By Sigurd Neubauer
“I always harbored literary pretension and admired Saul Bellow (1915-2005) and France Kafka (1883-1924); I was enthralled with their work,” explains Lyle Jeremy Rubin, the author of a newly released memoir of his tenure in the U.S. Marine Corps from 2006-2011.
Rubin’s memoir, Pain Is Weakness Leaving the Body (Bold Type Books, 2022), not only reflects his personal account of military service but it is also a stinging critique of what he sees as U.S. imperialism abroad. In many ways, his memoir reflects the zeitgeist as it is an intellectual critique of American exceptionalism.
Rubin’s memoir is important because it has been two decades since the 9/11 attacks on New York and Washington, D.C.. The U.S. has since withdrawn from Afghanistan but maintains troops in Iraq. The American public is also exhausted with war and the many entrenched conflicts in the broader Middle East.
The zeitgeist has evolved from the neoconservative consensus of the early 2000s championed by the Bush-Administration – which centered on large scale U.S. military operations abroad in the pursuit of Democracy Promotion – to one that is more introspective.
One can even argue that Rubin’s own transformation from supporting the Iraq war by entering the military in 2006 – shortly before then President George W. Bush dispatched additional troops to the country in 2007 – to leaving the Marines in 2011 during President Barack Obama’s tenure, represents the cultural change that America has undergone over the past two decades regarding foreign wars. In 2011, Obama also announced the U.S. withdrawal from Iraq, although that was later reversed.
A changing foreign policy debate
Meanwhile in Washington, the American foreign debate has also moved on from what during the 9/11 decade was popularly referred to as “The War on Terror” – to one that is presently focusing on the rise of China and how to counter it.
Within this context, the Biden-administration frequently describes its foreign policy objectives as defending democracy at home and abroad while at the same time pledging to preserve what Washington insiders refer to as “the liberal international order.” American support for Ukraine is framed in both terms.
But while the elite consensus in Washington has over the past two decades overwhelmingly supported the extensive military operations abroad, surprisingly little attention has been given to the fate of the men and women – who are often from humble origins – as they return home from war.
In his memoir, Rubin, to his credit, captures the stark class divide within the U.S. military, a topic we discuss in an interview with the author.
Meanwhile, within the Washington foreign policy debate, these men and women have too often become an afterthought as the ambitious – and socially mobile – policymaker is often consumed with framing the debate around “America’s role in the world” as part of advancing his own professional ambition.
The chattering class, as it is well known to those who have spent some time in Washington, offer opinions about what the U.S. government should do at any given moment in time through publishing op-eds, whitepapers, and appearing on television. Some also brief U.S. government officials and testify before Congress.
But irrespective of what the chattering class argues at any given time, America’s role in the world is changing, and Washington’s overall ability to influence every corner of the world, is coming to an end because the world is no longer unipolar.
At the same time, America’s cultural polarization at home has also ushered in a new and unmistakable consensus on both sides of the political spectrum: disgust with the status quo; suspicion of those who we disagree with; and a profound sense of national decline.
Rubin’s narrative as expressed in his memoir contradicts the conventional thinking among neoconservatives during the 9/11 decade.
Greatness, for Rubin, was always synonymous with strength; whether it was psychical, moral or intellectual
A man of the left
Rubin, a man of the left, is not only a brilliant writer whose funny anecdotes make his memoir delightful to read even if one disagrees with many of his premises about America, its history, and its role in the world.
For example, he details experiences ranging from his visit to a Nevada brothel to one in which a fellow Marine confuses the Quran with the Torah as the holy book of the Jews. What these two anecdotes also have in common is that they capture the stark and visible class divide in American life. Rubin, a son of doctors, comes from an upper middle class family.
But unlike other polemicists in present day America, Rubin did serve in Afghanistan as a Marine Corps officer during time of war. His insights are therefore invaluable.
Rubin’s “unbecoming” as a Marine, as he himself puts it, is a must read for anyone interested in understanding America’s transformation from a neoconservative-anchored worldview during the 9/11 decade to one that has become Woke.
It details how a politically conservative and well-connected college graduate – who was friendly with conservative intellectuals such as Dennis Prager and Jonah Goldberg – eventually came to reject his very own ideology while serving within the military.
Meanwhile, a recent poll from The Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Institute in Washington concludes that the public trust in the U.S. military is declining sharply. The poll is consistent with Americans losing trust in government and societal institutions as societal divisions widen.
His memoir also provides insight into these trends and to what an extent the perceived politicization of the military and polarization at home will impact the U.S. Defense Department’s ability to recruit and to retain talent.
In an interview with Rubin, we discuss his memoir and why Americans are loosing trust in the military, among other topics.
On what motivated Rubin to write his memoir, he explains that “at some point I though, I can do it,” a reference he’s making to his literary aspirations and admiration for Bellow and Kafka. Throughout his military service, Rubin took notes ferociously especially during his time in Afghanistan. By the time he honorably discharged from the Marines in 2011, he had compiled 150 pages of notes. “I always thought I could do something with it when I came back.”
But his notes had been tucked away until 2018 – when it became clear that the Trump-Administration – was about to leave Afghanistan, he recalls. Until then, Rubin had written mostly anti-war articles and completed his doctorate in history at the University of Rochester in New York.
In 2018, Rubin published an essay in N+1 magazine, which ended up receiving significant attention, including from The Guardian, he tells me.
