Many veterans of the early Iraq and Afghanistan Wars who went to fight at the age of 20 to 25 are waking up to the realities of what was once considered “midlife.” John Waters, a lawyer and editor for the news site RealClearDefense, felt this was fertile enough ground for a story.
A Marine Corps veteran who served as a sniper platoon commander in Afghanistan and later with a Marine Expeditionary Unit guarding the U.S. embassy in Baghdad at the end of the war in 2014, Waters has just published a novel that captures the collision of two life crises: that of midlife and the loneliness of a clearly broken military-to-civilian transition, 10 years out of service.
In “River City One,” published by Simon & Schuster and released this week, Waters, 37, invokes the spirit of Greatest Generation writers John Updike, John Cheever, and John O’Hara in a twist on the suburban middle age x-ray: the veteran who is clearly misfit for his “perfect” set-up, sapped by the banality of modern American life and the compromises of everyone around him. Above all, his military service is both an unwanted hitchhiker and the only real identity he has, and respects.
We chatted with Waters about his influences and how he reflects on the military, and his own service, today.
(This interview has been edited for length.)
RS: So how about we start simple. Can you tell me a little bit about your own military experience in Iraq and Afghanistan?
Waters: I deployed to Afghanistan in 2011 as a ground intelligence officer in the Marine Corps. I was a second lieutenant. There were no spots for me at an infantry battalion, so I deployed three or four months after arriving at Camp Lejeune with the Second Marine Division staff. I gave a brief ad hoc one evening to General (Lewis) Craparotta. And from that time on, I was a lieutenant who briefed and wrote to Gen. Craparotta and his staff. And that was a year, and when I finished it, they asked or my boss asked, "What do you want to do?" And I said, "I want to lead a Scout Sniper platoon." I went and became a Scout Sniper platoon commander for a year and was sent over to a platoon that just finished a difficult deployment to Marjah, Sangin in 2012. I had to rebuild the platoon. I promoted to captain, and I left the platoon to become the battalion intel officer and deployed in 2014 on a Marine Expeditionary Unit, and we did training, theater security cooperation in Oman, in Jordan, and Spain with Portuguese military, and then we were responding to crisis, as ISIS reportedly was on the march in summer of ‘14, overtaking Mosul. A company of us deployed off of the ships to Baghdad in summer '14 to reinforce Baghdad and the embassy complex. I came out of that deployment in late ‘14 and then exited the Marine Corps, January 2015, just roughly six years of service.
RS: What happened that you had to 'rebuild the platoon'? What does that mean?
Waters: I took over the platoon at a time when there was a video that surfaced of Marine Corps Scout Snipers in Musa Qala from Third Battalion, 2nd Marines who had videotaped themselves urinating on Taliban corpses, and there was a Marine Corps-wide effort to clean up Scout Sniper platoons. When I got to my platoon, my first instruction was get rid of them, basically rebuild the platoon, weed these Marines. These Marines need to move on. And that was my instruction. And what I found with the Marines is that they had done combat tours. They had all been affected by things and they were changed from who they used to be. And about a third of them I made a case to retain in the platoon because of their time in service, because of their ambitions, maybe because of their willingness. And then two-thirds of the Marines I helped transfer or process out of the Marine Corps, whatever the case was.
RS: What was that like for you? I mean, it seemed like you had a lot of control in terms of determining the next steps of these Marines' lives. Was that difficult?
Waters: Yes, I thought, how do they come home from this? How do they go on from this? The Marines once you got into a sniper platoon, and I felt it myself as their platoon commander, you kind of feel like wow, there's nothing else I've ever wanted. I love being in this group of people. We feel like a brotherhood, a family, we feel like we're on our own. We feel like we're select. We really were special. I don't know if it's everyone, but it certainly fulfilled a lot of my own needs at that time. And I felt the same for them. And so there were questions at least I asked myself internally about what becomes of these people? And, and so yes, to answer your question, it was a lot of responsibility.
RS: So you went through law school in Iowa, but then to Nebraska after that, to pursue a legal career?
Waters: I did. I was recruited through law school by very nice lawyers in Omaha, Nebraska. They were generally familiar with me as a high school student, at a Jesuit prep school in Omaha. And I was happy to see some of them. I recognize their names and their brothers or sisters, and it was sort of a fun, familiar experience to reacquaint with people like that, and they invited me back and I had a very nice couple of summers with them. I lived with my parents, and I was in the literal process of reintegrating myself to American life at that point.
