The Best Defense

Why do so many combat veterans turn to mountain climbing?

That's a photo of vets who climbed Grand Teton on 9/11/11.

By Stacy Bare

Best Defense mountaineering correspondent

"Why do you climb?" The question, in some form, was posed to George Mallory on a trip to New York City in the 1920s, as to why he was interested in climbing Mt. Everest. At the time, Mt. Everest remained the last great geographical unknown and great epic adventure since the poles had been "conquered." His response was flippant: "Because it's there." Myself an aspiring mountaineer, I used to love that response, but I'm not sure if it tells the whole truth.

I routinely find myself day-dreaming about snow and cold. I want to be in the ice floes. Struggling up broken granite and route finding in blustering winds for an opportunity to stand on top of a mountain for a few brief moments before the elements and pesky possibilities like cerebral or pulmonary edema set in. I've done it a few times in the United States with other veterans, and its always a life-changing experience. But do I want these things simply because they are there? Did Mallory really? Or was what drove Mallory and his colleagues at the time the same thing that I think may be driving me, an OIF veteran, and a new generation of adventurers and explorers outdoors and into what is left of our global wilderness?

Do I, like Mallory before me, and no doubt countless generations of warriors before him and after, climb because, like the nameless 24 year old demobilized in March 1919 who applied to be on the first Everest Expedition, "feel stifled" in civilian life and following demobilization? Do we seek adventure to recapture the sense of purpose, mission, and camaraderie we may have found in war?

Let's be honest, there were parts of war that really kicked ass. It was fun. I've never had an adrenalin rush, even in taking a 20 foot dinger off a rock face or hucking myself off wind cornices in winter, like I did on a few days in Baghdad. I love the way a mountain smells in the early morning after a big powder dump, staring down into the silence and open canvas of unblemished runs. But how much better the smell of cordite and silence following a successful combat operation? To be fair, I think my war was also fun in a way that World War I most certainly was not.

Still though, one can hardly doubt the boredom and drollness of life post World War One when veterans returned and the military was drawn down. Speaking to a crowded room following the end of the War and trying to gain interest for the first Everest expedition, Wade Davis, in his excellent book,  Into the Silence, about why World War I vets became mountain climbers, explains the scene:

But his eyes were drawn to those in khaki, perhaps thirty or more scattered through the audience, soldiers like him who had endured the slaughter, the coughing of guns, the bones and barbed wire, the white faces of the dead. Only they could possibly know what the vision of Everest had become, at least for him: a sentinel in the sky, a place and destination of hope and redemption, a symbol of continuity in a world gone mad. (P. 87)

How to explain all of that when someone asks why you climb? Or why you fish? Or why you go outside? We've done enough for our country not to have to respond with anything more than, "because it's there." Its there, and it's the best medicine for you and as a warrior class, we've been doing it since World War One, and really, we've been doing it as long as we've been coming home from war.

Life after war is boring. And that's ok, but we can do something about it. We don't all have to go to Everest, but Mallory and his generation painted a clear picture of what we can do to overcome much of the paleness of life outside of uniform. Get outside and just like you would not leave a warrior alone on the battlefield, make sure you don't leave a warrior inside!

Stacy Bare

The Best Defense

Slugging it out over the long-ago surge

I felt like Rodney King as I was reading Michael Desch and Peter Feaver slug it out in the pages of International Security about the surge. I like both guys, even though they are political scientists, that most oxymoronic of academic specialties. Maybe one day they can become historians -- which is what both seem to be trying to be here. (I also aspire to be one some day.)

My take: Feaver is too Washington-centric in his views. President Bush's decision to fire General Casey and go with Petraeus and a changed approach was key, but after that, what happened in Iraq was more important than anything that happened in Washington.  It was necessary (and difficult) to understand what was going on in both capitals, but more important to know what was going on in Baghdad, especially because Washington's consensus generally seemed to lag reality by about six months.

Fyi, this poll says Iraqis don't seem all that impressed with the surge.

The only thing I would add is that the older I get, the less I think that Samuel Huntington's Soldier and the State is an accurate portrayal of the way American civil-military relations work, or even should work. I recently read a good essay by Richard Kohn about the flaws of Huntington's book, carried in a volume titled American Civil-Military Relations: The Soldier and the State in a New Era, edited by Suzanne Nielsen and Don Snider. To complete the circle, I met the former in Baghdad during the Surge in question. 

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