It was between his junior and senior years at Princeton, in the summer of 2004 when the war in Iraq was not very old, that Graham Phillips ’13 decided to enlist in the U.S. Army. “A lot of people were debating the war and what was happening over there, and I got the idea that lots of them who didn’t know what they were talking about were sharing their opinions,” says Phillips, who graduated Princeton summa cum laude with a degree in history. “That got me thinking that if you really wanted to know what was going on over there, you had to be there.”
Phillips, who grew up in Sturbridge, Mass., says he chose to enlist, rather than to serve as an officer, because, “I don’t have any military background, I didn’t do ROTC, so I thought if I want to do this, I should start from the bottom.” His parents and friends were surprised but supportive. But his brother, who opposed the war, gave him some pushback, which Phillips respected. And he himself struggled with his decision to join the military. “My feeling was that my going or not going is not going to affect whether this war occurs,” he explains, “but maybe by going and doing my best, I can, in some small way, help it go reasonably well.”
Phillips did his basic training in the summer of 2005, in Fort Knox, Ken., an experience both better and worse than he imagined. “The drill sergeants aren’t screaming in your face every second,” he admits, “but I think you don’t realize and I didn’t realize how just having your basic freedoms taken away for 15 weeks is more unpleasant than you’d think. They’re not abusing you, but you have your whole life structure dictated to you; you have no say in what you do, and you’re in a rigidly hierarchical structure.”
Among the 150 men in his basic training company, fewer than five had any college experience, and the fact Phillips was a Princeton graduate “added this whole level of it being unusual,” he says, smiling. “My nickname was ‘The Professor.’” He was assigned to 2nd Stryker Cavalry Regiment in Fort Lewis, Wash., which after six months was sent to Germany, and from there, in August 2007, to Baghdad.
Phillips started off as a driver of a Stryker, a 20-ton armored personnel carrier that carries an infantry squad of eight soldiers to wherever they are going, and helps support them with communications and weapons. But he was quickly promoted to sergeant and became vehicle commander, directing the driver, running the navigation software, and communicating with the home base, with other Strykers, and with his own soldiers once they were on the ground. He was also in charge of the vehicle’s main weapon system, a 50-caliber machine gun linked to a pair of optic sites including a thermal site.
His platoon lucked out on timing: they arrived in Baghdad when the incidence of violence had begun to drop; the neighborhood they patrolled, which had been the heart of Sunni sectarian violence, was quite calm. “If we’d gotten there six months earlier, the nature of our tour would have been totally different – and far, far worse,” Phillips says. “That also meant, as is often the case — and people don’t expect this – it was really, really boring. You can’t imagine how boring it is. And that’s perfectly fine. There are worse things than boredom.”
The platoon served the second half of its 14-month deployment in Sadr City, a poor Shiite neighborhood that was much more dangerous for American soldiers; one day, insurgents fire rocket launchers over the walls of the army base and hit a police station, although no one was killed. “That was definitely the most frightening experience of the whole time there,” he says. Phillips was out nearly every day in the Stryker, supporting his platoon as they searched houses for weapons and contraband, and he earned an Army Commendation Medal and a Combat Action Badge for meritorious service.
Phillips and his men returned to Germany in October 2008, then to the U.S. a few months later. Around that time, he’d read Jane Mayer’s book, “The Dark Side,” his first significant exposure to the controversy surrounding the Bush White House’s “torture memos” and the attempts to justify the use of torture in war time, and then “Terror and Consent,” by Philip Bobbitt. “I really enjoyed both those books, which got me thinking about law in a way I’d never done before,” he recalls. Just as he’d hoped when he first enlisted, his experience in Iraq gave him invaluable perspective and first-hand knowledge. “Iraq is a place where there wasn’t a whole lot of respect for the rule of law,” he says. “People don’t trust police, and don’t trust if they have problem, the justice system will take care of them.”
Phillips decided to go to law school, and chose HLS because of its participation in the Yellow Ribbon Program, through which the Veteran’s Administration matches the amount a law school offers to pay for a veteran’s tuition and expenses. HLS is one of very few schools that makes the maximum commitment – 50 percent – which means, with the VA’s match, he attends for free. “That’s a great financial incentive, and it also speaks well of the school’s commitment to welcoming veterans. And that sense I got has definitely been corroborated by everything I have experienced here.”
Phillips is a member of the student-run Prison Legal Assistance Program (PLAP), through which he represents inmates in Massachusetts state prisons accused of disciplinary infractions or during parole hearings. But he doesn’t see himself ending up as a defense attorney; he’s interested in national security law, or a career in prosecution, perhaps as an assistant U.S. Attorney.