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 cant
answer them all," says the sociology professor. But check out his
voluminous clips file, and its hard to imagine hes missed
Described as the nations "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 journalisms 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 peoples 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
What he calls his "real fame" came, he says, with "Dont
Ask, Dont Tell," the phrase he coined and attached to the controversial
compromise policy he developed for the Clinton administration on gays
in the military. The militarys code of conduct prohibits homosexuality,
but according to the policy, which is still in effect, the government
cannot "ask" about an enlistees sexual preferences, and
homosexuals do not have to "tell" military superiors they are
"I always say about Dont Ask, Dont Tell what
Winston Churchill said about democracy: Its 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
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?" "Dont 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.
"Hes thinking down the road," says Moskos. "Most
Pentagon thinking is so narrow. All they consider is this years
recruitment because the Pentagon is run by quantitative economists. They
dont 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 dont ask
them about their country or dont 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 presidents AmeriCorps program.
Moskos also happens to be one of Northwesterns 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."
"Hes 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 McLuhans "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 lectures end the 625 students (the class is Northwesterns
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.
"Im 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)
"Its 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 Armys 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 days 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 masters 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
its just boring, and I was 40 miles away from the nearest Greek
restaurant, in downtown Detroit," says the professor. Also tempting
him was Northwesterns "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
"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 didnt
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 dont 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 doesnt 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! Youre out of uniform!" [The professors]
"pocket flaps were flapping all over the place and apparently
thats 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 Dont Ask, Dont 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, hell 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.
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