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.”
When Hurricane Katrina hit, Conrad’s brother Gabe had just graduated from Princeton and been commissioned into the Army. Being a soldier was something he’d thought about for much of his life. As a young teenager, he set his sights on West Point; in high school he considered joining the Marines. By the time it came to applying to college, however, Gabe had put those thoughts aside and followed his older brother Philip ’03 to Princeton. Gabe had been attracted to the University’s informal motto: “In the nation’s service and the service of all nations.” He intended to serve his country — he wasn’t sure how, but he did know why.
In Gabe’s mind, his family owed a great debt to the United States. His father, Charles ’59, was born in Hungary. He’d been a student in Budapest in the fall of 1956 when Soviet tanks quashed the Hungarian revolution. Charles had been filmed participating in a university demonstration. He and his parents knew it was only a matter of time before the authorities arrested him. The Legendys decided to escape to the West, risking their lives to cross the border to Austria. The U.S. embassy in Vienna granted Charles permission to immigrate, and soon he was offered a full scholarship to study at Princeton. Charles arrived on campus in January 1957, went on to do graduate work at Cornell, and met his wife during a postdoc fellowship in Germany. “Everything that followed — our family, and my life — was a result” of the fact that the United States gave refuge to his father, Gabe says. “I thought I could give something back.”
At Princeton in 2003, as debate grew over U.S. plans to invade Iraq, Gabe “believed that we were going into a just war, and was irritated by those who felt we had no right.” A few weeks after the United States rolled into Iraq, Gabe told his girlfriend, an ROTC cadet, that he was thinking again about joining the military. Soon Gabe was sitting across from Princeton’s ROTC commander.
By January 2006, just eight months after graduation, Gabe was on his way to Iraq. He spent nine months there, mostly working at the military section of Baghdad International Airport, tracking cargo moving in and out. During his deployment, Gabe wrote periodic e-mails to a group of family and friends. He told them about the mind-numbing boredom of working the same job, day in and day out. He described how the mess hall was so far away on the massive warren of interconnected bases, and the midday heat so intense, that for a while he resigned himself to eating only one meal a day. The gym was his major source of entertainment, followed by the 20-plus books he’d shipped to himself, or movies and TV shows he downloaded from the base intranet. For weeks at a time he might not go beyond the 500-meter radius that encompassed his sleep and work tents.
There was nothing of the life that an average 23-year-old would take for granted. No hanging out with friends. No social life. And no escape from his bureaucrat of a boss. Gabe struggled to feel that his work had real value. He understood, of course, that the cargo he processed was important to the overall mission in Iraq, especially if it contained body armor or tank treads needed by the units headed into danger. When coffins arrived, work on other tasks stopped. But despite the grinding boredom and daily irritations, he continued to believe in the ideal of service. At one point, a friend asked by e-mail what it was like to have strangers stop him in U.S. airports when he was traveling in uniform and thank him for his service. Gabe replied: “I’m not exactly sure what to say. Should I say, ‘You’re welcome,’ ‘It’s all for you, friend!’ or perhaps ‘God bless America’? So basically I’m vaguely uncomfortable [with it].” But he added, “There is a different sort of thanks I get, however, and that is the one from you, my friends. ... I don’t particularly care about strangers at the airport, but I do allow myself to think that my service directly protects you in some way, or that, if for every soldier there are (a guess) 100 civilians, then I choose you as my 100 civilians to defend.”
When Gabe left Baghdad to move to his permanent posting in Germany, part of him was anxious to return to Iraq. Many of his buddies had been deployed after his own tour was over. Gabe didn’t like being out of the fight when his friends’ lives were on the line.
Still, by the fall of 2007, he had started thinking about whether he’d stay in the Army once his three-year active-duty commitment ended this year. He continued to believe in the idea of the Army, a place where you could perform a necessary service for your country, a place that espoused principles like integrity, loyalty, and respect. But he wasn’t sure he liked the reality. In the two years he had served, Gabe says, he believed the quality of recruits had declined, which he chalked up to the easing of enlistment requirements as the military tried to fill the ranks of an all-volunteer force. Gabe wanted to serve among motivated people with a sense of purpose, but he saw many soldiers who seemed intent only on collecting a paycheck. Plus, the amount of bureaucracy seemed to be increasing all the time.
At the same time, there were things he loved about the Army. It’s a tight community that looks after its people. You can change jobs every few years and have new experiences. And somewhere along the way, he’d discovered that he enjoyed mentoring his troops. You could change the course of a person’s life because of your position of influence. “You get the kids who are 18,” he says. “They’re not educated, but a lot of them are damn intelligent. And then you get the guys who are not kids, and [some are] neither intelligent nor educated, but they’re still good people and will do whatever you ask them to do, and they’ll do it with everything they’ve got because you’re asking them.”
