The news about a hurricane heading to New Orleans did not initially make much of an impression on Conrad Legendy ’07. It was August 2005. Conrad was spending the summer after his sophomore year in Afghanistan, teaching German at the University of Herat. New Orleans was far away, and a storm wasn’t much to get worked up about.
Conrad had come to Herat at the suggestion of his Princeton mentor, Michael Barry ’70, a lecturer in Near Eastern studies and a former aid worker in Afghanistan. Like his brother Gabe ’05, Conrad had joined Princeton’s ROTC program. As a freshman, he had taken Barry’s course on Afghan history — after all, the Army might send him to that country one day. He was enthralled. Soon he was taking Barry’s course on South Asian Islam and studying Persian, whose Dari dialect is spoken in Afghanistan. But Conrad wanted to learn even more, so Barry suggested he spend a summer in the city of Herat. He vetted the security situation, tapped some old contacts, and told his student to go on over.
Since Conrad taught in the afternoon, he spent his mornings roaming the city and practicing Dari with the locals. He’d wander through the alleys and forts of a city so ancient that it had been visited by Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan. A few days after Katrina ripped through the Gulf Coast, a Herat shopkeeper invited Conrad to stop for tea. The man had heard about the devastation the hurricane had wrought. He had a question for his young visitor: “Why is the American government not doing anything?”
Conrad paused. Since Sept. 11, 2001, he’d been a supporter of the Bush administration. He was a New Yorker, and the attacks had hit close to home. Conrad had been swept up in the patriotic fervor during the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq; he believed the administration’s claims that Saddam Hussein was building weapons of mass destruction. We’ve been hit once, Conrad thought. We’d better not let it happen again. The military, he believed, was part of the solution to the threats the country faced, and he wanted to be involved in it.
In the years that followed, Conrad had defended the government even as questions grew about why the war was necessary and how it was being handled. But a government had time to prepare for a hurricane and the means to ensure the safety of its citizens. So it had bothered him when he saw an article in the Army Times reporting that National Guard troops had been sent to New Orleans, and “combat operations” had begun in the city’s streets. How could the government have let the situation reach such a point? he wondered. It’s not what he had signed up for.
He finally answered the shopkeeper: “I don’t know.”
Conrad was weeks away from returning to Princeton. He would be a junior, the point at which ROTC cadets must sign a contract and commit to joining the Army. Before he had left for Afghanistan, he had felt such a strong commitment to the military that he had completed his required physical months ahead of time. The Army had become part of his identity. His friends knew him as “the ROTC guy.” He competed with the elite Ranger Challenge Team. The coming fall, he was slated to become captain of the Color Guard. But now, he wondered if he had made the right decision.
Katrina had made him doubt the Bush administration. If it couldn’t deal with a hurricane within America’s borders, did it really know what it was doing overseas? And what he had seen in Afghanistan had diminished his appetite for the business of war. Afghans are recognized as among the fiercest fighters in the world. In Herat, though, Conrad saw what happens to fierce fighters when battles are over. The lucky ones had jobs driving taxis. The unlucky ones had lost limbs and were begging in the streets. “I’d grown up hearing about homeless [Vietnam] vets,” Conrad says, “and that didn’t exactly make sense to me. It was an expression. Now I recognized what that meant.”
He saw the effects of war elsewhere, too. Afghanistan was recovering from two decades of conflict, beginning with the Soviet invasion in 1979, and portions of Herat remained flattened. Unexploded ordnance — grenades, land mines, and mortar shells — still littered the place. On a daily basis, Conrad would cross paths with people — children as well as adults — who had lost limbs to wayward munitions. This too, Conrad thought, is what war does.
Conrad had expected that, after graduation, he’d do peacekeeping duty somewhere — maybe Iraq, maybe Afghanistan. He’d had only vague ideas about what that meant. But in Afghanistan, he saw U.S. convoys barreling down crowded city streets, leaning on their horns, machine guns menacing bystanders. Pedestrians straying too close to U.S. compounds could find rifles in their faces. “I saw that peacekeeping didn’t mean you see two people fighting and you say, ‘Hey, break it up, guys,’” Conrad says. “It meant you’re standing in the middle of somebody else’s city, flashing force around.”
For the first time, Conrad began considering what had been inconceivable: quitting ROTC. Struggling with his decision, he put his thoughts in an e-mail and sent them to Barry.
Barry had graduated from Princeton in 1970 with a degree in Near Eastern studies. He was doing graduate research in Afghanistan when the Soviet Union invaded. Fluent in the local languages and cultures, Barry was recruited into humanitarian work and eventually served a variety of organizations including Médécins du Monde, the United Nations, and the International Federation for Human Rights. He documented the atrocities of war. He ferried food and medicine across the country on horseback. He helped set up field hospitals. After the Soviets left and the Taliban took over, Barry supported clandestine schools for girls. After the Taliban were overthrown, the French government hired him as an adviser on reconstruction efforts. Along the way, he worked on his dissertation (he completed it in 2003) and consulted for the Department of Islamic Art at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. In the spring of 2004, he arrived at Princeton to teach a new class, “Afghanistan and the Great Powers, 1747–2001,” where he and Conrad first met.
In their discussions about current events, Barry had kept his political opinions to himself, commenting neither on American policy nor on Conrad’s choice of career. He saw his role more as instructing his students in the rules of the game as it was played in the region. He explained who the players were and the dynamics at work. Ultimately, he wanted his students to come to their own conclusions about the bigger picture.
But after reading Conrad’s e-mail, Barry spelled out his own thoughts. He criticized the Bush administration’s actions in the Middle East, from Baghdad to Kabul, and suggested Conrad might be able to do more good outside the military than in it. By the time Conrad returned to Princeton, he’d decided to quit ROTC. “It’s never easy,” he had written to Barry, “when your ideals are completely, undeniably shot down.”
Conrad set off on a new path. He majored in Near Eastern studies and researched the dynamics of reconstruction. Despite a worsening security situation, Conrad went to Kabul his junior summer to teach English at the American University of Afghanistan. In his senior year, he traveled to New Orleans with a class on “Disaster, Race, and American Politics,” where students gutted hurricane-destroyed homes and talked with local leaders about efforts to rebuild the city. Conrad’s senior thesis examined the relationship between failed reconstruction efforts in Afghanistan and the resurgence of the Taliban.
After graduation, he moved to Afghanistan and was hired by the Turquoise Mountain Foundation, a nongovernmental organization that works to restore historic buildings and preserve traditional crafts. He consulted with residents of Kabul and an outlying village to understand their needs and help set up new programs.
He continues to roam freely, though bombings and rocket attacks periodically hit Kabul and humanitarian workers occasionally have been targeted. This fall, Conrad started a new job as an interpreter for the International Committee of the Red Cross, which manages humanitarian programs in Afghanistan. He’ll be there for a year, maybe more. “The enormity of the task is a draw,” Conrad says. “There’s a job there, which I can do, and I can do well, and it’s going to make a difference for people. And if I don’t do it, maybe nobody else is going to.”