By Jason Kander
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A smart and revealing political memoir from a rising star of the Democratic Party.
The celebrated New York Times bestseller, now in paperback!
“In life and in politics, the most important work is often that which happens outside the wire.”
Going “outside the wire” — military lingo for leaving the safety of a base — has taught Jason Kander to take risks and make change rather than settling for the easy option. After you’ve volunteered to put your life on the line with and for your fellow Americans in Afghanistan, cynical politics and empty posturing back home just feel like an insult.
Kander understands that showing political courage really just means doing the right thing no matter what. He won a seat in the Missouri Legislature at age twenty-seven and then, at thirty-one, became the first millennial in the country elected to statewide office. An unapologetic progressive from the heartland, he rejected conventional political wisdom and stood up to the NRA in 2016 with a now-famous Senate campaign ad in which he argued for gun reform while assembling a rifle blindfolded.
That fearless commitment to service has placed him at the forefront of a new generation of American political leaders. In his final interview as President, Barack Obama pointed to Kander as the future of the Democratic Party.
“…do something rather than be something…”
In OUTSIDE THE WIRE, Jason Kander describes his journey from Midwestern suburban kid to soldier to politician and details what he’s learned along the way: lessons imparted by his dad on the baseball diamond, wisdom gained outside the wire in Kabul, and cautionary tales witnessed under the Missouri Capitol dome. Kander faced down petty tyrants in Jefferson City — no big deal after encountering real ones in Afghanistan. He put in 90,000 miles campaigning for statewide office in 2012 — no sweat compared to the thirty-seven miles between Bagram Air Base and Camp Eggers. When confronted with a choice between what’s easy and what’s right, he’s never hesitated.
OUTSIDE THE WIRE is a candid, practical guide for anyone thinking about public service and everyone wishing to make a difference. It’s a call to action, an entertaining meditation on the demands and rewards of civic engagement, and, ultimately, a hopeful vision for America’s future — all seen through the eyes of one of its most dedicated servants.
When you get ready to deploy, you go through a bunch of training. I did my convoy training during intelligence school with Humvees that weren’t armored, but we were told, you’ll have the real deal when you get over there. The idea that it would be different “over there” or “downrange” was a pretty common refrain from the trainers at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. So when I got to Afghanistan and was preparing for my first convoy to the camp where I would be stationed, I was picturing the vehicles you see in the movies and on TV. Big, armored trucks or Humvees under a machine gun manned by a badass-looking infantryman the size of a house.
After all the training and all the anticipation of being in a combat zone, I was feeling pretty tough in my “battle rattle”—body armor, Kevlar helmet, pistol on my hip. This is it, I thought, I’m finally going outside the wire. I didn’t even have a rifle yet, but I felt like GI Joe.
A marine captain introduced himself as the convoy commander and went over what we were to do if we were attacked and who was in charge if he was killed during the roughly one-hour trip from Bagram Air Base to Camp Eggers in Kabul. His rifle was hanging across his chest from a fancy sling and his load-bearing vest was packed with extra magazines of ammunition.
But while he was talking, I realized he was referring to the vehicles behind him, which were not at all what I had expected. “Over there” had become “over here,” but these were not armored Humvees with a big machine gun on top. In fact, they weren’t Humvees at all. Not even close.
I realized we were about to traverse the sometimes IED-ridden open roads of Afghanistan in unarmored Mitsubishi Pajeros.* I instantly felt a whole lot less tough. In fact, “tough” was now several country miles away from where I stood emotionally. This was, for the first time in my life, the raw physical fear of being killed.
I was sweating, my heart was pounding, and my feet felt heavy as I climbed into the Pajero’s gray cloth backseat. As the new guy, I was scrunched into the middle.
I was trying to play it cool and decided I could best pull it off by not speaking or making eye contact with anyone. The navy lieutenant next to me told me to take off my Kevlar helmet. I noticed I was the only one wearing it, so I took it off, but I apparently looked confused enough that another sailor—our driver—offered me an explanation about what happens when the bad guys can make out the helmet in a far-off silhouette.
