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Robert G. Moser, Chair BAT 2.116, Mailcode A1800, Austin, TX 78712 • 512-471-5121

Soldier, Writer, and Political Scientist

Johnny Meyer named 2010 Dean’s Distinguished Graduate

Posted: March 31, 2010

Johnny MeyerAmbitious, curious, energetic, friendly, funny, hard working, humble, inquisitive, intelligent, mature, personable, talented, thoughtful, and unassuming. These are some of the adjectives that have been used to describe Johnny Meyer, a Government honors student with a double major in English, and one of 12 students that College of Liberal Arts Dean Randy Diehl named a 2010 Dean’s Distinguished Graduate, a program established in 1980 to recognize graduating Liberal Arts students who have distinguished themselves in the areas of scholarship, leadership, and service to the college and university community.

More parsimoniously, Johnny Meyer is downright interesting.

September 11, 2001, Johnny Meyer was training with the 1st Unit, 82nd Airborne Division, U.S. Army. The 82nd enjoys a rich history; its soldiers were among the first to arrive in Normandy, June 5, 1944. September of that year, the 82nd undertook Operation Market Garden – an attempt to take and secure key Dutch bridges, and thereby provide a northern route into Germany and pave the way for war’s anticipated completion that Fall. Preparing to commemorate the operation, Meyer and his unit found themselves paddling in the middle of a waterway when they were called in and told a plane had hit the World Trade Center. Johnny was ready to be deployed. No such orders came. Dissatisfied, he volunteered for the 501st Airborne Infantry Regiment in Alaska and completed U.S. Army Ranger School, the Army’s premier infantry leadership and tactics program.

The oldest of six children, Johnny’s childhood found him in Dallas, New Orleans, and finally Kansas City, where his father is CEO of the American Red Cross Greater Kansas City Chapter. Family life had a certain impact on his coming of age – a sense of social responsibility and a belief in working with the system to effect change, for example. Other variables also entered the mix – for most people natural disaster meant a reprieve, albeit unwelcome, from work; but when catastrophe struck, Johnny’s dad was paid to roll up the sleeves. And then there were the summer road trips. Looking back he realizes the underbelly may have been whitewashed, but from the car window Johnny saw a beautiful country, one worth preserving and deserving of his pride. He remembers one trip to the Alamo and River Walk. Only after setting his sights on the University of Texas did he realize that trip was to San Antonio, not Austin.

In high school, Johnny was less than distinguished. He was bored, not especially happy, not doing so well academically, disengaged, directionless – a run of the mill American teenager. But, he decided to turn aspirations into action and join the military. In part it was an intellectual experiment – what was being in the military really like? In part it struck Johnny as a good alternative to what was adding up to an empty life. He desired, strongly, to be useful, to make a difference, to have a purpose, and the military seemed to him to be someplace he could gain the tools he needed to actually contribute to society. At the most basic level, parachutes and guns suited his adventurous side.

Regardless, his expectations were low. He did not expect to excel, and figured he would look back on the experience as a quirky experiment of young adulthood. It turned out he was good, really good, and he felt he was good at something for the first time in his life. With each day of training, Johnny realized he wanted it more than other people did, and that he was better than them, and he advanced, quickly, being promoted above his peers four times in under four years. By the time it was all over, he had led an infantry fire-team through continuous and sustained combat operations along the Afghan-Pakistani border without receiving casualties, was recognized for leading the best trained fire-team in the unit, and, in a non-combat role, leading a government capacity-building team, awarded a Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in Iraq.

At this point, readers are forgiven if they fail to predict the next notch in Meyer’s belt – a 2009 Roy Crane Award in the Arts, an award given to University of Texas at Austin students for unique, creative effort in the performing, literary, and visual arts. Johnny received the award in recognition of his novel, American Volunteers, which he subsequently adapted and produced as a play. The novel is based on his experience in war, an experience that began in October 2003 when he was flown into Kabul, where he remained for about one month, providing security for an Afghan training ground, before being deployed to patrol the Afghan-Pakistani border.

Following the deployment, Johnny was faced with a choice – go Special Forces and career military, or leave the service. January 1, 2005, his military service officially ended, and he began a road trip from Alaska to Austin in search of the non-existent River Walk, the “awesomeness” his Ranger buddy who had been ROTC in Austin assured him was waiting, and life without state income tax, but also, and mostly, the college degree he always knew he wanted, something the military’s educational divide between the officer corps and the infantry reinforced.

Ever learning on the fly, Meyer realized he did not yet have the credentials to be admitted to the big campus, so he enrolled at Austin Community College, which he attended for four-five semesters. ACC served Johnny well. The diverse student body allowed him to see the lay of the land – to imagine where he may have been if he never joined the military and to see where he might be headed if he did not continue pushing forward. Overall, the environment offered some flexibility as he reintegrated into civilian life, and his educational pursuits were fostered by helpful teachers who got their subject matter across efficiently and detailed quite well how success would be measured at the University. After a lackluster, lackadaisical high school career, Johnny earned a 4.0 at ACC and his application for transfer to UT-Austin was approved. It was a huge weight off his shoulders, and he was proud of his accomplishment.

