The Best Defense

'Best Defense' advice: Should an Ivy League Ph.D. join the military?

Here is an interesting question, posed by a reader who asks to remain anonymous.

My situation is this: I'm 29 years old and about to finish a PhD in a humanities/social sciences field at a well-known Ivy League school. Having decided not to pursue an academic career, I'm exploring opportunities to work in government, and long-term would like to work in the field of foreign policy. (Similar to Matt Pottinger, I've come to the conclusion that I've had enough of writing about other people doing things, and would like to do some doing myself.) I've taken the Foreign Service exam and applied for research jobs at various think tanks, but I've also been thinking more and more about joining the armed forces. The more familiar I become with the foreign policy field generally, the more I've come to the conclusion that if one wants to actually influence policy that means either working in the military, or having some military experience. I don't mean to sound crassly opportunist, however. The prospect of volunteering to serve my country is also a genuine motivating factor.

Having thought about it that far, though, I realize that I know remarkably little about what it might mean to join the military. Though both of my grandfathers served in WWII, I don't come from what might be called a "military family." And the elite colleges I've been ensconced in for the last 10 years offer virtually no contact with the military world. The only sign of ever seen of military recruiters on campus is the annual controversy that erupts when the JAG corps recruits at the law school, and everyone protests DADT. Literally no one -- from professors to advisors to career services folks -- has ever raised the subject of my pursuing a career in the military; I'm fairly sure most would be flabbergasted to hear I'm considering it.

So my question is basically this: Would the military even want someone like me? I don't ask that disingenuously; I honestly don't know. If I were to join up, what could I reasonably expect to be doing? I have a knack for languages (including some training in Arabic) and am well practiced in analytical thought, so I could imagine doing working in intelligence in some capacity, which is work I also think I'd both enjoy and be good at. Beyond that, though, I would not even know where to start. Is it possibly to even think of charting a course for one's career like that? What branch should I consider? Army? Navy? I'm not sure that the Marines would be the best fit, but I don't really know.

Any thoughts or suggestions, from you or your readers, would be greatly appreciated.

Tom's thought: Sure, join up, but only if you want to. Don't expect to be the smartest guy in the room, do expect to work for morons sometime -- but find a way to learn from everyone.

What's your answer, Best Defenders? Which service should he join, if any? And if so, how should he go about it?


The Best Defense

Pirate Watch (I): Boom Times for Buccaneers

Ahoy, mateys. Herewith my CNAS colleague, Navy Cdr. Herb Carmen, comes aboard with an overview of recent pirate news. Herb, formerly ringleader of the Sun Kings, the notorious music-loving aviation squadron, is a veteran naval aviator with 444 controlled crash landings on carriers to his name.

We here at Best Defense hope that in the coming months, until Herb catapults back into the fleet, that "Pirate Watch" will be a continuing feature of this blog:

In recent weeks, we've been showered with stories and posts in recent about piracy near the Gulf of Aden and Somali Coast.  On December 27th, a helicopter delivered a $4M ransom payment to secure the safe return of the Chinese dry bulk carrier Den Xin Hai owned by Qingdao Ocean Shipping, her 25-member crew and 76,000 tons of coal.  Just after I had read a blog post about the sale of Blackwater's 183-ft anti-piracy ship, I read another post describing A.P. Moller Maersk Line's hiring of contracted security forces, including a warship from Tanzania, to protect the Brigit Maersk tanker from pirates of the coast of Africa.  In just the first two days of 2010, a chemical tanker, a British vehicle carrier, and 49 seamen were taken captive by pirates. Just when it appeared the salvo of news on piracy was over, apparently a contractor and forces from the Yemen Navy have teamed up for some time to provide security for ships transiting the Gulf of Aden.

So just how big of an issue has piracy become?  Statistics from the Piracy Reporting Center of the International Maritime Bureau show that since 2007, the number of pirate attacks in the Gulf of Aden and along the Somali coast have nearly doubled annually (from 111 in '08 to 214 or so in '09), no doubt fueled by the large ransoms that have been delivered to pirates in return for the seized vessels and crews. And this is despite reduced global shipping during the global economic downturn.  Pirates currently hold an estimated 12 ships and 270 seamen.

Being a Naval Officer and concerned about the global commons and ensuring the free flow of global commerce, I find those numbers striking.  Several nations have sent ships to the area ,including Combined Task Force 151 (CTF-151), European Naval Force (EU NAVFOR), NATO Maritime Group, and Russian, Indian, Japanese and Chinese warships and aircraft.  The professional navies involved in the effort have demonstrated superb cooperation.  Even with dozens of ships and aircraft collaborating and patrolling the seas, the numbers of attacks continue to rise.  If there is a "silver lining," successful hijackings as a percentage of total attacks dropped significantly in 2009.  In 2008, 38 percent of attacks resulted in hijacking and in 2009 hijackings had dropped to about 22 percent of attacks.

Over the next several weeks, as part of my incredibly enjoyable year at CNAS, I'll provide brief discussion on some of the issues that have grabbed my attention in reading recent news.  Some of the topics I hope to cover include:

  • how piracy has expanded in this region and in other undergoverned regions
  • best practices by mariners
  • the challenges mariners and navies face
  • ransoms and insurance
  • perhaps a few recommendations for operating at sea and ashore.  

If you've got some thoughts or ideas, I'd love to hear them. Please do so by sending in your comments, or e-mail me at .

Olivier Bruchez/Flickr