“There’s no armor at all on this vehicle, so if we get blown up, we’re all going to die anyway.” She drew a pistol from her thigh holster, pulled back the slide, and put a round into the chamber. “If some Taliban asshole has his finger on an IED trigger, just waiting for us, it’s better if it takes an extra beat for him to spot a clown car of Americans.” She slid the pistol into a holster on the chest of her body armor before turning the ignition key and starting the little SUV.
The lieutenant next to me did the same with her pistol. “Basically, if you wear that thing,” she said, picking up where our driver had left off, “he can see a ‘bobblehead’ silhouette from a lot farther away, and we go boom.”
Another navy lieutenant—a guy in his late thirties—turned around to face me from the front passenger seat. “There’s no armor underneath us either, so some guys prefer to sit on their Kevlar. You know, just in case you survive and wanna have kids.” He turned back toward the front. “Up to you, dude.”
I noticed navy guy wasn’t sitting on his Kevlar, so I thought it best to go with the flow and just placed mine at my feet. Each of them had introduced themselves a few minutes prior, but my brain was too scattered to memorize any of the names yet.
I was too busy thinking, What the hell am I doing here?
I thought about how crazy everyone back home thought I was and, for the first time, wondered if they were right. I had left behind a well-paying job as a lawyer that included a very safe office with a nice view of the Kansas City skyline. Bagels and doughnuts were free in the conference room on Friday mornings. My wife, Diana, was probably asleep right now in our bed in our ranch house in KC’s quaint and historic Waldo neighborhood.
As we slowly crept along the dirt roads of Bagram Air Base toward the front gates, my fellow carpoolers were chatting it up like it was any other road trip.
“So where ya from?”
“How was your flight?”
“How’d you like the landing?”
“The colonel’s excited to have a fellow army guy inbound.”
“Ha! Yeah, he’s been surrounded by all us other branches lately.”
I hoped I was doing a passable job of pretending I was not the most afraid I’d ever been in my life.
When we passed through the front gates, our driver put her foot down and out we went into the wild beige yonder of a distinctly unfriendly-looking dust bowl of one-and two-story buildings. It was quiet for a couple of minutes as each occupant of the car eyeballed every passing pedestrian and motorist, performing multiple individual assessments per second.
Soon the buildings became farther apart and then tapered off completely, and all I could see in any direction was a sparsely inhabited desert landscape with mountains visible on the horizons to our left and right.
Like the moon with mountains, I thought to myself.
I asked what the potential IED plan was, meaning what we were supposed to do if we saw something that could be a possible bomb buried in the road. Everyone just laughed morbidly and then told me the roads in Afghanistan were so messed up that, unlike in training, we just had to speed up and drive past, hoping for the best. If we stopped to check out everything that looked suspicious, the trip would take forever, and we’d never get to Kabul.
I remember feeling pretty nauseous right about then, and as we bumped along for close to an hour, my mouth gradually became as dry as the landscape.
We entered Kabul through a big dusty traffic circle I recognized from pictures. The male navy lieutenant in the front seat casually mentioned that there had been “a whole bunch of suicide bombings” there in the last couple of weeks.
As we wove aggressively through Kabul’s crowded traffic, my physical fear had now been joined by a social fear, because I was becoming concerned about the very real possibility I might throw up on all my new coworkers.
Fortunately, we arrived safely and my breakfast stayed in my stomach.
In retrospect, the first of my many times outside the wire was entirely unremarkable. Yet it was still a formative experience in my life, because if you’ve been outside the wire—even once—your perspective is forever changed.
But let’s return to the question I’d asked myself just before rolling out the front gates: What the hell am I doing here?
Like a lot of veterans my age, my life is easily divided into two parts: before and after 9/11.
Life before 9/11 was pretty simple. My parents instilled in me a deep-rooted sense of duty and obligation through the power of their example. Mom and Dad first met while working together as juvenile probation officers in Kansas City, Kansas, where my dad also worked nights as a cop. I was four when they adopted Jeff, my younger brother; and years later they began taking in neighborhood boys whose families were struggling.
They never sat Jeff and me down at the kitchen table to have a “family meeting” about these decisions; they just made up another bed and added a place setting at the dinner table. So I grew up with a strong crew of what we referred to as “unofficial foster brothers” close to my own age, all of whom remain my friends.