RS: So that brings us to your book. When did you feel it was the right time to revisit your war experiences, and why did you choose a novel instead of a nonfiction account?
RS: Chance encounter. A lawyer at the law firm where I worked, a senior lawyer — he was very sociable, because he was semi-retired, and he had the luxury of not being on the billable hour. He had the luxury of being sociable. He invited me to his house for a fundraiser for the opera company in Omaha. At the end of the evening, two people came forward in his parlor. One was a director for the opera company and another a woman who sang in the opera. And she sang "Danny Boy" and it was a cliche event I felt, but it was also powerfully moving. It was a beautiful song. And I was leaving the parlor, and she stopped me and we chatted. She explained that, in her view, the song was about a mother watching her son march off to war. And I told her I had been to war. And eventually she said something like, "Do you believe a soldier comes home from war?" And I did not have an answer and the question nagged at me, and it wasn't long after where I felt like I had a spark and I started writing.
RS: So the story picks up 10 years after the protagonist John Walker’s service, and some time after he went back to school, got married, had a child. It's obvious to me that you're trying to capture a point in the combat veterans’ post-war journey, like a specific point. It's not right after they get back, it's not many years in the future, reflecting back. Can you talk a bit about what point this is, and what you were trying to convey?
Waters: Transition. That was the word I heard all the time in the Marine Corps toward the end of my time, the transition. When you come home from deployment, you receive warrior transition training. Life moves so fast in this country, it's like you have to be catching these transitions or you're like falling behind, or you're not continuing to move forward or make progress when you want to. And when I got out of the military, it was preparation for transition, and then it was in the transition and guys are chiming in on social media, “hey, how's the transition?" And I felt like I was in a very non-literal transition. I followed the steps. And yet I was having a serious like, emotional experience that was beyond anything one can prescribe for or delineate or instruct. I knew that was a very rich place to be in for story. And so yes, I wanted to capture that time.
RS: Given the age and place and time in his career and life, John is clearly ripe for a midlife crisis. How much of the book is about midlife crisis and about that military transition not working out very well? Why is that transition for John not working out very well, even though it seems as though he made all the right steps after he returned?
Waters: I think your identity changes slower than time moves. And a person coming from the military is a prime example. His language, his style, his self image, his persona are all very well honed by this very unique thing called the U.S. military for a purpose, a good purpose. When he leaves or she leaves that doesn't just disappear, you carry it around with you, inside, no one can see it. And the new people, they see only the outside which looks like them. And so you're at this disjuncture between who you are on the inside and who others think you are. To midlife crisis, I was reading this stuff nonstop in law school. I was picking up Philip Roth, John Cheever, John O'Hara, Jim Harrison, Jim Salter, Julian Barnes, Ian McEwan. I couldn't stop reading their stuff about the man with lofty ideas, about how his life should unfold and finding that those keep crashing into reality and making a mess.
RS: How much of John Walker's story is your story?
Waters: Less than one may think, but it's not a good answer. I would say to me, the highest point in the writing of this is a scene about the experience of an IED explosion. And I felt like I had realized as close as I could what I wanted in terms of doing something creative. I wrote that scene and I didn't experience that. I didn't have that combat experience of surviving an IED strike. I heard about it. I observed it and I imagined something. I didn't live through the events I write about.
RS: How old is your son?
Waters: He's seven. I dedicate the book to him.
RS: It sounds like you wouldn't discourage him from joining the military. Today, If he was 18 years old and said, "Dad, I want to enlist," would you blink an eye?
Waters: I would have an idea about where he should go and it would probably be different. It might be different than where I went. I would be proud of him. I would give him information. I would hope he makes his own decisions.
RS: Do you believe the military does as much as it can do — whether it be the transition that we talked about, or more serious issues like PTSD or other injuries — to support veterans?
Waters: I think the military is exceptional. Despite the challenges you've noted, exceptional at recruiting people, especially the Marine Corps. They're exceptional at training people, turning them into, in the Marine Corps’ case, warfighters. But you're not prepared to come home. There is no preparation for that. You're on your own.
