Charles Moskos

photo by Kevin Weinstein



Charles Moskos, at right, in Somalia in 1993.



The San Diego Union-Tribune reporter wants to know: "Are American soldiers too soft for ground combat?"

Charles Moskos switches off the machine in his office where correspondents from coast to coast have recorded scores of big questions. "I can’t answer them all," says the sociology professor. But check out his voluminous clips file, and it’s hard to imagine he’s missed very many.

Described as the nation’s "most influential military sociologist" by the Wall Street Journal (where his byline occasionally appears over incisive op-ed pieces), Moskos has long been a stellar source for reporters from journalism’s big guns: the New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and more.

After Sept. 11 the number of journalists’ calls to his office spiked to "five or six a day," he says. The professor popped up in stories about recruitment (he thinks a half-million more troops are needed), flag-waving (which he cynically labels "make-believe patriotism"), a revival of the draft (which he favors) and national service, a burning issue for Moskos (see story on page 36).

With military information saturating the media, the expertise of this former GI, who loves to interview soldiers in the field, has become more important than ever to the press, the Pentagon and to politicians. (In his office are photos of him with Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter, Colin Powell and former Senate Armed Services Committee chair Sam Nunn, who calls him "a national asset.")

"He has a lot of facts at his fingertips," says Tom Ricks, military correspondent for the Washington Post. "He tells you flat out what he thinks and why and invites you to examine his evidence. And he is happy to point you toward people who strongly disagree with him."

Adds Bruce Clark, international security editor for the London-based newsweekly The Economist: "I respect Charlie hugely as a world authority on social issues and the military. He has an extraordinary ability to get under people’s skin and engage with them at a human level."

Moskos has been scrutinizing the military since 1956, when he was a draftee in the peacetime Army and wrote his first article, "Has the Army Killed Jim Crow?" for the Negro History Bulletin (the first of a "few hundred" he has written for scholarly and popular publications).

What he calls his "real fame" came, he says, with "Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell," the phrase he coined and attached to the controversial compromise policy he developed for the Clinton administration on gays in the military. The military’s code of conduct prohibits homosexuality, but according to the policy, which is still in effect, the government cannot "ask" about an enlistee’s sexual preferences, and homosexuals do not have to "tell" military superiors they are gay.

"I always say about ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell’ what Winston Churchill said about democracy: ‘It’s the worst system possible except for any other,’" says the sociologist. "When universities are willing to have freshman dorms with gay and straight roommates on a compulsory basis, then the Army can certainly integrate gays."

The phrase has even turned up in the James Bond movie The World Is Not Enough and in a Mad magazine parody of a "Beetle Bailey" cartoon in which Sarge comes on to Beetle, then asks him, "How was it?" "Don’t ask," answers Beetle. (The cartoon is on Moskos’ bathroom wall at home.) The catchy four words "will be my epitaph," he says.

"Despite the controversy of that policy, he remains respected by people on all sides of that issue," says John Allen Williams, political science professor at Loyola University of Chicago and a retired U.S. Naval Reserve captain. "His influence in the military is very high. I suspect several Pentagon officials have him on speed-dial."

In fact, military heavyweights such as Gen. James Jones, the U.S. Marine Corps commandant, and Gen. Gordon Sullivan, former U.S. Army chief of staff, do regularly seek his advice. Jones sought a personal interview with Moskos, which took place in November 2000, on how to attract "future leaders" to the military.

"He’s thinking down the road," says Moskos. "Most Pentagon thinking is so narrow. All they consider is this year’s recruitment because the Pentagon is run by quantitative economists. They don’t think about social implications 30 years down the road."

This winter Moskos completed a study for the Joint Chiefs of Staff on international military cooperation. Among his findings: European military officers he interviewed believe Americans to be insensitive and unsophisticated. "International officers are surprised that Americans don’t ask them about their country or don’t even know, perhaps, who their prime minister is," he reports.

A workaholic who writes every day and relaxes by watching movies (his favorite military film is Soldier in the Rain with Steve McQueen and Jackie Gleason), Moskos loves to nudge Washington politicians. A national service speech he made in 1988, applauded by then-Gov. Clinton, is considered to have been the genesis of the future president’s AmeriCorps program.

Moskos also happens to be one of Northwestern’s most popular professors. When a rumor flew in fall 2000 that his Introduction to Sociology course would no longer be offered, near panic set in at the departmental office. About 100 students phoned, desperate not to miss the course, according to a story in the Daily Northwestern headlined "Moskos Envy."

"He’s just so cool," says first-year student Beth Gianfrancisco at the end of a Moskos lecture last fall on the American character, in which he explored Marshall McLuhan’s "global village" concept and wrapped up by reading a Chicago Tribune article on "high-tech" sex. ("You never have to touch another person to experience its pleasures.") At the lecture’s end the 625 students (the class is Northwestern’s largest) closed their notebooks, laughing.

One student called Moskos "the Sociology God" in a course evaluation. Another labeled him "a legend." Most times Moskos looks more comfortably rumpled than godlike in his trademark suspenders and khaki pants fastened snugly under a belly that would probably not pass muster with a flat-abbed drill sergeant.

"I’m a short, fat, bald Greek," he says. He is also loaded with charm. He insists on being just plain "Charlie" — and certainly not Dr. Moskos. "I hate that term," he says. "A doctor is a physician."