“Once you have seen it,” he says, “you can’t look at things quite the same anymore.”
Gabe eventually hit on a solution. Someone in his battalion, a former member of the Special Forces, suggested he might be a good fit for that group. The Green Berets, as they are known, are among the most elite soldiers within the military, alternatively nicknamed “the quiet professionals” or “warrior diplomats.” They take on commando and reconnaissance missions, as well as unconventional warfare. They were some of the first troops on the ground in Afghanistan after Sept. 11, helping to overthrow the Taliban. But they also are put to work strengthening other countries’ militaries and containing crises. They have long been training paramilitary troops in Colombia to fight the drug cartels, for example. The Green Berets had everything Gabe was looking for: the opportunity to perform at the highest level intellectually and physically, the chance to work alongside motivated people, the sense of purpose. And most of all: no bureaucracy.
“I joined the Army to feel like I was contributing something to the fight,” Gabe says. “Not because I want to run around with an M-16, shooting at anybody, necessarily. But to feel like something is happening, like I’m making a difference. Like Iraq, Afghanistan, or wherever, is better off for my presence.” He decided: If he made it into the Green Berets, he’d stay in the Army. He went to the two-week selection course — a brutal tryout in which candidates are pushed to the limits of their physical and mental endurance — in May. At its completion, just a couple of weeks before Reunions, he got the word: He made it.
Gabe, who was promoted to captain last summer, will be in training for much of the next two years. If he passes the final qualification course, he’ll serve at least three years after that. He doesn’t know what he’ll decide at that point — he wants to have a family, and Special Forces life makes that hard. But then again, when he joined ROTC, he didn’t think he’d stay in the Army after three years. “There are things to do here in the Army,” he says. “If I do find myself changing lives and finding what I’m looking for, then why change?”
Despite their differences, Gabe and Conrad — and their brother Philip, who works on Wall Street and who never considered joining the military — have the closeness of brothers who grew up in a tight family. In their small New York apartment, they shared a triple-decker bunk bed; at school, they had each other’s backs in schoolyard fights. From their parents, they learned the same lessons: to see and value what is good in the United States, to look out for the underdog, and to be of service to something greater than themselves.
Spread out across the globe, the brothers keep in touch sporadically. So when they find themselves in the same place at the same time, usually New York, they pull out a six-pack and spend hours catching up. Gabe peppers Conrad with questions about his work in Afghanistan. His younger brother’s life seems so much more interesting than his own. And sometimes he’s even envious of how much Conrad is accomplishing. In the civilian world, Gabe realizes, Conrad is evaluated on his intelligence and capabilities, and the opportunities he receives are commensurate. In the Army, Gabe knows that the limits of what he can achieve begin and end with the rank shown on his uniform.
Conrad wishes Gabe was not in the Army. He thinks someone as smart and capable as his brother could put his talents to better use somewhere else. Philip initially thought that way, too. But over time, he says, he’s come to realize that the Army is a place where Gabe, as an officer, can live his life by his principles.
Conrad tries to tell Gabe that if the military is involved in a wrong-headed war, you have to get out in order to do any good. But Gabe usually rebuffs attempts to discuss it. You do it your way, he tells Conrad, and I’ll do it mine. From Gabe’s point of view, it doesn’t really matter whether the initial reasons for going to war were right or wrong. The United States is going to be in Iraq and Afghanistan for years to come. In his mind, the military, and especially the enlisted troops, deserve officers who can lead them intelligently until the conflicts are over. “There are lots of good soldiers in the Army, and good soldiers deserve good leaders,” Gabe says. “Through the right training, you can cause them to react in the right way at the right time and save their lives and the lives of the people around them.”
Mostly, however, Conrad and Philip are concerned for Gabe’s safety. As, of course, are Gabe and Philip for Conrad’s. No one wants to lose a brother to war.
Earlier this year, Gabe called Conrad in Afghanistan to share the news that he would be trying out for the Special Forces. Conrad had been hoping Gabe would quit the Army; now he knew Gabe planned to remain, and in a more dangerous role. And so, as brothers sometimes will do, he gave Gabe a poke to make him see sense.
“Do you think that’s a good idea?” Conrad asked. “Or an idiotic one?”
Gabe wasn’t surprised by Conrad’s reaction. But he didn’t think his younger brother was in a position to be talking about taking risks. And so, as brothers also will do, he threw back a jab of his own.
“Coming from a guy living outside the wire in Afghanistan,” he answered, “I’d say it’s a pretty good one.”
E.B. Boyd ’89 is a freelance writer based in San Francisco.