Senator Lindsey Graham had two options walking into the Doha Forum in Qatar this weekend: find a way to triangulate his full-throated support for Netanyahu policies in Israel for the largely Palestinian-supportive Muslim audience Sunday, or wave his own flag without reservation. He went with the latter.
The South Carolina Republican made it clear he was no stranger to the region — he touted a long friendship with his host the Emir of Qatar and lauded the kingdom's role as international mediator and host to America's Fifth Fleet. But he didn't bat an eye to tell this audience — thousands of Muslims assembled from across the Gulf and the broader Middle East, plus attendees from Global South nations and Europe — that the U.S. veto of the ceasefire was one of the few things he thought the Biden Administration got right.
"President Biden ...You have risen to the occasion after October the seventh," he said, addressing the audience Sunday. "I have a world of difference with President Biden on many things. But when he vetoed the ceasefire resolution, he did the right thing and let me tell you why. Every ceasefire Hamas has ever entered has been broken and we're not going to do a ceasefire until hostages begin to be released like promised and would give the Israeli military the time and space they need to make sure that Hamas ceases to be a threat to Israel and the Palestinian people."
"So as a Republican, I am standing behind President Biden's decision, that resolution and the one that comes next."
He also said the only way there will be peace in the Middle East and to get the real culprit — Iran — and to start building a state for Palestine, was for the normalization process between Arab States and Israel to continue, with the Israel-Saudi deal the icing on the cake.
"I pledge in front of the world to help President Biden secure the votes in the United States Senate to make it possible for Saudi Arabia to have a defense agreement with us, which would then make it possible for Saudi Arabia, to recognize Israel," he declared. "Before the world I pledge my support, to help reconstruct a new Palestine but none of this is possible until you have a less corrupt younger Palestinian Authority, replacing the one we have. And a Hamas can no longer wreak havoc on Israel, on their own people.”
That potential U.S.-brokered Israel-Saudi deal have been deemed all but dead after the Oct. 7 attacks in Israel. Graham contended that aside from hating Jews, Hamas launched the attacks to kill any hope for that deal to go forward. Observers have come to similar conclusions — that the so-called Abraham Accords had left the Palestinians on the cutting room floor, inciting anger among the militant elements in Gaza. But unlike Graham, these critics' hold that the agreements are the problem — that regional leaders' shouldn't have allowed Israel to shunt the peace process to the side in the first place.
Not only did Graham ignore this fatal flaw of the agreements, he reveled in his own blind spots, choosing to ignore any culpability of the Netanyahu government over the decades leading to the violence and what appears today, an endless bombardment and on-the-ground military operation in Gaza with chances for further talks between the two sides dwindling by the hour. Instead, he appeared to blame Iran for everything.
"The biggest fear of the Ayatollah is that the Arab world, in conjunction with Israel, marches toward the light away from the darkness. (Iran hates) the idea that everybody in this room can find a way to work with Israel and live with Israel where everybody makes money and can live in peace. Because let me tell you, their agenda is different than yours. So I believe we cannot let Iran win."
He said he was committed to a two-state solution, and if there was any moment in his talk where he put any responsibility on Israel it was this: "I'm going to Israel soon and here's what I'm telling Israeli friends — Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, none of these Arab countries can help you. Unless you make a commitment for a two state solution. ...To my friends in Israel the best thing you can do to beat Iran is to give the Palestinians a life where they're not dependent upon terrorist organizations that they can live and work and be prosperous."
How Israelis could get there, from here, was not explained by Lindsey Graham, or whether he honestly thought that was possible given the "hell on earth" Gaza is becoming today. But we know he doesn't believe that the civilian crisis on the ground now will reduce the chances for peace tomorrow, because of the way he reacted to U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin's remarks earlier this month.
Austin said “the lesson is that you can only win in urban warfare by protecting civilians. In this kind of a fight, the center of gravity is the civilian population. And if you drive them into the arms of the enemy, you replace a tactical victory with a strategic defeat.”
“Strategic defeat would be inflaming the Palestinians? They’re already inflamed,” Graham continued. “They’re taught from the time they’re born to hate the Jews and to kill them. They’re taught math: If you have 10 Jews and kill six, how many would you have left?”
