For real: I suspect we were on a watch list of some sort for most of the 1990s.
In early 1993, my friend Ethan and I signed up to take part in the Mershon Conference on Global Affairs, which was put on by what is now called the Mershon Center for International Security Studies at the Ohio State University. The upshot: teams of four undergraduate honors students would work together to present a position paper on a given matter then relevant to the international community. It was to be judged by leading international relations and security experts of the day. Among them: Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, Joe Kruzel, and then-Congressmen John Kasich.
The topic, inspired by unrest in various former Eastern Bloc counties, was “Should we support or oppose nationalism in Eastern Europe?” Ethan and I were teamed up with two guys named Prabal and Marty and had a few weeks to come up with our presentation.
While we were honors students, we were also three college sophomores and a freshman, so obviously we knew what the topic of the conference should be far better than the assembled scholars and diplomats who created the thing at the Mershon Center did. In our minds the real question wasn’t nationalism in Eastern Europe – how boringly vague! – but rather the Bosnian War, which was less than a year old at the time. Specifically, we decided that we would come up with a proposal on how to stop it. Or win it. Or whatever one does in a war in which one is not involved. We weren’t sure what that was, but dammit, we were college sophomores from the United States of America, and we’d solve it and let the world sort out the semantics.
We set to work in the way that highly-motivated, high-achieving social science sophomores did in January 1993: we read some secondary sources on microfilm, found some editorials from The Economist and kind of mashed them all together. That was rather boring, though, because all of those sources explained how fraught with difficulty the Bosnia thing was, how there were no good solutions to be had, how the international community was paralyzed and how there seemed to be no end in sight to the mounting violence and unrest.
So, to spice things up we took advantage of some declassified DOD maps in the map room at the Ohio State Library. Some of them, likely from the Detente-era of the Cold War, featured oil, natural gas and hydroelectric assets in Yugoslavia. We really liked that one because it gave us targets. And targets were important at this point because by then we had decided that the bulk of our presentation would be how we, the United States of America (and whichever weak sisters of NATO had the balls to join us) would bomb most of the former Yugoslavia into submission unless hostilities ceased.
Now, to be sure, we were young men of peace. No one wanted war and we did not take our (fake) responsibility lightly. But having big fat targets in front of four kids weaned on sanitized comic-book cum video game productions like “Top Gun,” “Iron Eagle” and “The First Gulf War” it was inevitable that, at some point, we’d get carried away.
Marty: “Give me another target we can put in the bullet points.”
Prabal: “Hmm, we seem to be out of energy assets. Maybe a port city?”
Ethan: [scanning map]: “Ummm … how about Trieste.”
Me: “Sounds good. Write down Trieste.”
Marty [looking up at the map] “Guys, Trieste is in Italy.”
It didn’t matter, though. We we sure that what we lacked in precision we would make up in enthusiasm. Besides, Prabal had sweet-talked the librarian into letting us take the map with us for our presentation. This thing was gonna be KILLER.
On the day of the conference, Congressman Kasich gave the opening remarks to the assembled honors students, Mershon scholars and diplomats. The topic: his concern that the newly-inaugurated Bill Clinton and his Secretary of Defense, Les Aspin, had no plan for the post Cold War world. That it did not know how to be the planet’s lone superpower and that, unless some set of overarching principles were defined, the administration would likely lurch from crisis to crisis. This excited the four of us, for our presentation would show that we had overarching principles in spades. Or at least power. Fear would keep the local systems in line. Fear of this democratically-elected arsenal.
The presentations soon began. We scoffed as the other teams, boringly and predictably, outlined how fraught with difficulty Eastern Europe was, how there were no good solutions to be had, how the international community was paralyzed and how there seemed to be no end in sight to the mounting violence and unrest. Most ended with a listing of the pros and cons of supporting nationalism as a means of promoting stability. We grew increasingly smug as each balanced, measured but ultimately waffling presentation was given. Then it was our turn.
“We declare the war in the former Yugoslavia over,” Prabal, our first speaker stated in simple terms. “And the failure of hostilities will result in serious consequences for all who choose war instead of peace.”
Our judges, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for European and NATO policy, Joe Kruzel, and Congressman John Kasich, were somewhat surprised by our presentation. And by surprised I mean that Kruzel was literally slack-jawed and Kasich had a pursed-lipped smile and a slightly-raised eyebrow in what I have come to learn over the past couple of decades is the universal “these motherfuckers CANNOT be serious” expression.
