A life with purpose

I was going to write a fairly ordinary descriptive post about my evening attending a reception aboard the Bonhomme Richard.  (Which, by the way, was another splendid opportunity made available to me courtesy of my membership in the Navy League.)  However, the more I thought about the evening — and I promise I will describe it — the more I wanted to write about the larger implications of my recent contacts with the Army, the Navy, the Coast Guard and the Marines.  (I haven’t yet met the Air Force, so to speak.)

You have to understand as you read this that, while I’ve always managed to admire the military (and I say “managed” because that’s not easy as a liberal), I had never actually met people in the modern American military.  I’d met plenty of people in the Israeli military because a visit to Israel, especially to visit old family friends, automatically means meeting people your own age who serve in the military.  Likewise, through my parents’ generation, I’d met people who had served during World War II, both in the American and the British military.

It was this WWII generation, in fact, that shaped my views about military service, and enabled me to respect our troops despite my political outlook.  My father served in the RAF and ANZAC during World War II, and both he and my mother were in the Israeli Army during the 1947/1948 War of Independence.

Although my father fought in absolutely horrific battles (at El Alamein and Crete, among other places), he really enjoyed being in the military.  For him, fresh out of the chaos of (a) Weimar Germany, (b) Nazi Germany, (c) a nascent Kibbutz (endless work, little food, lots of danger), and (d) starving on the streets of Tel Aviv, the RAF and ANZAC were havens of order and security.  In addition to the structure he so needed and craved, my father’s life, at last, had a purpose:  beat the Nazis.  Even when he was working the most boring, demeaning or dangerous jobs, he was still making a difference for a cause in which he deeply believed.

My mother too remembers her service days with great pleasure.  Although she was (as she says) “just a lowly draftsman,” she knew that her work matter greatly.  She may just have been sitting at a drafting board in an office, but the maps she created would be used by the Israeli Army to aid in creating their battle strategies.  The accuracy of her work could spell difference between victory and defeat.  My mother also remembers with fondness the camaraderie of service.  She and her colleagues were all part of a greater enterprise, and they felt a very tight bond as a result.  (She felt the same bond in concentration camp, despite the horrors, when she and her fellow inmates bent their efforts to beating the Japanese simply by the act of surviving.)

Those stories formed the tapestry of my childhood, but they stood in stark contrast to the emotional malaise of the Vietnam War.  While the stories at home were about honor and loyalty and purpose, the stories in the media were about despair and anger and substance abuse and a tremendous sense of waste.  The conscripted Army of my childhood was not a happy one — or, at least, the media relayed endless stories of unhappiness, regardless of whether that attitude was universally felt or not.  I knew the mantra:  War is evil, the military is an evil machine, soldiers are victims of the vast industrial complex.

Except that’s so not true.

In the last two or three years, I’ve spoken with a young Marine about to head off to Afghanistan; spent an enjoyable lunch with an Army recruiter who served a tour of duty in Iraq; got the benefit of a fascinating hour and a half with the XO on a destroyer; crawled in and out of Marine landing craft under the tutelage of Marines anxious to explain all the wonders of the vehicle; been shown more weapons than you can imagine (to my son’s great joy) by sailors or Marines who were just delighted to tell about their “toys”; spent a lovely day on the bridge of a Coast Guard ship; and had a Captain take the time to walk me and my family all over his wonderful Amphibious Assault Ship.

A common thread tied together each of my encounters with our military:  The people to whom I spoke (and who spoke to me) were completely delighted with their jobs.  They found their equipment fascinating, they were proud of their responsibilities, and they enjoyed being part of the series of groups that comprised their lives:  their team, their ship or unit, their military branch (Marines, Army, etc.), and their Country.  Over and over and over, I heard from them their sense that each of these layers gave them a benefit, and that they in turn owed honor and duty to both the small and large entities wrapped around them.

In other words, the people to whom I’ve spoken over the past few years have a sense of purpose in their lives.  Because they believe in the organization for which they work (whether their team, their ship, their branch of the forces or their country), that belief imbues their tasks with meaning.  If you’re a Marine, you’re not just engaged in the boring work of taking apart and cleaning a weapon, you are responsible for making sure that the weapon is totally operational for your team and your country.  There’s almost a sanctity that descends on each task because each task serves a purpose greater than the task itself or the individual doing that task.

How different this is from my years as a young lawyer working in a big firm.  My work was indescribably boring, and there was nothing to leaven that boredom.

The money my work generated went into the hands of people I didn’t particularly admire (although I liked many), and they spent it on the pursuits of Yuppies:  big houses, fancy cars, boast-worthy trips.  Nor did the clients for whom I worked engender any excitement.  They were neither good nor bad.  They were just businesses that had locked heads with other businesses, with each jockeying for position in our legal system.  It was the rare case that left me believing that I was fighting for truth, justice and the American way — as opposed to spending umpteen hours reviewing documents simply so Company A could get that gosh-darned contract interpreted to its benefit, not to Company B’s benefit.