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In half a century of public life, U.S. President Joe Biden has demonstrated unwavering support for Israel. In this photo Biden is welcomed by Israeli Prime Minster Benjamin Netanyahu, as he visits Israel amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas, in Tel Aviv, Israel, October 18, 2023. REUTERS/Evelyn Hockstein/File Photo
Of all the foreign policy challenges President Joe Biden faces, most difficult is the war in Gaza. That is not because of the apparent geopolitical stakes; as Biden often says, China poses the most important long-term challenge and Russia is next. But while important, what happens between Israel and the Palestinians, as well as elsewhere in the Middle East, has not been in the same league.
Yet because of the war in Gaza, with its linkage to overall Israeli-Palestinian relations and risks of escalation to other parts of the region, there may soon be an explosion dwarfing all other concerns facing Biden and his team.
There is also another important reason that the war in Gaza now occupies center stage for the Biden administration: America’s attitudes towards and relations with Israel. Since Israel’s creation in the wake of World War II, most Americans have considered U.S. ties with the Jewish state as special, both because of its founding as a democracy committed to values similar to America’s and a shared perspective of “never again” stemming from the Holocaust. Even when Israel has fallen short, as for many years in its treatment of Palestinians, most Americans have given Israel the benefit of the doubt. Except on a handful of occasions, Washington consistently “has had Israel’s back” in Middle East crises and conflicts.
For both interests and values reasons, therefore, it was natural that immediately following the horrendous October 7 Hamas assault on southern Israel, in which some 1,200 people were killed and 240 more taken hostage, Biden declared total support for Israel’s military retaliation. His position was initially supported by most Americans, largely on a bipartisan basis.
But then the toll of destruction in Gaza mounted — as of this past week, more than 16,000 Palestinians have been killed, at least 40,000 more wounded, and more than 85 percent of the Strip’s population of more than two million has been rendered homeless with no safe place to go. All of this has been vividly displayed on U.S. television and cable media. Thus, the Biden administration began to rethink its hands-off support for Israel’s military campaign — but only with respect to its tactics, not its overall policy of destroying Hamas.
Washington worked through intermediaries, principally Qatar, to obtain a ”pause” in the Gaza fighting in order to get Hamas to release some hostages and increase the flow of humanitarian assistance from Egypt into Gaza. Following the end of the pause, however, U.S. appeals to Israel have been limited to try to minimize civilian casualties in Gaza, or, as Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it, "taking more effective steps to protect the lives of civilians.” But so long as Israel continues to pursue the extirpation of Hamas, significantly limiting civilian casualties is impossible, as the Biden team must recognize. Notably, the world sees that Israel’s Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has essentially rebuffed Biden, which impacts on U.S. credibility elsewhere, especially since the United States is universally seen as Israel’s sole patron. Certainly, America’s reputation for promoting humanitarian concerns has been severely damaged.
Both factors argue for the president to press Israel immediately to declare a cease-fire, not just a temporary “pause,” but one designed to end the war. Indeed, if we are to believe Israel’s own estimates, Hamas’s military capacities have already been heavily degraded, and the possibility of it again being able to mount a serious attack on Israel is low.
The gravity of risks in the Levant and potentially throughout the region means that the United States (and others) cannot once again return to indifference when this war ends. Biden has shown he is aware of this, and has recommitted himself to pursuing the so-called “two-state solution.” For years, however, it has been largely a mantra; and while it is the best outcome, its prospects are now even more remote given renewed Israeli fears provoked by the October 7 attack and its attendant atrocities, as well as increased Palestinian bitterness over the massive destruction and loss of life in Gaza.
Yet time is not on the side of “orderly diplomacy” that for a half-century has been the usual course. There is already a major risk of a new intifada on the West Bank, as most Palestinians have lost any hope of Israel’s willingness to recognize their basic human rights, much less permit a Palestinian state. They also see that Israel will not stop West Bank settlers from displacing and even murdering Palestinian civilians. The Palestinians also cannot count on support from Arab states. No Arab leader really cares for the Palestinians and none has even called into question their existing treaties with Israel or the so-called Abraham Accords.
Nor is it conceivable that, to do the necessary diplomatic work, the U.N. or countries other than the U.S. can lead or have any chance of success. Nothing will be possible unless Washington takes charge and makes clear to Israel that, as the occupying power, it must change its policies and practices toward the Palestinians.