We lived on the semirural western edge of Shawnee, Kansas, a suburb of Kansas City, Missouri, which was the big city my family had called home for four generations.
There’s nothing I would change about the way I grew up. Like anyone else, I experienced the regular childhood and teenage stress of figuring out where I fit in, tried my best to understand girls, and learned how much trouble I could get into* with a delicate cocktail of sarcasm and charm.
My best friends came home from school with me every night, and they were there in the morning when I woke up. Life was like a slumber party interrupted only by school and sports. My dad, who for most of my childhood owned and operated a private security company, even coached our baseball team. Baseball was at the center of everything, from my friend group to my daydreams.
I was already five foot ten by eighth grade, so I didn’t realize everyone else was about to catch up to me on the field. Two years and only one inch later, I realized I was a lot better at arguing than I was at baseball, so I focused on debate during the school year and made my summers all about baseball—knowing my “career” on the diamond wouldn’t extend into my college years.
By the fall of 2001, I was twenty years old and thought I had a pretty solid plan for the next few years of my life. I was in my final year of college at American University in Washington, DC, and my girlfriend, Diana, was in her senior year, too, but she was back home at the University of Missouri–Kansas City. We’d been a couple since our first date in high school—my senior prom—but we’d also been apart for all of college, and being together was at the top of our list.
I was excited about going to law school, marrying Diana, moving home to Kansas City, and practicing law. I figured I might eventually run for office, but I didn’t really know what that meant yet. Joining the military was something I talked about a fair amount, but it was in the “someday” category of my life.
I had always looked up to people, including my parents, who had served. I loved seeing my dad’s police uniform and badge, and, as a kid, I would stand in front of the mirror practicing my salute while wearing a uniform shirt from his security company. My great-grandfather and grandfather had served in World War I and World War II, respectively. Neither had a military “career” per se, but when war broke out they were of age, so they signed up, went off to war, did their duty, and then went back to their lives.
That simple, practical act of patriotism just made a lot of sense to me, the idea that you don’t have to already be a soldier to serve your country when it goes to war. Despite my admiration for those who had served, I’m not sure whether I was on a path to ever actually do it.
As a college student, I was insecure about the fact that I’d done nothing to prove myself. I knew the toughest foes I’d ever faced down were high school pitchers and college debaters. In e-mails home to Diana, I’d express self-doubt, posing questions such as “Is a man really a man if he’s never been tested?”
On the morning of Tuesday, September 11, 2001, I was in DC walking across American’s campus headed for a chemistry class when I overheard someone say a second plane had hit the towers. I stepped inside the student center, found a television, and watched as the anchor broke the news of a plane crashing into the Pentagon.
I was overcome with a single thought that rang in my head like a refrain: I have to do something.
The phone lines were down, so I headed to my apartment to fire off a few quick e-mails to reassure Diana and my family that I was safe.
My roommates and I climbed into my pickup truck and drove down near the Capitol because we had heard that they needed people to give blood. The streets were empty, and for a kid who grew up in Shawnee and thought DC was the busiest city in the world, it was completely surreal.
We found our destination and realized one of the reasons the streets were clear was that a lot of people had the same idea as we did. I don’t know how long we stood in that blood-donation line, but it felt like a couple of hours at least. After all that time speculating among ourselves about what was happening—this was before everyone had Twitter in the palm of their hands—a nurse came out and told us they couldn’t take any more blood.
“Thanks for waiting for so long,” she said. “I hope you can find some other way to help.”
My burning sense of obligation to “do something” grew even greater. I decided right then and there that I would join the military. I had no idea what that meant yet, but I was determined to see it through.
When I got back to my apartment, each of my family members had replied to my e-mails. Just like the e-mails a lot of Americans exchanged that day, they were mostly just letting me know they loved me. One of my “foster” brothers, Justin, who now lived in Denver, ended his e-mail, “I’m sure you’re going to join the military, but PLEASE DO NOT JOIN TODAY!!!”
That night, when the phones started working again, I told Diana that we had been turned away at the blood bank and I had decided to join the military. Her response was immanently practical: “Can’t you just go back and see if they can take blood tomorrow?”
The next morning, I went running for the first time in years. I timed my run to see where it stacked up against the military fitness standards, and so began a five-year sprint that had led me all the way into the front gates of Camp Eggers in Kabul.