My life was so meaningless that, eventually, I couldn’t get up in the  morning.  It was only when I went into business for myself that I found a cause I could believe in:  making enough money to pay my rent.  It wasn’t high-minded, certainly, but it stoked my professional engines.

All of which brings me back to the reception I attended last night.  From the moment I turned off the street and into the parking lot, I was taken care of by remarkably attractive young people who did their job with good cheer — and treated me with so much respect it made me feel very old.  One after the other, each person carried out his or her task with diligence, whether it was waiving me on to the gate, checking my name off the list, guiding a bomb sniffing dog around my car (that was a first for me), or shepherding me through the security scanner.  I’ve always been impressed by the cheerful efficiency of Disneyland.  The Navy and Marines are better.

When I boarded the ship itself, I was quite flattered that Captain Parrott remembered me — considering how many thousands of people he sees during Fleet Week, that was a testament to his memory and his manners.  A brief conversation with him later established him as a convivial and effective host.

The room was filled with people.  About half were in uniform.  They all looked so nice and neat — and happy to be there.  The other half were in ordinary dress (civvies?).  Once my contact from the Navy League (you know him as SJBill) took me under his wing and starting introducing me around, I discovered that many of these men and women were retired Admirals, retired Captains, retired pilots, retired navigators, people from the Defense Industry, and City managers.  The only disappointment for me was that there were so many people to meet that I didn’t get a chance to hear about their careers in more detail.

Such conversation as I heard, whether because I was part of the conversation or just listening in, again convinced me that the military is a good employer — and it’s not just the benefits and the college scholarships.  Retired people reminisced fondly about their past service; active duty people spoke enthusiastically about their responsibilities.  There was none of the whining that characterizes any good gathering of lawyers, all of whom feel that much of what they do is wasting time.  Indeed, since I enjoy a good whine, I almost felt out of place.  But the food was good, the music was fabulous (great band, great vocalist), and I was having a wonderful time, so I was able to enjoy the bonhomie on the Bonhomme Richard.

When I left, I have to admit to a feeling of envy.  I’ve always chosen the safe, risk-free paths in my life.  I’ve done pretty well, too:  good jobs, good family, good community, etc.  But I’ve missed that sense of purpose that makes life more than just creature comforts and material acquisition.  My life revolves around me and those directly dependent on me, but it doesn’t have any greater sense of meaning.  For the people in our American military, and this is true even if they leave after a short stint, they will have spent part of their lives working for something greater than themselves, and I envy them that fact.

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  • Anne

    Bookworm, I’ve really appreciated your military posts lately. I’m a Navy wife who is quite proud of her officer and gentleman husband, and I also feel privileged to so often interact with fine American servicemen and women. I feel sorry for Americans who don’t get that privilege because they’re truly missing out on just what you describe. Thanks for sharing it.

  • Mike Devx

    Wow, Book.

    > When I left, I have to admit to a feeling of envy. I’ve always chosen the safe, risk-free paths in my life. I’ve done pretty well, too: good jobs, good family, good community, etc. But I’ve missed that sense of purpose that makes life more than just creature comforts and material acquisition. My life revolves around me and those directly dependent on me, but it doesn’t have any greater sense of meaning. For the people in our American military, and this is true even if they leave after a short stint, they will have spent part of their lives working for something greater than themselves, and I envy them that fact.

    Is this an impression that has come upon you solely after your experience aboard the Bonhomme Richard? Or is it something that has been building for awhile?

    I’ve stepped away from software consulting for a few months, partly due to health collapse, partly due to a dissatisfaction with a slowly-building direction of my industry: we’re cutting corners and often in a rush to market we’re cutting quality Too often we’re cranking out a product without a shared consensus pride in delivering exactly what the customer wants. And I have this impression even when choosing projects carefully for good leadership and a great team. I think I relate.

    In my case it feels like your classic (and unremarkable!) mid-life crisis, a search for meaning and purpose in the direction I’ve chosen. Right now I can’t say for sure I still enjoy my chosen profession, and I don’t like that at all. One of my goals of stepping away is to discover a new way to approach my work, in this environment of the current industry, where I do find meaning and take joy from my work. (I am positive I’ll succeed in this redefinition of purpopse – or run out of my prepared savings first!)

    So I thought I’d ask: Is this basically a sudden psychological body-blow from your visit to the Bonhomme Richard, or has it been building over time?

    I’ve been prompted to consider some of the things happening across the political divide: Hillary’s “The Politics Of Meaning”, by which she sought to address her followers’ lack of meaning or purpose in their lives, and the Obama sensation of so many people joining his “movement” with a near-religious fervor; and I’m also prompted to think of how faith – or the lack of it – influences our sense of purpose, meaning, and belonging in life. But those would be lengthier thoughts I don’t want to place here.

  • Gringo

    When I was working on oil rigs, there was a great feeling of camaraderie. We were all necessary in our own way, to the success of the outfit, in out-of-the-way places. No drilling rigs on 42nd Street. When one is drilling in high-pressured zones, where there is risk of a blowout, there is NO doubt whatsoever about the value of one’s job. Other people’s lives are dependent on your performance. That definitely gains one’s attention.