On December 6 , U.N. Secretary General Antonio Guterres reiterated his “appeal for a humanitarian ceasefire to be declared.” In the U.N. Security Council Friday, the United States vetoed the resolution and was joined only by Britain’s abstention. The Biden administration thus tied itself even more to Israel’s slaughter in Gaza, carried out in major part with U.S.-supplied bombs. The veto further cheapened U.S. political and moral standing and made it harder for Biden to be seen as credible as a diplomatic leader once the war ends.
Until October 7, President Biden and his team gave Israel-Palestinian relations short shrift. So far, everyone has been lucky that the crisis has not spread across the region, with the possibility of wider war. Even so, Israel and Hezbollah have come to blows; Yemen has taken some pot-shots; and while Iran has been careful not to get directly involved, its proxies in Iraq and Syria have been engaged in some incidents.
But luck is not a policy. The president must know that the Israeli-Palestinian crisis can’t again be pushed aside when this war ends. He needs to rebuild trust in the United States for strategic competence and then as an honest broker. He needs to show that the United States will place its own interests first, not anyone else’s. He needs to augment his foreign policy inner circle with outside experts in strategy and regional dynamics, but free from biases. And he needs to be prepared to run risks in American domestic politics.
It's a difficult agenda, but nothing less will enable President Biden to protect and promote U.S. strategic, political, and moral interests.
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Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov speaks at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar on Dec. 10. (Vlahos)
DOHA, QATAR — In remarks Sunday at the 21st Doha Forum in Qatar, Russian foreign minister Sergey Lavrov seemed to revel in what is becoming a groundswell of international frustration with the United States over its policies in Israel. Despite Russia’s own near-isolated status after its 2022 invasion of Ukraine, Lavrov glibly characterized the U.S. as on the wrong side of history, the leader of the dying world order, and the purveyor of its own brand of “cancel culture.”
“I think everybody understands that this (Gaza war) did not happen in a vacuum that there were decades of unfulfilled promises that the Palestinians would get their own state,” and years of political and security hostilities that exploded on Oct. 7, he charged. “This is about the cancel culture, whatever you don’t like about events that led to the current situation you cancel. Everything that came before February 2022, including the bloody coup (in Ukraine) and the unconstitutional change of power … all this was canceled. The only thing that remains is that Russia invaded Ukraine.”
Lavrov, beamed in from Russia to the international audience in Doha, went fairly unchallenged, though his interviewer James Bays, diplomatic editor at Al Jazeera, attempted to corner him on accusations stemming from Russia’s own bloody record in Chechnya in the 1990s and and 2000s and its ongoing military campaign in Syria, which Lavrov noted was at the “behest” of the Syrian government.
On the issue of the failed ceasefire vote at the UN Security Council, of which Russia is a permanent veto member, Lavrov said, “we strongly condemn the terrorist attack against Israel. At the same time we do not think it is acceptable to use this (terrorist) event for collective punishment of millions of Palestinian people.” Did he condemn the United States for vetoing the ceasefire measure? “It’s up to the regional countries and the other countries of the world to judge,” he declared.
When asked if there was a “stalemate” in the Russian war in Ukraine, and what the Russians may have gained from their invasion in 2022, he said simply, “it’s up to the Ukrainians to understand how deep a hole they are in and where the Americans have put them.”
On whether a ceasefire may be in the offing in that war Lavrov said, “a year and half ago (Zelensky) signed a decree prohibiting any negotiations with the Putin government. They had the chance in March and April 2022, very soon after the beginning of the special military operation, where in Istanbul the negotiators reached a deal with neutrality for Ukraine, no NATO, and security guarantees…it was canceled,” he added, because the Americans and Brits wanted to “exhaust (Ukrainians) more.”
Lavrov gleefully piggybacked on themes from an earlier forum panel on the Global South. He accused “the United States and its allies” of building “the model of globalization, which they thought would serve them well.” But now, Lavrov contends, the unaligned are using “the principles and instruments of globalization to beat the West on their own terms.” As for Russia, Lavrov deployed a little “cancel culture” of his own, cherry picking the high points of his country's history over the last 200 years to project a nation that he boasts will emerge unscathed by Western assaults today.
“In the beginning of the 19th century Napoleon (rose European armies) against Russia and we defeated him; in the 20th century Hitler did the same. We defeated him and became stronger after that as well,” he said. With the Ukraine war, the West will find “that Russia has already become much stronger than it was before this.”