By Susie Allen, AB’09, courtesy of Tableau magazine
Photo courtesy of the Associated Press

By the time he was 32, Eric McMillan had served in Bosnia, was deployed twice to Iraq, and commanded a company of 167 soldiers during a year of intense combat in the Iraqi province of Diyala.

“I would walk in the door at 0600 hours and the whole building would snap to attention,” he says. “I was used to being a military officer.”

Three months after his honorable discharge, McMillan AM’10, traded the life of an Army captain for the life of a student in the Humanities Division’s Master of Arts in the Humanities (MAPH) program—a transition that wasn’t without the occasional moment of culture shock.

“I lived, breathed, slept a war, twice. Lost men. Was involved in a lot of really heavy fighting. Made the kinds of morally ambiguous and complex decisions that people will probably never face in their entire lifetime,” he says. Spending a year with students who hadn’t done the same “just felt so weird,” he admits.

The task of explaining wartime experiences to other students can be daunting, says MAPH alum Robert Greene, AM’11.

“Most people have no idea, and they know they have no idea, what you did,” Greene says.

Yet for Greene, McMillan, and fellow veteran Josh Cannon, now a PhD student in Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, graduate studies have offered a chance to start a new chapter in their lives, and take stock of their past. Cannon is pursuing his childhood dream of becoming an archeologist, while Greene and McMillan had the opportunity to reflect on and write about their military service.

“If you’ve been more or less institutionalized by the Army for 10 years, which is what I was, your grasp on being able to effectively analyze that whole set of experiences gets skewed a bit,” says McMillan, who is working on a novel inspired by his time in Iraq. He came to MAPH because he knew he wanted to write about his outlook on the war, and “I had to put my experience through a whole bunch of different lenses in order to step back and get the distance I needed to tell the story.”

Homer and Dostoevsky bring respite in war zones

“To most people, a veteran is a veteran is a veteran. Their reaction is, ‘You served. Thank you for your service,’” says McMillan. Many civilians don’t realize how different the same war can be for each soldier.

Cannon, a former Marine, is quick to admit his experience was “very different than a lot of my peers.” Cannon studied Arabic at the Defense Language Institute, and during his two tours in Iraq he did varied work as a translator. Sometimes he would spend his days listening to intercepted wireless communications, trying to uncover insurgent attacks in the making. At other times, he would act as an interpreter for his commander.

“I spent a year of my life chatting with Iraqis,” says Cannon, who “cherished” his role as a listener. Because he spoke Arabic—a rarity among American military personnel—he was able to build relationships with many of the Iraqis he met, who welcomed the opportunity to discuss their frustrations about the war.

He quickly became the beneficiary of Iraqi hospitality. When Cannon mentioned he was hoping to find a copy of Homer’s Iliad in Arabic, he didn’t have to look for long. “I got, like, four copies,” he says with a laugh.

Though he saw relatively little combat, Cannon’s time in Iraq was far from relaxed. During a mortar attack on his compound, “I remember getting mad,” he recalls. “Instead of being scared that stuff’s falling from the sky and exploding, I thought, ‘Why are they trying to kill me? If I would have met this person, I would have chatted to him in Arabic, and I would have tried to be his friend.’ I took it too personally, obviously.”

Both McMillan and Greene saw intense combat during the surge in 2007—McMillan as a commander, and Greene as an infantryman.

In the rare downtime between patrols and raids, Greene read novels by Dostoevsky, as well as works by writers from the Middle East. The Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz quickly became a favorite. “When you read the literature of a culture you’re unfamiliar with, they immediately cease to be as alien to you,” he says.

McMillan struggled with the impossible moral quandaries he faced as a commander. “You have two primary responsibilities—one is to the men, and the other is to the mission. That’s the fine dance of it. Sometimes no matter what you do, somebody is going to get killed…Internally, the thing that you have to learn is how to accept that in order to do your job.”

War experiences inform studies

During his time in MAPH, Greene found comfort in “the quiet life of reading and talking about books. … It was a very quiet, enjoyable, invigorating year.”

For his thesis, he began to work on a novel based on his military experiences. He has also completed a creative nonfiction account of his time overseas, Nightcap at Dawn: American Soldiers’ Counterinsurgency in Iraq, written in collaboration with several of his fellow soldiers. The book, published in April 2012, explores the war in Iraq from the point of view of enlisted personnel trying to learn counterinsurgency strategy in the middle of the conflict.

Writing about the war has been “a double-edged sword” for Greene. It can be difficult to relive the experience, but “sometimes it’s good to go back to think about things.”

Cannon, now in the final stages of writing a master’s thesis about a Bronze-age site in Turkey, has discovered that his military experience serves him well in his graduate work.

In fact, he was surprised to discover he found reassurance in the similarities between fieldwork and military life. “When we went to Iraq, we called it ‘going into the field.’ The terminology was even the same,” he says. “There was this comfort of, ‘I used to do this a lot.’”

McMillan was able to keep a cool head, even when his fellow students were stressing over papers and exams.

“When I looked around at my fellow students, who were stressed out about this paper, or the other paper, I was like, ‘Well, it’s gonna get done. I know it’s gonna get done,’” he says. “Nobody’s shooting at you today. It’s a good day.”

Originally published on July 9, 2012.