    One difference between the military and drilling rigs. As someone put it to me once, in the oil field, they don’t care if you haven’t brushed your teeth.

  • ConnectTheDots

    I can connect with your impressions of the military.

    My father was an Army lifer who ended up in an insane asylum, I suspect partly because of the horrors he saw in Korea. During many points of his life we were assisted by many, many helpful and caring military people, who saw to it he got the best treatment to the very end. I owe my college education to the Veterans Administration and to the brave veterans of the DAV who helped my mother and my family navigate difficult times.

    That’s why we MUST have a soldier in charge of the White House again this year. I hate to bring politics into this wonderful story (or into everything, as my wife says), but McCain reflects the sense of leadership, courage, honesty and fairness learned through a life of military service. I only hope the rest of the country is wise enough to appreciate that.

  • http://lookingforlissa.wordpress.com lookingforlissa

    Great read, Book.

    What will happen if your son decides to pursue a career in the military? How do you think you would react? How do you think Mr. Bookworm would react?

    Hell, what would happen if your *daughter* decided to pursue a military career?

  • Oldflyer

    Good questions, lookingforlissa.

    My wife of fifty years, who spent 25 of those as a Navy wife, cannot bear to think of one of her grandchildren in the military. Even though she was steadfast throughout the Viet Nam years, there is something about mothers and grandmothers I suppose.

    Bookworm, the volunteer military has had a very beneficial effect on the services. I assure you that the attitudes you observed were pretty scarce in the late 60s and the 70s. (Let me qualify that. The pilots and some other war fighters were a different breed.)

  • http://bookwormroom.com Bookworm

    Mike, in answer to your question, I’ve been conscious every time I’ve had contact with men and women in the armed forces that they have a sense of purpose and community lacking in my life. The sense just becomes stronger the more I meet people in the military.

    As for the question about what I would do if my children enlisted, I don’t know. As a mother, I want them to live perfectly safe lives, but they also need to live fulfilled lives. I’ll just have to wait and see. In any event, if Obama has his way, they’ll all be forced to enlist anyway in some vast social service program where they can go into rich people’s homes and relieve them of their possessions to make everything fair. Sort of like Mao’s youth brigades during the Cultural Revolution.

  • David Foster

    Excellent post.

    I do think there are jobs in the private sector, and in some nonmilitary government fields, in which people have a real sense of mission and of working together.

    Linda Niemann had just gotten her PdD in English Literature when she decided to make a major career change and go to work for the Southern Pacific Railroad–as a brakeman. From her memoir:

    “We moved stuff people used to build their houses, get from place to place, and to put food on their table. I felt a part of it all, whatever ‘it all’ was–something I had never felt before.”

    The sense of mission is probably higher in the military–at least, in well-run units–than in most other jobs, but it also exists elsewhere.

  • Oldflyer

    David, you struck a chord. After my Navy career I flew for various airlines (unsuccessful ones). Many folks would find it simplistic, but I really enjoyed taking people where they wanted to go and found it fulfilling. I especially enjoyed the holdiday seasons.

    At the small airlines for which I worked there was frequently a strong sense of camaraderie among the crews (and not the kind some people like to imagine). There was a community effort to present the airline in a good light and make the whole thing work. Too bad, but good intentions don’t trump poor management.

    So, it is not just a military bonding thing at all. Still, in better military units it can be very intense. My closest friends today are squadron mates I served with in the early fifties. Some are truly like family.

  • suek

    >>As a mother, I want them to live perfectly safe lives…>>

    Believe me when I say I understand, but there ain’t no such…!

    In addition, when there’s no risk, there’s no reward. Young people want to go forth and challenge the world – it’s part of youth. When you have wonderfully planned out safe lives, young people sometimes choose to rebel and take a course that you and I may know will lead to some sort of disaster – even if only in a societal sense – but they see as an adventurous.

    In other words, the security made by the Greatest Generation let to the Free Love and Anti-war generation of the Vietnam era.

    Better to choose their battles, and then let them fight them – if you’re clever enough!

  • David Foster

    Suek…regarding the search for security, I’m frequently reminded of a passage from Walter Miller’s great novel, A Canticle for Leibowitz:

    “To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they became the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law — a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security.”

  • NavyOne

    The thing about the military that I most love, is that it is completely normal. After living in Berkeley, Santa Cruz and some other wacky towns, I cherish the normality of it all. It has also concreted my thought that drugs are very dangerous to society. The “Zero Tolerance” policy of the military keeps people grounded and focused on the mission.

    Thanks Book, great post.

  • Al

    Living life meaningfully with a purpose means that you are serving some truth greater than yourself. Like the US of A. Every time I walked back to the BOQ from serving a 40 hour “alert” in a Launch Capsule I felt a sense of satisfaction and achievement. And the men and women around me also felt that and supported it.
    I suppose that part of the rage the the Libs feel is that they never have had that defining experience. They have never felt the satisfaction of a meaningful job well done.Probably because they have never subjected themselves to the intellectual discipline to see it. Or want to do it.

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