Over the coming months, I would spend time outside the wire about four days a week, sometimes on convoys to Bagram Air Base and back. After a while, I even graduated to the occasional role of convoy commander.
The convoys came to feel pretty normal to me. It was still scary, but not “What am I doing here?” scary. Just extra-alert, slightly-elevated-adrenaline scary. Sometimes it felt so routine that I’d have to make conversation with the driver just to avoid nodding off.
One such convoy to Bagram near the end of my tour stands out. It was basically the same trip I had taken to Camp Eggers a few months before. Just like with my first convoy, I was standing there in my battle rattle, pistol on my hip, but a lot had changed.
Unlike before, I had a rifle slung over my shoulder, a few months of dust on my boots, and I was now the convoy commander. I stood in front of a small gaggle of soldiers, all of whom had either just arrived or just returned to Afghanistan from midtour leave. Same little unarmored Mitsubishi Pajeros awaiting us, but this time I had my back to them, because I was facing the group that was about to ride down to Camp Eggers.
I explained what to do if we were attacked or if there was an IED, and I let it be known who would be in charge if I got killed. I asked for a show of hands to identify the certified combat lifesavers and made sure to divide them equally into separate vehicles. I was wrapping up the convoy brief when I saw a kid who didn’t look like he needed to shave more than twice a week staring back at me on what was obviously—judging by the tension on his face—his first or second day in Afghanistan. His uniform looked brand-new, and he was wearing his Kevlar helmet and even had the shoulder plates on his body armor. His eyes were wide and his face was turning a light shade of green.
I was thinking, So that’s what I looked like on my first day? Damn.
I locked and loaded my rifle, pulled my pistol from my hip holster, chambered a round, and slid it into the holster on my vest so that I could reach it while seated if necessary, and climbed into the front passenger seat of the lead vehicle.
I watched the green-faced kid to see what he’d do—whether he’d get in the SUV. He was looking down at the ground with his hands on his hips. He had likely figured out that nobody would say anything if he just let himself get sick and got on the schedule for some other convoy. He could put it off and hope for armored vehicles or even ask around about a helicopter ride to Kabul.
He lifted his head, took a deep breath, slugged down some water, and climbed into the SUV in a seat right behind me.
As we rolled through the front gate for his first trip outside the wire, all I could think was, Man, I hope this kid doesn’t puke on me.
I think about that kid a lot. I think about his path to that moment, how he volunteered to sign up after 9/11, knowing he’d probably end up in a place like Afghanistan, in that seat behind me on his way outside the wire. And in that moment, he chose to put the job first and get in the Pajero.
A few minutes earlier—as he stood there composing himself—he knew the right thing to do and he knew the easy thing to do. That kid chose to do the right thing, even though it wasn’t easy.
I never got his name and I never saw him again after that day, but as a politician, every time I face a hard choice on a tough or unpopular issue, I imagine trying to convince that kid what I’m doing now is scary or difficult. I’ve never been able to picture him buying that argument.
I think of him as exactly what we need more of in American politics—people who are willing to get in the SUV because they know it’s more important than it is scary.
I think all the time about so many of the people I served with in the army, and I don’t mean “They’re in my thoughts,” or some other trite throwaway line politicians use about veterans. I mean I think about them as if they’re still next to me, judging my decisions, sizing up my moral courage.
Politicians are inundated with feedback that encourages self-importance and rewards self-preservation, so it helps to keep my fellow service members in the front of my mind as people who made more important decisions by lunch than most politicians, including me, make in a week. I’m frustrated knowing this cautious, selfish, face-saving approach to politics has become the norm, because that perception keeps good people away.
With what’s going on in America right now, it’s easy to look at the issues you care about, see an impossibly uphill battle, and lose the will to fight. But you picked up this book because you have at least a passing interest in changing the world. Whether it’s running for office, working on a campaign, or leaving your fancy job to join a nonprofit, there’s something you’ve always hoped you might do someday. I hope after reading this book you decide to make that someday today, because the world needs you.
We have enough people in public life who never go outside the wire. They fortify their districts with gerrymandered lines and camouflage their beliefs behind meaningless platitudes, and therefore, they’ll never advance any cause beyond their own careers.
