I was an expert on Iran. I knew the country’s language. Its political system. Its main religion. I could recite Iran’s proverbs and cook its food. Most of all, I could speak in Farsi about rockets, rifles, militias, and military units. I was ready for Iran. Thankfully, we weren’t fighting in Iran.
We were fighting in Afghanistan, though, and I spoke that country’s language. The stars were aligning. Six years after 9/11, I was about to join the war against fundamentalist murderers in Afghanistan. While war is a scary word to many, I wasn’t shaken. I was eager. I was a thrill seeker throughout my youth and joined the military out of a sense of duty, so to say I was ecstatic to free Afghans from theocratic warlords would be an understatement. What could be more thrilling than spying on the Taliban in the Graveyard of Empires?
Then I got sent to Iraq. I knew zero Arabic and little about its political system or religious conflicts. After a year of intense language training, which cost the government hundreds of thousands of dollars, I didn’t speak one word of Farsi in Iraq. Such is the wisdom of the U.S. Army.
My time in Iraq was alternately thrilling and disappointing. I loved my day-to-day job of recruiting and running spies. Some were government ministers, others used their illiteracy to outfox the infamous terrorist organizations they infiltrated, while still others were middle-class professionals who left our meetings with shoeboxes of unmarked bills. I watched a commander take credit for our work on CNN. I read about one of our investigations in the New York Times a few years later. It was like something out of a John Le Carré story.
Except John le Carré never used interpreters. Our interpreters were professional, charismatic, and nearly perfect for the job, but I still resented that I was in Iraq and not Afghanistan, and that I couldn’t do my job independently.
More important, John le Carré’s characters weren’t ambiguous. While I don’t regret participating in the war in Iraq, I knew we shouldn’t have invaded. I should have been in Afghanistan, where we were fighting to free people from religious fundamentalism, instead of in Iraq, where we were enabling fundamentalist militias to take over.
After 15 months in Iraq, I returned to the United States and started preparing for another deployment to Iraq. I requested to waive my recovery time and instead go straight to Afghanistan with another unit, but my request was denied. I tried again, volunteering to switch places with another sergeant with my specialty so that he could live closer to his wife, but I was rejected again. They got divorced; I never went to Afghanistan. Not every story has a happy ending.