March 14, 2013

A native of Connecticut, Ted Janis MIA’13 spent five years in the U.S. Army after graduating from Wake Forest University in 2006. He served in the 101st Airborne Division and 75th Ranger Regiment, deploying twice to both Iraq and Afghanistan.

In 2007 and 2008, Janis led counter-insurgency operations in Owesat, a small town southwest of Baghdad. As part of a special operations team from 2009 to 2011, he and his platoon conducted night raids to capture and kill enemy combatants in Afghanistan. These missions, while controversial, were a key element in the U.S. strategy in that nation.

Now an International Security Policy concentrator at SIPA, Janis drew on his experience in Afghanistan in contributing a story to a recently published anthology of fiction by veterans, Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War. He spoke to Neha Tara Mehta of SIPA News about his time in the army and what led him to write about it.

How did this anthology come about?

The idea for the book came from a bunch of guys who met at NYU's veterans’ writing workshop a couple years ago. They were lamenting the fact that there was not much fiction about the wars available yet, and they thought an anthology — to collect a range of experiences and voices — was a good way to start.

I got involved in this project when I heard about the workshop through my college friend and fellow veteran Matt Gallagher, who wrote a memoir [Kaboom: Embracing the Suck in a Savage Little War] and who is getting his MFA in creative writing at Columbia now. It’s a great group of women and men; it’s an honor to be included.

Why a book of fiction, and not true stories?

In a way, you can tell truths in fiction that you can't with real stories. To quote Thornton Wilder, “Art is not only the desire to tell one's secret; it is the desire to tell it and hide it at the same time.”

I had been writing some fiction to pass time while on deployment, so was glad to find time to pursue it again while in New York. Fiction is a useful way to step back and look at the gray areas of these conflicts, where nothing is black or white. It highlights the human aspect of war. And it’s a lot more enjoyable to write than your standard military reports.

Tell us about your contribution to the anthology.

My story comes from my time in the 75th Ranger Regiment, and the narrator is based on one of my medics in the platoon. Although only 19 years old, he was an especially observant Ranger, and his perspective on things, from the war to politics to our fellow soldiers, was always thought-provoking. It takes place in the span of one night raid, and discusses the experience of serving in Special Operations in the mountains of Afghanistan, particularly after the killing of Bin Laden.

What are your most vivid memories of your time in the army?

Certain missions that either went really right or really wrong, playing sports with the guys, that moment when you step off a helicopter in a bad neighborhood, and the moment you step off the plane back from a deployment.

The night raids were certainly an interesting part of my time in the army, but honestly the aspect of my military career I think about the most was my first deployment to Iraq, before I was part of Special Operations. My unit was part of the “surge” in 2007 that coincided with the Anbar Awakening, when former insurgents switched allegiances and began working with the Iraqi government and the United States. My platoon was tasked with the classic counter-insurgency mission: we built a patrol base amongst the people, and spent a year working with the local sheikhs, trying to bring security, stability and development to the town.

I really wish I had gone to SIPA before that deployment. I ended up writing a paper on my lessons learned for Professor Jean-Marie Guéhenno’s class, because I realized the issues we had dealt with had been encountered before, and I wanted to address them after a semester’s worth of study on similar situations.

What’s it like to be at SIPA after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan?

Every time I wake up at 9 a.m., as opposed to 4:30 a.m., I thank my lucky stars I'm out. More significantly, the diversity of the student body both in nationality and experience is simply breathtaking.

In a combat zone, one tends to get bogged down in one’s own area of operations, and forgets the myriad other international actors that are doing good things all over the world. It has been fascinating to hear my classmates’ stories, and in turn to reflect on my own experiences and analyze what was done well and, more often, what was done poorly. I’m currently working on a capstone for UN DPA on the conflict in the Sahel under Professor Elisabeth Lindenmayer, and I see so many of the same issues that plagued our efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.

All that said, a day doesn’t go by that I don’t miss the men I served with. (This was before the integrated infantry, so forgive my gender bias.) They are exceptional Americans, also from all walks of life, and dedicated to serving their country. So I miss them, and the sense of purpose that the job bestowed.

Are you interested in writing more fiction or perhaps nonfiction in the future?

No plans yet. I’m sure a time will come when I’ll feel differently, but for now I miss the field. The type of job I hope to get probably won’t leave much time for attentive writing and editing, so I’ll just dabble when I can.

So what’s next?

After graduation, I hope to return to working in conflict areas, ideally with the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations or Political Affairs, or the U.S. Department of State. I want to be involved in conflict resolution, and use the lessons I’ve learned both in the army and at SIPA. These two years of reflection have been extremely useful, but it’s time to dive back in.

Fire and Forget: Short Stories from the Long War (Da Capo, $15.99), is available from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and independent bookstores. The television program CBS Sunday Morning has prepared a story that features Ted and other veterans; it is currently scheduled to air on on March 17 (subject to change).

— interview conducted by Neha Tara Mehta