Their expressions didn’t change all that much as we listed off, one-by-one, the way in which we would end the war in Bosnia: a no-fly zone. Armed troops landed and deployed to protect urban centers. Strategic air strikes to cripple the war-making capacity of the aggressors (which we considered to mostly be Serbia, but which we left undefined because the microfilm and the Economist editorials were somewhat confusing on all of that). All of this was accompanied by meaningful, pointed gestures to the DOD map we taped to the front of the conference table. I can’t remember how we finished, but I’m certain that it fell somewhere between a wish for healing of this war-torn region and the declaration of a Pax Americana.
Kruzel and Kasich were silent for a moment. And then Kruzel haltingly thanked us. We were convinced that we would win.
Indeed, we almost started to think that winning was beside the point because we had clearly impressed Congressman Kasich. During the reception before the awards ceremony we got a couple of moments with him and asked him what he thought. His words were measured and diplomatic, but we knew he was just being polite in case other honors students overheard him. We knew what he was really saying “Boys, we need bright young men like you in Washington!”
Our euphoria was so great that we weren’t even that disappointed when another team was announced as the winner of the conference. True geniuses aren’t appreciated in their own time and certainly not by their peers. Let these other teams be popular tastes like the Eagles or Boston. We would be the Clash.
Back in the sophomore dorms, we polished and repackaged our presentation into a position paper and sprung for the laser printing and clear-covered binder at Kinkos to make sure it looked professional. With a cover letter on top we sent it to Congressman Kasich’s office. At the end of the letter we listed our names and phone numbers and expressed our willingness to “work with the Congressman” on this or other policy matters of the day. We thought maybe we’d get staffer jobs out of it. But in our heart of hearts we assumed Kasich would want us to serve as a secret policy strike team whom he’d call if and when he needed some real outside-the-box thinking. I only think part of that made it into the cover letter, but what did likely leaned heavy on the strike team angle.
A few weeks later, my dorm room phone rang. The man on the other end of the line identified himself as an aide to Congressman Kasich. He acknowledged the receipt of our package. I waited for him to launch into ecstatic praise or, perhaps, a job offer, but he didn’t. There was an awkward silence.
Aide: “Um, why exactly did you send the Congressman this?”
Me: “Well, it’s our proposal.”
Aide: “I see that. And … you want … “
Me: “We’d like the Congressmen to feel free to use it. In policies or, um, legislation. Or in meetings.”
Me: [realizing I’m not getting through]: “And we have lots of ideas on other things too. The Middle East! NAFTA! South Africa!”
After some more awkward silences the aide thanked me and said they may be in touch. It’s been over 22 years. I’m starting to doubt they’re going to call us back.
Not long after that telephone conversation, stepped-up enforcement of a mostly toothless no-fly zone was imposed over the former Yugoslavia by NATO’s Operation Deny Flight. A little over two years later NATO launched Operation Deliberate Force, which was a sustained air campaign to undermine the military capability of the Bosnian Serb army and to provide close air support of the Bosnian national army and Croatian forces. While it took some time, and while there were still tremendous casualties and atrocities to come – as well as the death of Joe Kruzel, the man who stared at four mini-neocons in slack-jawed horror as we outlined our audacious plan – the NATO campaign has generally been credited with pressuring what remained of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia to take part in the negotiations that resulted in the Dayton Peace Agreement, ending the war.
In hindsight, the military and foreign policy call cooked up by four profoundly ambitious, arrogant and naive war hawks turned out to be the right call. It has proven to be the only time such a call has been anyplace close to right by anyone fitting that description in this country in the past 25 years. Even if men fitting that description keep on trying to make it.
While we lost track of Marty, Ethan, Prabal and I have remained close friends to this day. To this day, when any two of us get together, we talk about this little episode in our lives. It’s almost always kicked off by someone uttering our catch phrase from those days: “SURRENDER, OR WE’LL BOMB TRIESTE!” It never fails to make us laugh, mostly because as each year goes by, those profoundly naive college sophomores seem less and less like the men we eventually became.
Ethan and Prabal are easily the smartest, most accomplished people I know. Ethan has spent the past 20 years in Silicon Valley, building businesses, creating cool products and making the future sound more amazing than scary. Prabal is a professor of electrical engineering and computer science, inventing untold number of little miracles and showing up on lists in major magazines with names like “The Brilliant Ten of 2014.”
More so than that, they’re both thoughtful men with families, liberal sensibilities and, as far as I can tell, a complete and total abhorrence of war. And for what it’s worth, if you’ve read my stuff here for a while you know where I stand when it comes to politics, violence and the idea that anyone can really know anything for certain, let alone know things so certainly that they have standing to send others into harm’s way. It’s not exactly the stuff that a would-be 2016 Republican nominee would be all that interested in.
Still, if you’re reading this Governor Kasich: reach out. None of us belong to your political party and I, as the lone remaining Ohioan of the bunch, haven’t voted for you once. But we still have lots of great ideas. And we have access to much cooler maps these days.