You don’t have to accept the petty smallness of modern American politics in order to succeed. In life, and in politics, the most important work is often that which happens outside the wire. If you’re always safe in your career, you’re not doing much to help anyone other than yourself.
Between my time in uniform and my time in elected office, I’ve learned—often the hard way—valuable lessons about everyday courage. This book, among other things, lays out what Taco Bell taught me about enjoying life, what an Adam Sandler movie taught me about admitting mistakes, and what a heckler in a crowd taught me about humility. In dozens of bite-size military and political stories of failure, embarrassment, and success, you’re going to learn what I’ve learned. It might save you some time.*
A year and a half after I came home from Afghanistan, I was elected to the Missouri House of Representatives. In my first term, I set out to reform the campaign finance and ethics laws of the state. I was a freshman member of the minority party and one of the only members who refused personal gifts from lobbyists in a state with virtually no ethics or campaign laws. My zeal for cleaning up Jefferson City was not exactly welcomed by the political establishment in either party.
I lost count of how many times a fellow legislator told me they agreed with me and appreciated what I was doing, but they just couldn’t afford to help me. They were afraid of risking their chairmanship or their committee assignment or, in some cases, their office space or their parking spot. If I walked by while the Speaker of the House was talking to someone in the hallway, he’d interrupt himself to point me out, using his adorable nickname for me: “That piece of shit right there.”
In hopes of intimidating me into backing off my push for reform, the leadership would refuse to recognize me to speak on the floor, kill my bills as soon as I’d file them, and once they even submitted a phony ethics complaint against me. Maybe it was easier for me to champion this issue because I was so new to politics—I didn’t have a long career to lose. Maybe I just wasn’t willing to surrender on one of the first big issues I tackled. Or maybe it was just that I was thinking of that green-faced kid who got in the SUV, but I stuck with it.
In 2016, Missourians passed a constitutional amendment that included quite a few of the reforms I introduced way back in 2010, and there’s another initiative headed for the 2018 ballot.
So no, I did not choose the title Outside the Wire because I think I’m some sort of badass war hero. In fact, I’m very far from it, and I know that a lot of people have done much more than I ever did. I’ve spent a lot more time figuratively outside the wire in politics than I literally did in the military, but I’d be a very different politician if I had not first been a soldier. Anyone would be.
If you picked up this book hoping for a bunch of war stories, then you’ll be disappointed. I knew a ton of people in the army who did more than me, and my greatest fear in writing this book was that I would somehow disrespect them in the process of puffing myself up.
I had one four-month deployment, during which I never had to kill anyone; and I came home unharmed, so my gratitude is informed by survivor’s guilt. That’s why I believe the state of our democracy and the triviality of our politics is the ultimate slap in the face to the scores of veterans who gave so much more of themselves than I did.
Yes, I am fed up with politicians for whom the whole point of politics is to stay in politics, but I’m also excited by a new generation of American leaders who have voluntarily been through something in their lives more difficult than a reelection campaign.
If you’re thinking of getting involved in politics or public service to do something rather than be something, then you’re every bit as valuable to this nation as that kid who had the courage to get in the Pajero.
When it comes to serving others, nothing productive happens inside the wire. If your objective is simply political or social survival, you can probably stick around a long time, but to what end?
If you want to be a part of changing the world, well, you’ll eventually have to roll through the front gate.
LESSON NUMBER ONE
Experience is good, but perspective is golden.
“Everyday courage” isn’t running into a burning building, launching into space, or jumping out of a plane. Everyday courage is conquering little fears in your everyday life. Maybe it’s admitting a mistake, asking for help, or refusing to let an awkward moment stop you from speaking up for a colleague whom your boss treats unfairly.
When most Americans do exhibit this kind of courage at work, they receive no accolades, because showing everyday courage is simply a synonym for being a decent person.
However, when politicians demonstrate the equivalent of everyday courage, pundits call it “political courage,” which seems to mean, “doing the right thing despite being a politician.”
From my perspective, we’ve set the bar pretty low, because I’ve met a politician who had to have real courage just to get up and go to work every day.
