In 1994, I was stationed near the city of Wurzburg Germany, but was sent on temporary duty to the beautiful Mediterranean island of Cyprus. As mentioned in earlier posts, I was part of the Eagle Flight Detachment, made up of twenty aircrew members who supported the U.S. State Department with the Beirut Air Bridge.
The three-month rotation was a fantastic experience. Since I didn’t have family obligations in Germany, like some of my colleagues, I volunteered to stay a total of 11 months. We lived in modest accommodations at Royal Air Force Base Akrotiri, and developed many life-long friendships with our counterparts in the British forces.
We were provided with two Mazda 626 sedans and a van for our daily transportation needs. Fortunately, the commander allowed us to use the vehicles for off-duty activities, which often included exploring the island. The mission was challenging, adventurous and dangerous; a nice match for young American soldiers hoping to make a contribution to the nation.
The added benefit of assignment to the detachment was the fantastic lifestyle on the island. We were a small unit of soldiers, so the culture was significantly more relaxed and autonomous than in a traditional Army unit. To maintain a low profile consistent with diplomatic work, uniforms were only required on flight missions, and the grooming standards were eased a bit to blend in with the local population.
Since night missions required the appropriate crew rest, we did not have to participate in the normal Army physical training at the crack of dawn. We were free to exercise on our own, which provided an amazing opportunity to cross-train using beach runs, cycling, the RAF gym, and other interesting activities. We were self-motivated soldiers, so the commander never had a problem with us maintaining fitness standards.
Our living facility included a decent kitchen, for those who preferred to prepare their own meals, or we could eat at the RAF Officer or Enlisted clubs, local restaurants or get take-out.
We were the proverbial night owls. We worked at night, slept in the mornings, and socialized and exercised in the late afternoon. On the nights that we did not have a flight mission, we were free to take in the local nightlife, and the fun-loving group of young aviators never passed on those opportunities.
The extraordinary range of Cyprus’ beauty spans from the clear blue water at the white-sandy beaches, along the rugged cliff coasts, to the nearby Troodos mountains, a scenic range which surprisingly hosts four (snow) ski resorts. The climate was warm, sunny, and consistent throughout the year.
The local Cypriot people, of Greek descent on the southern part of the island (since the 1974 Civil War), were incredibly friendly, gracious and willing to share their culture. When we utilized our diplomatic privileges and drove across the border into the Northern Republic of Cyprus, the beaches, casinos and people (of Turkish descent) were equally as beautiful and welcoming.
The island is a tourist destination and “gateway” between Europe and the Middle East, therefore the lifestyle on this tiny island is unique because of the opportunity to socialize with people from the Middle East, Africa, Eastern and Western Europe. It was a true melting pot of different people, arriving in a festive mood with the intent to enjoy their time in this Mediterranean paradise.
One evening, I was at a social event in the coastal city of Limmasol, and I struck up an interesting conversation with a beautiful woman from the Middle East. She was thoughtful, intelligent and well educated, and told me she lived in London but was just visiting the island of Cyprus. I asked where she was from, and she gave a short but complicated answer.
Hmmm. As the conversation continued, my mind raced to fix “Palestine” on the maps that I had studied and used during our flight missions.
“I know the Middle East, and that place is not on the maps!”, I thought to myself.
My brain recalled some superficial knowledge of the Palestinian Liberation Organization “PLO”, and the biblical reference to Palestine, but nothing concrete to advance this conversation without exposing my ignorance of her culture and history. I felt a bit embarrassed, although I am not sure that she realized it, because the conversation continued on.
The next day, I went over to the airbase library to learn about Palestine. Remember: Public search engines like Google, easily accessed on today’s Smartphones, were not available at the time. If so, I would have excused myself to the bathroom in the middle of the conversation and quickly studied-up! The librarian directed me to the classic book by the New York Times journalist Tom Friedman titled “From Beirut To Jerusalem”, and I consumed it in a matter of days.
I was absolutely intrigued with the history of the region and it’s belligerent parties. I had been operating in the area without a true understanding of the age-old conflict. The history was so vast, complex and ancient, that I decided to read another book on the subject…then another. I tried to read contrarian perspectives on the same history. With a subject as contentious as Middle Eastern history, there was not a shortage of informed, yet vastly different viewpoints. With an understanding of the region’s historical context as a foundation, I now understood quite a bit about her background and geo-political views embedded in her short answer of “Palestine”.
Up until that point in my life, age 28, I read mandatory material such as school assignments and military training manuals, and could effortlessly recite the knowledge. For the consumption of news, entertainment and self-development, I read newspapers, sports magazines, and autobiographies of successful people.
However, most of my reading was for the purpose of learning the common rules and attributes of successful people, and not to gain different perspectives on complex issues. Of course, studying the stories and lessons of successful people are extremely important in the pursuit of personal achievement and team building. (Who Are The Knights At Your Roundtable?), but not the basis for understanding the larger world, and how history may shape the future.
So, “I learned how to read” for nuance, perspective and historical depth, at the age of 28.
I started sharing the history with my fellow soldiers, and before I knew it, our commanding officer had asked me to develop an educational briefing for all incoming crew members so that they would have a historical understanding of the region’s conflicts. The briefing audience expanded over time to all visiting personnel and dignitaries. Before I knew it, it was a full fledged “dog and pony” show.
I learned some valuable lessons from this episode…
Smart and beautiful women are the reason that men have evolved from cave-man status! Just kidding, so please, no hate mail.
The point is that we experience pivotal moments in life when the intrigue (or embarrassment) of a human interaction prompts us to take follow-up action. However, at this fork in the road, few people actually follow through, even though it often leads to new opportunities for personal growth.
If an apathetic person meets Bill Gates and they have a 15 minute conversation, who do you think will learn more from the interaction? Who should benefit more from the interaction?
So when you have these chance encounters with interesting people who trigger intellectual curiosity, go with your intuition and see where it takes you.
Studying history from various perspectives highlights the nuance and complexity of human life, and will teach you how to “walk a mile in another man’s shoes”. It is very convenient and digestible for us to boil down complex issues to a simple slogan, but effective leaders need to understand the larger perspective and historical context.
The observation of any political campaign is a good example of this concept: Very smart and savvy leaders, who understand the complexity, realize that the general voting public would rather not have to deal with the nuance, and would prefer to just hear the bumper sticker slogan! “Compassionate Conservative”, “Change”, “Make America Great Again”, “Better Together” etc.
This is an excellent political strategy that has proven to be effective in winning elections. However, it becomes difficult to govern when the complexity of the idea implementation rears its ugly head, and the constituents feel a sense of disappointment with the slow and complicated results compared to the campaign’s simple solutions.
If we want to create a better future society, with a greater understanding of humanity, we need to teach children to look at issues from different vantage points, instead of the simple ‘good versus bad’ story format.
History is usually taught to children in an “elementary” manner so that the outcome is favorable to the victor. The assumption is made that children will not be comfortable or able to grasp the complexity. I remember how clearly defined the line was drawn between good and evil throughout my childhood education in history.
“The Cowboys are the good guys, and the Native Americans are the bad guys, right?”
In reality, it is complicated, and it depends on your perspective based on the knowledge depth of human history. Instead, let’s teach them how think using multiple perspectives, and they will grow up to be more effective and thoughtful leaders.
Hopefully, they will learn how to read a bit earlier in life. After all, it took me until the ripe old age of twenty-eight before I learned how to read.