Morningside Post – MIA in the Army

The following article comes to us courtesy of the SIPA student blog, The Morningside Post.  It was written by Posted by Michelle Chahine on November 22nd, 2010.
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Jordan Becker’s time in the MIA program is funded by the U.S. Army – that is, his Masters in International Affairs. He has served in the Army for nine and a half years and could easily do another nine, or many times that.

Becker is a second-year student at SIPA. He spent his first year at Sciences Po in Paris (as part of a dual degree program with Columbia). Throughout his interview, he kept the conversation general, insisting that was for his own personal privacy, not because anything he did was a secret. His missions and jobs are generally public information. Talk to him in person, he’ll tell you almost anything you want to know – just don’t bring your pen along.

Becker weighed each word carefully. He spoke in bullet points. Everything he said was rehearsed in his head. Whatever he said that wasn’t rehearsed was off the record, and tended to be the most fascinating details. And, as he spoke, he had a careful eye on the pen and notepad in front of him.

“I want to be very careful of what image I represent of my profession because I have a lot of respect for the other people here at SIPA and elsewhere who do what I do, and also for my profession’s role in society,” said Becker. “Also because people don’t really have much exposure to people in my profession, so I don’t want to be perceived as representing the whole organization.  I’m only speaking for myself as an individual.” Later in the interview he added, “I think sometimes our activities are inaccurately caricatured.”

Becker is from California. He planned to go to the University of California for free, but he really wanted to go to Georgetown.  “I needed funding, which ROTC provided,” he said. That’s when he signed up for the U.S. Army.

He studied International Relations and was an intercollegiate athlete in his first year at Georgetown. “My life as a student wasn’t affected too much. It was basically like having an extra class or two a week. And I had to cut my hair and shave my beard,” he added.

After graduating from college and doing the Army’s standard initial training, he moved to Italy. He was a platoon leader there until the onset of the Iraq War in 2003, doing combat training. “It was an airborne unit and we mostly trained for airfield seizures and non-combatant evacuation operations.” Usually the scenarios had to do with civil instability.

“Airfield seizure was the first thing we did in Iraq. The first week went pretty much like training – we seized an airfield. Once there was no more traditional war to fight, that’s when it got complicated, and that’s when it got interesting to me. I got to apply what I learned in college and learn a little bit about what it really meant in practice. My academic background helped me to do my job, and it helped me explain our mission to my soldiers.”

Becker went to Iraq without much hesitation. “Privately I questioned it. But my obligation to perform my responsibilities was much more important… my job was to execute foreign policy, not to make it,” he said. “I signed up for the army knowing it was a tool of foreign policy, and that foreign policy is never perfect. I knew I would go forth on decisions made by those higher up.”

Becker left Iraq in February 2004. He then went through a long process of training to transition to another role in the army. He returned to Iraq for eight months in 2007 during the Surge and served as an advisor to an Iraqi organization. After that, he spent the next year doing more training.

In the summer of 2008, Becker went to Mali, as part of small-scale U.S. operations in the Pan-Sahel region. The army helped the Malian government control lawless areas of their country to prevent extremists from using them as a training base. Becker was basically like a consultant during that time. “It is one of the most fun things I have done in the army,” he said. “I was advising people who were a bit senior to me in rank, and they were very talented and dedicated professionals.”

When Becker returned to the U.S. at the end of the summer in 2008, he began to apply for graduate schools. He described his decision to return to school as a simple professional calculation. To him, it was the equivalent of someone in investment management getting an MBA.

But Becker is not your typical second-year SIPA student. While most of the class of 2011 is now worried about finding a job for May, Becker has jobs lined up for the next few years. His next step is a rotating faculty position at West Point. He expects to stay there for two or three years. He will then move on to work as a ‘foreign area officer’ focusing on Europe and transatlantic relations.

To prepare for his new roles, Becker is in the International Security Policy concentration at SIPA and the Europe regional specialization. How does being on the ground relate to the academic theory? “The biggest lesson I have learned as a practitioner has been about the practical limitations of the use of force… You hear about the ‘fog of war,’ or ‘friction.’  You really see the fog of war. I learnt what that looks like and feels like. It’s really there.”