“What Would I Do … ?”

From my first days in grad school, I’ve looked up to and personally befriended many of the mid-career military fellows that join us each year.

These are about a half-dozen officers from across the different services, each with about 20 years of service in uniform and most of them just coming out of command, which is the real proving ground for officers at that level. These are, in a word, serious folks (though I’ve always been impressed by how fun-loving they tend to be, too).

Here’s the thing: civilian control of the military (one of the hidden-in-plain-sight guardrails of our democracy) means that people like me generate the policies that determine where people like them get sent around the world, and for what purposes. It’s not specific: 20-something civilians don’t directly boss 20-year officers around. Ever. But 20- and 30-something wonks with degrees like mine do a lot of the grunt work that shapes policy papers that shape high-level decisions that shape my friends’ lives and fortunes.

Living and studying in such proximity with these people has really brought home for me the idea that policy is ultimately personal: policymakers’ work can have steep consequences for other people’s lives that aren’t anything like the abstraction of a national security strategy.

The political and economic ways in which policy is personal are topics for another time. What I’m trying to say here is that the friendships I’ve developed amidst and alongside my studies have continually pushed me to ask myself what I would do if I had to make a decision about some urgent and potentially risky policy matter.

For what would I risk lives in the abstract?

For what would I risk friends’ lives?

Some things are worth it. But knowing the people on the other end of the stick forces me to interrogate just which things those might be on any given day.

In response to a screaming headline emergency, it’s worth asking (and not for the first time):

What would I do?

What would I risk a friend to do?