Moskos’ parents were Greek immigrants, whom he doubts "ever read a book in their lifetimes." On the mantel at his home is a faded Western Union telegram, framed, that his father sent from Ellis Island in 1916 to his brothers, already in Chicago. In Moskos’ book Greek Americans: Struggle and Success (Transaction Publications, 2001) — "It’s my bestseller, bought only by Greek Americans," he jokes — he recalls that his father, christened Photios, adopted the name Charles after pulling it out of a hat full of "slips with appropriately American-sounding first names."

The first in his family to finish secondary school, Moskos attended Princeton University on tuition scholarship and waited tables to pay for room and board. He was drafted into the Army right after graduation in 1956. "One reason the draft was accepted in those days is that they were drafting from the top of the ladder, too," he says. In his Princeton class of 750, about 450 served in the armed forces, he recalls, adding, "Look who was in my class who served: Neil Rudenstine, who became president of Harvard, Pete DuPont, later governor of Delaware, and Johnny [R.W.] Apple [the New York Times reporter and editor]."

Moskos served with the Army’s combat engineers in Germany as a company clerk. He loved the camaraderie with the other enlisted men. "I remember in basic training at night when the lights would go out, people would regale each other with the day’s events, especially the black troops. I would laugh until the tears would come to my eyes. And the black leader would yell: ‘Moskos, you got that in your book?’ Because even then, there was the idea that I would be writing a book on the military."

Though he did have a black roommate at Princeton, the Army was his first experience rubbing elbows with a cross-section of African Americans. His book, All That We Can Be: Black Leadership and Racial Integration the Army Way (Basic Books, 1997), written with John Sibley Butler (G74) and endorsed by Colin Powell as "magnificent," suggests that integration in the Army is a good model for society in general.

"The issue," says the professor, "is not white racism, but black opportunity. The Army is the only place in American society where whites are routinely bossed around by blacks."

After leaving the military, he headed for the University of California, Los Angeles, where he earned his master’s and doctoral degrees and met his wife, Ilca. She recently retired as a foreign language teacher at a north suburban high school. They have two boys, Peter, a doctoral candidate in sociology at Harvard, and Andrew (WCAS89), who runs a successful comedy-theater called Boom Chicago in Amsterdam.

Moskos’ first teaching job was at the University of Michigan, but he was soon lured to Northwestern. "Ann Arbor is a fine town, but it’s just boring, and I was 40 miles away from the nearest Greek restaurant, in downtown Detroit," says the professor. Also tempting him was Northwestern’s "tradition in sociology of emphasizing field research, which means you talk to people. And I thought, gee, you can get paid to do this?"

Even as an undergraduate at Princeton, Moskos had read some articles on military sociology, but "most people had been writing about officers. What I really wanted to write about was the enlisted man."

"He sort of sees it as his mission to stick up for the little guy," says Laura Miller (G95), an assistant professor of sociology at UCLA who worked with Moskos on research trips to Somalia, Macedonia, Haiti, Germany and Bosnia.

"We passed out surveys, had discussion groups, interviewed people, lived among the troops and traveled with them in convoys" to get information on race, gays, peacekeeping roles and women, she says. "It was a real multimethod approach."

Moskos also traveled twice to Vietnam during the war ("I would stay behind a tree while the shooting was going on," he says) and to Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm. "I wrote memos to my hosts — five-, six-, seven-page memos — on how to make things better," he says. "They were usually well regarded by the higher command as an ‘out of the box’ report, that is, something they could not get from within their own channels."

In Panama Moskos stayed with the late Army Gen. Maxwell Thurman, who headed the U.S. invasion to oust Panamanian Gen. Manuel Noriega, and, of course, went on patrols to talk to troops. Although Moskos took notes on a number of military topics, he focused on Army women during his stay. He asked about everything from reasons for joining (one enlistee said she didn’t want to end up at home "marrying some jerk") to sexual harassment to combat roles and published his findings in a lengthy article that ran in The Atlantic magazine and generated a lot of publicity.

Currently, he says, "The feminists think men and women are interchangeable and want women in combat. The enlisted women are not for forbidding it, but they don’t want to be put into it themselves."

According to Paul Glastris (GS82), editor of the Washington Monthly, Moskos knows his subject inside and out because of his field research. "He doesn’t just read about the military but goes out in the field to places like Bosnia to interview troops and test his ideas.

"In this way, he acts very much like a reporter, which is why I suspect reporters like him. Get him in a room and he immediately starts asking whoever is around (a general or an office receptionist) questions about what they do, how they got to where they are, what they think about this and that. His curiosity is boundless."

Moskos also thrives on controversy, says Miller. One day in Somalia, she recalls, he was in Army fatigues when "this hard-charging male Hispanic [noncommissioned officer] who had been in Vietnam walks up to him and says, ‘Sir! You’re out of uniform!’" [The professor’s] "pocket flaps were flapping all over the place — and apparently that’s out of uniform."

Far from feeling chastened, Moskos "loved that — loved to have somebody come up and challenge him," says Miller. "Then he had this great conversation with the guy."

In 1997 the American Sociological Association at its annual convention presented Moskos with its first award for work "that addresses the general population and makes an impact on the real world," Miller recalls. "But because of ‘Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell,’ some of the gay and lesbian and sex and gender people organized a silent protest. After the ceremony he went out and talked to them and made friends with some of them even though they disagree with his position. He loves to engage in debate."

Moskos anticipates retirement and a move to Santa Monica, Calif., after the spring 2003 quarter at Northwestern — leaving a faculty gap that may once again cause pandemonium among students.

As for the professor, he’ll zero in on the notes he is constantly tucking into boxes that will eventually make their way into more articles and books. "I just wish I had more lives," he says, "because there are so many interesting things to study."

Anne Taubeneck is a freelance writer based in Wilmette, Ill.