Whenever someone invokes the term “political courage,” I think about the time I was part of a small security element escorting a new member of the Afghan Parliament home to Nangahar Province from the capital in Kabul. This was an Afghan politician living in constant danger, but not as a result of radical statements or even an agenda hostile to a particular interest group.
Instead, this elected official lived under the persistent threat of death simply because she was a woman.
Years later, as a member of the Missouri House of Representatives, I would struggle along with my colleagues with decisions none of us would remember in a year, and I would think about her.
I considered how unlikely it was she ever cared about how something polled or worried about what some lobbyist or donor might want her to do. With all she was risking just to be there and do the job, I imagined she simply did what she thought was right.
In light of the level of actual, literal courage this woman exhibited in politics, the least a politician like me can do is try to maintain some perspective over how easy it is to practice garden-variety, everyday courage.
Real tough guys don’t need to prove anything.
When I first entered ROTC in 2002, the vast majority of the army had still never deployed, so the rest of us revered anyone with a combat patch. I encountered Master Sergeant Matt Eversmann during one of my very first field training exercises in ROTC. You may not know the name, but to the cadets of the Hoya Batallion, he may as well have been George Washington and Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson all rolled into one very tall human.
Not only did he walk, talk, and spit tobacco like a total stud, but he looked to be about a foot taller than Josh Hartnett, the actor who famously portrayed him in the lead role of Black Hawk Down, the movie about the 1993 Battle of Mogadishu.
There’s zero chance he’s currently aware the two of us ever met, but he made quite an impression on me during the one field training exercise he participated in with my unit.
Standing in the deep woods of Fort Belvoir, I was supposed to be tracking down a “point,”* but it was my first try at nighttime land navigation and I was hosing it up good. For a few hours, I’d been trying to save myself some embarrassment by locating at least one of the orange markers at the grid coordinates I’d been assigned, but now that my map had fully disintegrated in the pouring rain, I had lost all hope.
- "Jason Kander is in the vanguard of a new generation of public servants working tirelessly to realize the promise of our country for every American. OUTSIDE THE WIRE vividly captures his experience, energy, ideas, and vision for the future of our democracy."— Senator Cory Booker
- "When we asked President Obama who he saw as the future of the Democratic Party, the first name out of his mouth was Jason Kander's. When you read this book, you'll understand why."— Dan Pfeiffer, cohost of Pod Save America
- "In the military, in politics, and in life, Jason Kander has always lived 'outside the wire,' and his new book challenges us all to do the same. Whether you're a longtime activist, or joining the work for social justice for the first time, OUTSIDE THE WIRE will inspire you to do more, and take joy in the many others who are, as well. The most important leadership in our country right now is coming not from Washington, DC, but from Americans everywhere who are moving our country forward. As Jason writes, these are the times to grab an oar."— Cecile Richards, former president of Planned Parenthood Federation of America
- "This book pushed me to reflect on how I'm contributing and how I can be better. Jason has perfectly woven gripping stories into life-altering lessons. Amazing!"— Symone Sanders, CNN political commentator
- "After reading this book, I conclude that Jason Kander is too funny and too smart to be in politics. His motives are suspect, and he should be removed from public service immediately."— Jimmy Kimmel, host of Jimmy Kimmel Live!
- "At a time when our boys and young men are in desperate need of healthy male role models in media and politics, Jason Kander has written the perfect book. His collection of stories shows that a man can be strong without being a bully, tough without being cruel, and a leader without sacrificing vulnerability, compassion, and empathy."— Cleo Wade, bestselling author of Heart Talk: Poetic Wisdom for a Better Life
- "[A] magic combination of authenticity, principle, and humor. Kander seems like the rare politician you might actually want to have a beer with; if you can't, this book is the next best thing."—Kirkus
- "The rising Democratic star that everyone is talking about has written the book that everyone will be talking about. Some sixty-three years after Profiles in Courage, Jason Kander, a post-9/11 veteran, shares his observations about the role of what he calls 'everyday courage' in the military, in our daily lives and, yes, in our politics. Written with equal parts humor and humility, Jason and his book are the antidote to the cynicism that pervades our discourse. It's the rare book that will leave readers across the ideological spectrum optimistic about the future of our country."— Josh Earnest, former White House press secretary under President Barack Obama
- On Sale
- Sep 8, 2020
- Page Count
- 256 pages