It was also during his time at ACC that Johnny drafted the American Volunteers manuscript. While naturally reticent of things smacking of labels, Johnny concedes a therapeutic role for writing. Meyer is glad to have been in the military. Indeed, he says that if he had the opportunity to return to military conflict, the draw would be strong. Nevertheless, he was trained to kill, and he trained others to kill, and he survived in an environment where it was kill or be killed. Writing has been a means for Johnny to work through conflicts within his self, and to help ensure his experiences continue strengthening and bettering him and the society he seeks to improve, rather than the alternative.

It was somewhat to Johnny’s dismay that in September 2006, three weeks after enrolling at the University of Texas, he was called back to the Army. After his initial release he assumed he would be called back. With the passage of time and the power of his writing, his military experiences were becoming decidedly in the past, and he even thought he might be reaching a point where he didn’t think about it on a daily basis. Being called back was a bit defeating – trapped is the feeling he described, like he had walked through a new door but into the same room. Johnny kept his chin up and took the attitude that he had been through the experience before, he had gained some perspective on that experience, and he could use that to do his job better the second time around.

As it happened, his second experience would be vastly different. Meyer was promoted to staff sergeant and sent to Baghdad, where he joined a provisional reconstruction team and was put in charge of more than 50 local national workers. In short, the United States is trying to get a functioning government in Iraq. Local national workers are basically Iraqi lobbyists who operate throughout the country trying to establish a government responsive to citizen needs and demands. Johnny was made non-commissioned officer in charge of operations and returned to Austin in 2008 with a new perspective, one which pushed him to leave the College of Communications and set his sights on political science. Involved as he was in the day-to-day of trying to establish a working government in Iraq, the journalism Meyer once thought he wanted to do no longer seemed up to snuff. Finally at that place where he could make the kind of serious impact he wanted to, Johnny found great value in the political science literature he had access to, finding the political science he was reading matched better the reality on the ground than did anything he found in a newspaper. The newspaper was comparatively superficial and possibly inaccurate; the political science was deeper and applicable.

Meyer’s growing preference for political science went beyond the expediency of the moment. Journalism as a deadline-driven profession no longer appealed to him. He became acutely aware of his deliberative nature, and put off by the idea of having to publish without adequate time for reflection. In a related vein, objectivity as a core political science value really drew him in. His military experience made him ever conscious of the importance of being correct; or, perhaps more to the point, the consequences of being wrong. He came to find in political science a discipline with real tools and intent to reach objective and accurate conclusions, and, combined with his experiences seeing what can happen when such conclusions are applied, he had finally reached a point where the opportunity and ability to be a progressive influence in his world became reality.

Johnny Meyer has the makings of a phenomenal political scientist – a passion for objectivity and rigor, serious grounding and experience in real politics, and unique access to unique data. His honors thesis originated in the two classes he took with his supervisor, Robert Moser, an expert on electoral institutions. The future of Iraq is a question of whether rival groups can overcome a past of violent conflict and achieve a semblance of cooperation. Meyer seeks to answer whether elections can be designed in a way that makes this happen. Currently, Iraq operates with a proportional representation electoral system that seeks to give adequate representation to Iraq’s various groups and is designed to force formation of a cross-group national coalition. Looking specifically at the 2005 election, Meyer found that for the most part the institutions worked as hoped, but with a glaring and problematic exception.

Meyer believes a major problem in the 2005 election was the so-called compensatory seats. Delegates to the national government were selected through the aggregation of votes cast at the level of different regional districts. The division of the country into these regional districts is designed to force intra-group political competition within the region – that is, to institutionalize moderate, non-sectarian politics by forcing politicians to compete for votes within the same group. However, a certain number of seats – the compensatory seats – were reserved for votes based on a national aggregation, which provided an incentive for hardliner groups to mobilize along sectarian lines, at least initially. But Meyer insists on the malleability of identity and interests. In the Army, his inclination was that trying to establish a democracy in Iraq reeked of suicide and foolishness. Not anymore. Whether regime change and nation-building in Iraq is worth the high costs he accepts as a necessary and open question. But that it can be done he considers objectively accurate. Institutions, he says, can provide incentives that change behavior in predictable ways. He should know. He was there when the proper incentives induced people to stop shooting, even if only temporarily.

Prepared by Stuart Tendler*

*Cassy Dorff, another Government honors student, was also named a 2010 Dean's Distinguished Graduate. Cassy will have a column in the department's forthcoming newsletter.

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