The experience that has probably had the most significant impact on how I view the world and my place in it was my nine-month deployment to the former Yugoslavia from 1995 to 1996. My military police unit was attached to the NATO Implementation Force designed to enforce the provisions of the Dayton Peace Accords. My initial reaction was far from enthusiastic: not only did I question the value and wisdom of sending the American soldiers to keep the peace in a part of the world that had decided to tear itself apart, but I had also grown up among Vietnam veterans, my father having broken his back in an accident that ended up saving him from being sent to Hamburger Hill. This military experience tends to make one cynical to say the least.
I was an M60 gunner, the one sticking out of the top of the Humvee. The gunner is a favourite of snipers and the first one to be picked off in firefight, and I have to admit to a certain level of fear and selfishness when I considered the prospect that the peace was only temporary and that the Yugoslav combatants would decide to demoralize our forces by slowly picking away at our troops in the same fashion as the Vietnamese or the Somalis who wanted us out of their countries. It wasn't so much that I was afraid of dying, as real as that fear was. It was more that I was afraid of dying for nothing or for the wrong thing. As the deployment drew closer, the talk of whether our leaders knew what they were doing and if they had any idea of what we were doing through dominated and conversation.
Upon arriving in Croatia and while performing my duties there and in Bosnia, I was struck by several things. The first was the level of poverty. My American imagination was completely inadequate to prepare me for the desperate living conditions of many of these people. Intrinsic poverty was widespread enough, and the war had only made things worse. To me, poverty meant trailer parks and government assistance programs, but for the people in Croatia and Bosnia poverty meant no running water (with every discomfort that entails) and growing your own food. Piled on top of this of course was the destruction: as I drove through one town I could see how somebody in the hills to my right had used his position to reduce the village on my left to rubble. I was frequently saddened by the lingering hostility. I witnessed in survivors and became starkly aware of my sheltered experience. It's easy and common for Americans to judge others for ethnic hostility, but most modern Americans can scarcely imagine the ethnic tensions and fears associated with living within close proximity of people whom you know or suspect want you dead because of your race or religion.
All of which is to say that I was strong. Wrong about the mission being a waste of time, wrong about it not being worth risking the lives of people foreign to the conflict, and mostly just wrong about it being none of my business. I realized that most of the victims of the conflicts were innocent bystanders and that the popular "Let them kill each other" logic associated with non-involvement failed to take this into account. I also realized that America and our allies were in a unique position to positively influence world affairs, and that to passively observe a slaughter, as we in the West tend to do, is to waste an opportunity to use our position to help people other than ourselves. It occurred to me that it is utterly hypocritical of us to speak of American leadership and at the same time be afraid of exercising the responsibility and taking the risks that come with leadership. In other words, NATO had arrived in Yugoslavia two years too late, and I found myself not only eager for my mission, but regretful that I had not arrived earlier.
This experience, besides clarifying and widening my understanding of the world I live in, fanned the flames of a nascent interest in international policy and foreign affairs. Having witnessed the consequences of failed diplomacy and international cooperation, I have committed myself to a career in international law so that I might some day play a part in helping the international community prevent such tragedies and [so that I might] have a hand in bringing war criminals to justice. The experience and knowledge I would gain from a legal education at Harvard would be an invaluable contribution to my goal, and I would embrace the opportunities and challenges presented to me should I be accepted. Whichever road, I take, I intend to do everything I can to ensure that in the future no American soldier will have to see the look on someone's face that says, "You're too late."