Joseph Kearns Goodwin, full of love for country, decided to enlist after the attacks on Sept. 11th 2001. He spoke to host Marco Werman about his thoughts on his service in Iraq and later Afghanistan and how he’s changed in the last 10 years since the attacks.
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Marco Werman: There can be many reasons to serve in the military. Joseph Kearns Goodwin, for example, didn’t have to enlist in the army. He had the potential of a great future ahead of him. He’d had a privileged New England upbringing. In 2001, he’d just graduated from Harvard and had a political job waiting for him, but then September 11 happened. The following day Joseph Kearns Goodwin signed up for military service, a decision that eventually took him to Iraq and later Afghanistan.
Joseph Kearns Goodwin: I was at a point in my life where I’d just graduated college, I had not yet started a career, so I was getting ready to embark on a new career. But, after the events of 9/11, it became pretty clear to me that young people were going to be needed somewhere to do something. Little did I know it would take me to Iraq and Afghanistan, and all these other places before then. But I felt that here I was, I had been afforded basically every opportunity that a free society can give you. I went to a great public school system. I went to great university. I had great parents. I grew up in a great town. I just felt that here I was, young, able, in relatively good shape; so it just seemed incumbent upon me to give something back to this great country that has given me so much. Especially because it was evident then, after 9/11, the need was really there for that kind of service.
Werman: Now, your family is a political…one could even say a political elite family. Your father is Richard Goodwin, advisor and speech writer to John Kennedy and Lindon Johnson. Your mother is author and presidential historian, Doris Kearns Goodwin. You had a political consultancy job waiting for you; you didn’t have to join the military?
Werman: What did your parents think about this decision, because they opposed the Vietnam war?
Goodwin: They did, certainly, and I think that’s not the path that they would have chosen for me. However, they were incredibly supportive once I made the decision. I remember I had sort of floated it around before I accepted the job [???] that maybe I would join the army, and then I was going in a different direction after 9/11. I remember I walked into my house as these events were going on and said, “Well, I guess I know what I am doing now,” and they go, “Yeah, you’re not joining the army, right?” I said, “Well, actually it’s the opposite.” Like I said, it’s not the path they would have chosen for me, but once I made that choice they were incredibly supportive. I mean, to the point where, when I was in Iraq and Afghanistan, I was getting letters, care packages every single day. I can’t tell you how gratifying that was when you’re so far from home and so separated from everybody you know and love to have that sort of support. So, they were great about it.
Werman: Were they also thinking about what can I do now, after 9/11?
Goodwin: I think collectively as a nation we all, sort of, took a step back and said, “Okay, this is a serious thing.” I think, for me, as tragic as it was, it did kind of bind us together for a short time. Had there been a real call to service from the top of our leadership that that time, I think a lot of people would have responded. I don’t think that call really came.
Werman: I was going to ask you about that. I mean, the first words we heard from the White House after 9/11 were, “Go out and use your credit card.” There was no call for service or some kind of response to 9/11 that might have been more constructive. What did you think about that?
Goodwin: Well I think that was a really missed opportunity on the part of our leadership. I mean, if you can go back in World War II, you had school children taking scrap metal and putting it together in balls and turning it into the war effort. You had these huge surcharges on fuel because there was an understanding, nationally, we needed everybody to come together and contribute to this effort. I think we missed the opportunity when everybody was willing and able and ready to contribute to…I think a call to service at that time would have been met with a lot of support and probably a lot of [???] but that call never came.
Werman: So you did your basic training in South Carolina and entered the Officer training program. What rank did you ultimately rise to?
Goodwin: I ultimately got out as a Captain.
Werman: So, this motivation for you joining the military was 9/11, and the obvious war to be fought over 9/11 was in Afghanistan. How did you feel about your first deployment of being to Iraq, a conflict that was deeply controversial?
Goodwin: Now I can look back and say I am not sure that we should have been involved in this. In fact, I don’t think we should have been. I mean, certainly not for the justifications that we were given. But otherwise, you have to understand your role is to execute the political will of the American people and that is manifested to the leaders we choose and the choices they make.
Werman: Now that we know that Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11 and didn’t have weapons of mass destruction, did you ever feel that your patriotism, I mean the real sense of the word patriotism, and your sense of service was exploited in any way?
Goodwin: I don’t feel like I was exploited. I was doing a job that I happily signed up for. Also, it’s hard when you’re in these areas of the world like Iraq and Afghanistan not to be inculcated with a real sense of empathy for the people. You want to try to make the best of it and you want, in your small little room – your little section of Baghdad, to try to improve the lot and life for the people over there. That empathy becomes real and that becomes a mission separate from what our mission was.
Werman: You had the advantages and the privileges of an elite New England upbringing and then left that and saw the world and saw war as it really is. How has that changed you as a person in the 10 years since 9/11?
Goodwin: I think there is no doubt that when you are exposed to these things and you go to these other places in the world where there is a violence, there is a poverty on a level that we can’t really understand so you’re into it, it makes you realize that we do have it very well here. We have it very well because we care about it, we work very hard at it. But that’s not something to take for granted but it is something to be celebrated. And it is something when you go to the rest of the world it does put things in perspective. When you get cut off at the corner by a car I don’t get angry as I used to.
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