For Lower Merion Grad, An ‘Obligation’ to Lead, in a 2d Decade of War
Adam Yaari starts Army Officer Candidate School Monday—because of his many opportunities in life, not despite them.
Let’s face it, said Adam Palmer Yaari, a 2003 graduate of Lower Merion High School, just the other day—people from the Main Line generally do not go into the military. At least not the stereotypical child of the Main Line, with its leafy private schools, high-achieving public schools, and dozen or so colleges and universities: places of privilege, security, the higher mind.
So when most of Yaari’s friends and family members told him with a laugh that he was out of his higher mind to join the U.S. Army (with his hopes of becoming an officer in the infantry, no less), or admonished him sternly that he’d be wasting the good fortune and opportunities that have been afforded him in this life, he was not surprised.
“That was the refrain I heard from everyone,” Yaari said. “There was just a small minority of people who didn’t say that, and honestly, that was more motivation to do it.”
At 26, Specialist Yaari this past week graduated from Army basic training in Fort Jackson, S.C. This weekend, his mother, Evelyn Yaari—a woman we got to know recently through her efforts on behalf of the Friends of the Barnes group in Merion—was driving him from there to his new post: Officer Candidate School, at Fort Benning, Georgia.
Adam Yaari calls himself pretty apolitical, which I can tell you from my military experience is rather typical. He also calls himself “a cynic.” And I can tell you from my experience in a profession rife with cynics—journalism—that he seems like the best kind of cynic: a well-informed one.
'I felt even more of an obligation because I have had just about every opportunity I could possibly have.'
“If people are sitting around and saying I’m crazy because I had other opportunities—that was proof to me that there is a problem,” Yaari said, speaking on his mother’s cell phone Saturday. “For me the only way to cure the dichotomy of working in ... finance, and work involving serving our country, was to do what I am doing.”
Yaari, by all appearances, is an outright catch for the Army. He graduated with honors in 2008 from Rutgers University with a degree in economics and a minor in Italian. He also speaks French and studied Arabic (first in college, then with a private tutor for several years), and read constantly about foreign affairs, history, military strategy, his Mom brags. He prepared physically for the Army while employed as an instructor for Platoon Fitness in Bryn Mawr.
“I just felt like it was the right thing to do,” Yaari said. “When the country is at war, men, especially men who are able-bodied, have the obligation to serve in the military. I felt even more of an obligation because I have had just about every opportunity I could possibly have.”
If the United States fights its wars with individuals who are forced to join the Armed Forces for socio-economic reasons, Yaari believes, “we’re gong to have a pretty divided country.”
That is, even more divided than it is already. Even within his class of recruits, social stratifications and economic concerns stood out very clearly, he said—too clearly for any uniform or standard haircut to hide. Once, while introducing themselves to each other, the recruits were asked why they joined. Yaari said he was the only one in the room to say he was there to serve his country. Everyone else joined for the money, or for the GI Bill. Solid reasons, but telling in their uniformity.
Then again, there could be other reasons at play, such as the matter of a full decade since 9/11. “All the guys in my platoon, it happened when they were in elementary school,” Yaari said. “For the guys who were 24, 25, 26, they were totally conscious of it. For me, that was the biggest news event of my life.”
“This momentous occasion of our country being attacked—I think we underestimated the impact, to be frank,” said Evelyn Yaari. “There was a message there, and he heard it.”
Still, her son gave no thought to the military in the aftermath of the attacks, during his junior year at Lower Merion, or in the years that followed. Rather, it was the very education and plethora of opportunities that Adam received in the years since that informed his decision.
In particular, he points to one book which galvanized much of what he had been reading and thinking about before he discovered it: “One Bullet Away: The Making of a Marine Officer,” by Nathaniel Fick, a veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan who, along with his unit, was the subject of the book and subsequent film “Generation Kill.”
The fact that Fick went to an elite prep school and then to Dartmouth resonated with Yaari. “He talks about the obligation that people of means have to serve in the military,” he said. “I think in this country, there are certain people who have the opportunity to do all sorts of things, and have lots of talents. And they know what the right thing to do is.”
So why the front lines, for a person with a big brain like him? Why not lend the military his intelligence instead of risking it all?
“The infantry is where the war is won and lost—somebody has to do that horrible job,” he responded. “And if somebody has to do it, I’d rather it be me than someone else.”
That’s the language of an officer, not a guy trying to make rank and gain its accompanying privileges. In the meantime, he’ll put in another 90 days of training, with the goal of graduating at the top of his class so he can go the route he wishes: straight to even more training, at infantry training school and then perhaps Ranger school.
In all, he’ll have up to a year of training, part of a three-year contract he signed with Uncle Sam. He passed the first test, a summer of boot camp in South Carolina. Don’t feel too sorry for him, he implied during our conversation. Yaari was disappointed with what he perceived to be a program that’s become too soft. “They baby all the soldiers,” making sure no one is too hot, for example.
“It was basically the polar opposite of ‘Full Metal Jacket’,” he said, referring to the Stanley Kubrick classic about a Marine Corps journalist’s experience of boot camp during the Vietnam War. “If the drill sergeants [today] talked to us like that, they would lose their job within days. They are not even supposed to curse.”
A Million Years
The second test begins Monday—10 years, one day, and many lives lost since 9/11.
“Our children take us on unexpected journeys of all kinds,” wrote Evelyn Yaari, when she first told me about her son. “My son is taking us on a journey as a U. S. Army family. ... I have to admit that this is not a path I could have imagined or chosen for Adam.
“After U.S. troops went to Afghanistan and Iraq, I put up an American flag on a pole on the front porch, vowing to leave it up until all the troops come home,” she wrote. “Never in a million years did I imagine it would still be there. And never in a million years did I imagine that my son would be inspired to join the military.”
She confesses to badgering her son about stressing to the Army his fluency in French and proficiency in other languages, including Italian. “Those skills, I think, would be very useful for a military attaché in Paris,” she joked.
“But then, that wouldn’t be Adam’s style.”