In one of those strange coincidences that make the Army seem small, another former student was one of Dan’s lieutenants in Afghanistan. After Dan died, the lieutenant told me he came to understand more about leadership in a few months with Capt. Whitten than at any passage in his life. Dan had shared with me his observations on the lieutenant’s progress, and I could see the care he took with him. The specificity and humanity of his observations suggested the kind of attention he paid all the paratroopers he commanded. From past experience, I knew, too, the equanimity with which Dan greeted setbacks, as well as successes. That quality must have helped prepare his men for even this eventuality.
Dan balanced what all thoughtful officers must learn how to balance: in his words, “day to day business and improving the lives of [his] paratroopers” on the one hand, and on the other hand reflecting, in moments that allowed, “on the purpose, conduct, and endstate of this conflict.” In his last e-mail to me, he wrote of becoming “a little more restless,” as a man with an active, conscientious mind is apt to become when he finds himself in a foreign, hostile place—in what a Marine lieutenant I once met at Walter Reed called, while staring at what was left of his leg, “a sea of variability,” and tries to keep everyone else afloat and swimming.
Many soldiers, from Alexander the Great to Babur, the sixteenth-century Mughal emperor; from the British general Frederick Sleigh Roberts to those Soviet artillerymen who left their guns behind, have gone to war in the punishing terrain of Afghanistan. I returned recently to Babur’s memoir, the Baburnama, which I have read with cadets. Idiosyncratic and capable of great cruelty, Babur was also a keen observer of the landscape, customs, and peoples of Afghanistan, including the region in which Dan served. Babur had a remarkable capacity for endurance as well. Toward the end of 1506, he began a winter trek from Herat to Kabul. Following the advice of one of his counselors to take the northern route, Babur at one point found the snowy roads virtually impassable: “During those few days we endured much hardship and misery, more than I had experienced in my whole life,” he reports, here in Wheeler M. Thackston’s translation. Babur commemorated the journey in verse: “Is there any cruelty or misery the spheres can inflict I have not suffered?/Is there any pain or torment my wounded heart has not suffered?”
Stopping for a night at a cave too small to accommodate all his men, Babur found a shovel and dug himself a shelter by the mouth of the cave: “I dug down chest deep, and still I did not reach the ground, but it was a bit of shelter from the wind. There I sat down. Several people asked me to come inside, but I refused. I figured that to leave my people out in the snow and the storm, with me comfortable in a warm place, or to abandon all the people to hardship and misery, with me here asleep without a care, was neither manly nor comradely. Whatever hardship and difficulty there was, I would suffer it too.” And there Babur remained, “all huddled up” with frostbitten ears, until further inspection revealed that the cave was larger than it seemed. There, too, Dan would have remained; he just wouldn’t have felt the need to tell you about it afterward.
In his West Point yearbook entry, where most cadets include a paragraph, customarily penned by their friends, full of inside jokes, struggles, or triumphs, Dan offered only one cryptic line: “I will show you fear in a handful of dust.” It comes, of course, from T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land—from the poem’s first section, “The Burial of the Dead.” Dan was there before us.
Elizabeth D. Samet is a professor of English at the U.S. Military Academy and the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point. The opinions she expresses here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the Military Academy, the Department of the Army, or the Department of Defense.