By Truman Fellow Dan Futrell

Dan Futrell, a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom, served 27 months in Baghdad and is a two-time recipient of the Bronze Star Medal. He is now completing his public policy masters at the Harvard Kennedy School and is a fellow with the Truman National Security Project.

While patrolling the streets of Baghdad in 2006 and 2007, we often found that the more educated neighborhoods like al Mansour, with larger homes and flowered yards, were also the most peaceful. Of the families that stayed through the initial invasion, I met many where fathers taught their sons and daughters English and reinforced the idea that education will lead to a better life. We drank chai tea in their living rooms, played foosball in their dining rooms, and sat patiently while they proudly displayed their child’s typing speed on a Windows 2000 computer. Always vigilant, my platoon sensed this neighborhood was less of a threat.

Contrast this with Sadr City or New Baghdad, where streets were narrow, homes packed as close as possible, where most young adults were unemployed and had not finished high school, and where local militias unsurprisingly had a significant stronghold. There was no local economy in which the young men, aged 18-35, could go out and get a job to provide for their family. As a result, we consistently came into conflict with young unemployed men, aged 18-35. There is a saying about idle hands that applies here, and can also be extended to idle minds.

For our work abroad, veterans have been thanked in many ways from recent employment legislation to an occasional free coffee from a friendly neighbor in line at Starbucks. For ten years, it has been casually said that our military has done everything they’ve been asked to do, and I saw this daily in the men and women I worked with. But there is still a lingering misunderstanding of what soldiers do on a day-to-day basis and more importantly, why it matters to us back home.

Throughout two deployments to Iraq, I saw that soldiers were often asked to be all things to all people, all the time. This is not simply a cliché; it was a common experience for my soldiers to switch in minutes from a diplomat to a police officer, from a negotiator to a construction manager, from a crime scene investigator to a political advisor. My men, and all who have served abroad, necessarily developed skills far outside the scope of security in order to create peace. But the military is not the best American institution to create peace and prevent war. We’ve seen positive outcomes from long-term partnerships with foreign militaries and the projection of power oceans away as a deterrent, but there are other organizations more efficient at preventing war through diplomacy and development.

In a turbulent world with a rising China, an unstable Middle East, and an economically volatile West, Americans at home and citizens around the world are watching to see if we’ll still lead towards peace and security. Our strong and continued commitment to international development will strengthen our leadership, because it allows us to put action behind our greatest asset, American values. This is a concept most well understood by our grandparents in the aftermath of World War II through the reconstruction and development of Germany and Japan, now two of our strongest allies.

To shape this understanding a little further, consider this: the U.S. State Department has identified 32 countries that traveling Americans should avoid because they are dangerous or unstable. Out of those 32 countries, 75% are completely dark at night, as viewed from NASA’s satellite imagery. Is there a correlation between lack of electricity, and the supporting infrastructure and economy, to a state’s stability? Because of what I’ve seen firsthand in Iraq, I argue that there is.

Put clearly: an education system that prepared young men and women for work in a developed economy that provided jobs and resources for Iraq or Afghanistan’s citizens would have ensured American troops came home a lot sooner than December 2011, or December 2014, and would make our future more secure.

When we consider cutting the budget of USAID, which currently sits at 0.2% of our Defense budget, or the State Department, currently 6.6% of Defense spending, we must ask ourselves what 2011 would look like if we had spent nearly a trillion dollars on Afghanistan’s education system and economic infrastructure 20 years ago. From a budget perspective, we can’t afford to see every foreign problem as a nail for our big defense hammer, and we must recognize opportunities to prevent war. The question we must ask is this: What will the young boys in Yemen and Somalia choose to do with their lives after growing up in the dark, and how can we brighten their future?