“It took me to the tail end of the war [in Afghanistan] to feel comfortable about writing down my story as I had mixed feelings about it.” On why that is, Rubin explains that he felt “dirty” about his military experience and “guilty” about his part in the war.
“I often speak publicly about my military experiences, but when it comes to writing a book for which I am paid money – as I am ‘profiteering’ from the war – I experienced guilt,” he explains.
Of the many worthy themes Rubin explores in his memoir is masculinity, his relationship with his father, as well as his own personal and ideological transformations.
“Today, I have a very good relationship with my father. We have both come a long way, he’s a very different man than when I was a child,” Rubin says in reference to how his father is depicted in the book as a man struggling with anger management in what appears to be at the time a shaky marriage.
To be clear, Rubin’s father is not depicted in a negative manner in the memoir. Because struggles between fathers and sons are not uncommon, Rubin’s own struggles resonated with many of his own friends from the Marines, he explains.
“We had a fruitful discussion about the book and healing that came out of it. It was an important aspect about the overall masculinity that I write about,” Rubin says in reference to his father and the father-son dynamic. “A lot of people in the military reached out to me about their own struggles with their fathers.”
On the topic of masculinity and what it meant to a younger version of himself, Rubin explains that he was “very entranced in the idea of greatness” as a child and the “need to do well in life.”
Greatness, for Rubin, was always synonymous with strength; whether it was psychical, moral or intellectual.
He read Bellow, Philip Roth (1933-2018) and Jim Webb (1946-). Rubin considered each one of them to be models of manliness and admired them all. “I found their writings very appealing” but points out that while there are obvious differences between Bellow and Roth, he was particularly drawn to New York’s Jewish intellectual culture.
Rubin found, as he describes it, his mentors “aggressive intellectualism” to be “mesmerizing.”
For instance, when reading Webb’s novel, Fields of Fire, Rubin found “confidence and aggressiveness,” explaining that he “wanted to be like that.”
Prior to joining the Marines, Rubin read “everyone who was writing about the wars” [in Iraq and Afghanistan], including the “most eloquent and informed defenders of them” whom he identifies as Charles Krauthammer (1950-2018), Christopher Hitchens (1949-2011) and Max Boot (1969-), among others.
Rubin was interested in Jewish neoconservatism, “faintly neoconservative esthetics” and “militaristic ethos,” he adds.
But to absorb these qualities, including those exhibited by Webb, Rubin explains, they require what he calls “an object of aggression.”
This objective “requires some sort of violence and domination. It took me a while to see it, but I saw it in Afghanistan.”
Rubin is specifically referring to what he means by policing people, if not outright killing them. “It wasn’t until I was trained to do it that I recognized it in a heartful way.” This required “the other,” he explains.
“The ‘other’ is the group that you’re against.” In the military, they are “women and queer people.” This atmosphere, Rubin relays, “was homophobic, misogynist and Islamophobic. We, [the Americans] were civilized but the Muslims [of Afghanistan] were not.”
Rubin’s assessments are very much consistent with the zeitgeist. What America is and represents, and whether it is inclusive enough, is what much of the country’s public debate – in its present form – is all about.
Inequality in America is another topic that surfaces throughout his memoir.
“My military experience beyond thinking more critically about gender and masculinity is that it forced me to think about socio-economic issues as well. On the political left, one often hears about the ‘poverty draft’ and how the military can provide young people with a steady career,” Rubin says, but pauses:
“That’s all very true. But if one looks at the demographic of the military, it remains a majority middle class institution, even if it is mostly from lower middle class to middle class.”
Because of the hollowing out of the American middle class, “the military has become an increasingly appealing option to a big slice of American society,” he explains.
Historically, the military is a two-tier institution; officers and enlisted. Within the Marine Corps, 80 percent are enlisted, Rubin explains. “These divisions are amplified by education with the educated typically coming from the middle class who in turn are the officers.”
Increasingly, the poorer enlisting for military service are coming from inner cities and rural parts of America, but Rubin speculates that as suburbs are becoming increasingly diverse, “I wouldn’t be surprised if there are more recruitable people there.”
When I refer to the previously cited Reagan Institute poll, which Rubin hasn’t read, and what it means for the military, he’s unusually frank in his response:
“I am surprised that the trust in the military has been so high, but quips with a laugh: “To me, it is encouraging that people are becoming more critical of the civilian leadership.” To drive home his point, Rubin points to how President Donald Trump won Michigan and large parts of the Midwest in 2016 “because he was able to get a lot of military personnel from active-duty personnel to veterans to vote for him precisely because of his anti-war rhetoric. These people knew that America’s wars were not working, and Trump was the only one willing to talk about it.” Once in office, Trump, however, expanded the drone war and loosened overall the rules of engagement, especially in Yemen, Rubin relays.
We conclude our interview by discussing another topic central to his memoir: Judaism and Jewish identity.
“I wrestled a lot with my Jewish identity in the military, but came out as a much prouder Jew. During my time in the Marine Corps I was surrounded by people who didn’t know anything about Judaism, which forced me to think harder about what it means to be a Jew.”
During his service, Rubin ended up questioning the intellectualism that led him to the Marine Corps to begin with, but he also came to admire the Jewish tradition of Tikkun Olam, which is Hebrew for “fixing the world,” and the Talmudic tradition centering on debate.
“I am not an observant Jew,” Rubin says, but acknowledges that he’s tried to become one in the past but doesn’t rule it out sometime in the future. He’s particularly interested in the Jewish intellectual debate on what’s right and wrong. “Being away from this propelled me to appreciate it even more,” Rubin concludes.