Trying to figure out why I like the military

You all know that I like the American military.  It really doesn’t make sense, given that I’m a petite woman raised in a pretty darn Left -wing Jewish environment in San Francisco during the 1960s and 1970s (i.e., the Vietnam and post-Vietnam era).   My daughter made me realize, however, that my interest in and admiration for our military isn’t anything new.

Although she’s still far too young fro college, my daughter is starting to think about.  She therefore asked me, “Where did you want to go to college, Mommy?”  (She knows that, tho’ I attended Berkeley for economic reasons, I truly and deeply hated the place.)  I thought a minute and realized that, of all the college materials I reviewed when I was in high school, the only one that really called to me was . . . are you ready for this? . . . West Point.

I thought West Point sounded wonderful.  It looked lovely, and so well-ordered.  I liked the sense of purpose and the deep discipline.  I realized quickly, though, that I didn’t have what it takes.  I’m extremely small and extremely nearsighted, which made the physical requirements intimidating, if not impossible.  Add to that a public-school bred inability to do math and science, and the clingy personality of a child raised by one concentration camp survivor and one Nazi refugee/”RAF in North Africa combat” survivor, and you’ve got someone who wouldn’t have lasted one day (or, at least, didn’t think she would, which came out to the same result in the end).

Running against upbringing and type, though, I always thought that the military was a good thing, especially for young men.  We live in an increasingly feminized culture.  Part of this is simply due to industrialization and technology. You don’t have to run around with a gun and spear, outracing animals and other hunters, to feed your family.  Men, like women, sit and drive most of the time in our modern world.  However, we also live in a feminized culture in that, as I’ve said before, male virtues are consistently regarded as vices.  Boys are forced to be less physical, to be more emotional, and to view themselves as dangerous predators.  The positive spin of being strong, manly, and living to protect the small and weak is gone.  It’s all “boys are bad” stuff around here.

I’ve already bored you with stories of the young men I know who have found themselves in the military.  Adrift in a world that makes the wrong demands on them, and castigates their vices instead of encouraging their virtues, the military is a place where they can be men in the best possible sense of the world.  As someone who loves reading about transformative experiences (whether in fact or fiction), learning about young men who have been all that they could be is deeply satisfying to me.  (I actually call “transformative” fiction “getting it right” books, or movies.  Pride and Prejudice is one example, as two headstrong people figure it out.  Groundhog Day is another example, as a jerk becomes a mensch.)

If you want an example of someone who didn’t have to get it wrong before he got it right, read this 2009 article, about a young man whose commitment to the Marines transcended injuries and prosthetics.  (Believe it or not, this entire post, which I wrote from the heart, was a lead-in to this old article, which really amazed me.)

As always, if you want to support the military, considering joining the Navy League, “a non-profit organization dedicated to educating our citizens about the importance of sea power to U.S. national security and supporting the men and women of the sea services and their families.”  My feeling is that the more the American public knows about the American military, the more they will like, respect and support it, as I do.

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  • dustoffmom

    I also always had a fascination with the military.  Was envious of the Israeli women who were expected to also do their time along with the men.  Ours was not a ‘military’ family, the most recent member to have served having been my great great grandfather when he was 14 years old in the Civil War.  Nevertheless, I was always drawn to it.  Like you I am a five foot even gal and at the time barely weighed a hundred pounds and surely no one I knew would ever consider such a thing anyway, this being the early 70’s.  However, several years later as I was just a couple of months from my ‘horrors!’ 30th birthday I couldn’t help thinking about what had I never done that I always meant to do.  There was only one answer, enlist.  And so I did!  I quit my job, stored my stuff, I shipped out to basic training on my exact 30th birthday, the very day.  Swearing in, saying that oath….the proudest moment of my life then and now.  I excelled in basic believe it or not, was ‘Mom’ to the other trainees, became the platoon leader and loved it all.  That was just a few months shy of 30 years ago now.  I ended up marrying 2 years later….get ready for this….my Drill Sergeant!  My son did not follow in his Mom’s footsteps….but my daughter did!  She became the first female flight medic in the original Dustoff company, fulfilling my dream of flying around in helecopters.  And I’ve never regretted what my family then thought was my impulsivness…..what a life I’ve had!  The military indeed takes what you have and makes you so very much better.  They deserve so much of our admiration and thanks.  And rarely receive enough of either.

  • Bookworm

    I think I can boast that my readers are the most interesting people on the internet.  What a story, dustoffmom.

  • Oldflyer

    Great story.

  • NavyOne

    What is needed from our servicemen and women is honor, determination, and a combination of brains and brawn.  Here is a story that exemplifies that:

    CDR Sethi is an Indian (her parents were from India.)  She is, of course, a woman.  But what makes me most proud of my Shipmate is that she is an American.  Go to her Facebook page (linked in the article.)  I have been on and off a fair number of ships and I know a happy/productive crew when I see one.  I would hope to work for someone like her some day. . .

  • Danny Lemieux

    My Army son thinks the world of his drill sergeants. Said they were “awesome”. Don’t think he would ever try to marry them, however…no matter how many beers he would drink with them.

  • Charles Martel

    Dustoffmom, if you and your beloved are ever in the Bay Area, please contact Bookworm and let her know you’re here. A dinner and drinks will be on me, and an ear that wants to hear every story you have to tell.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Hey, give me a heads-up, Charles M, so that I can come too!

  • Charles Martel

    Danny, always and ever, my man.

  • Sgt. Mom

    Well, Book – you could have gone Air Force. I did, inspite of being also nearsighted, bookish and deeply adverse to any kind of gym classes. I had a great-aunt, who had been a WAC in WWII, and that was the reason that my own family didn’t completely come unglued when I broached the topic of enlisting. It was a very interesting experience, all told. The  was a completely different and parallel world, and one that was then almost invisible to ordinary Americans. There was a writer, Arthur Hadley who called it “The Other America of Defense.” I could better relate to people, after serving twenty years, I think – and better relate to men than I ever could before, because of the military experience, and speaking that particular military jargon. And it is true, about being able to see people mature, almost overnight: I saw baby troops come into service at the age of 18 or 19 – and after three or four years, they were in their twenties, and they were fully-realized, responsible, mature grown-ups. Not many other places where you could see that happen on a regular basis. I’ve always thought also, that getting through basic military training is as much of a traditional adult passage ritual that we have these days. One is a child, before – and then, one endures the rites of passage, and becomes an adult, in the eyes of society.

  • David Foster

    “Transformative fiction” books & movies…Book, if you haven’t already seen it check on the film “Renaissance Man.” Danny DeVito is a failed a man who takes a job as a civilian instructor for a group of recruits who are about to be thrown out of the Army for their general inability to do anything right…His class is their last chance. Very well done.

  • Danny Lemieux

    Funny you should mention “Renaissance Man”, David Foster. That was filmed at S.C. Fort Jackson, where my son did his basic. It was fun to recognize all the settings from the movie.

    BTW, Sgt. Mom, my son informed me that these days the “Airforce” is affectionately known as the “Chairforce”. Affirmative? Been dying to ask my (Lt. Col.) brother-in-law the pilot that question.

  • Sgt. Mom

    Oh, the other services all have their little jokes about the Air Force, mostly because they’re green with envy on how our dorms, clubs and medical facilities are usually very much nicer. We usually just laugh at them, and say that they’re mad because they talked to the wrong recruiter.

  • Danny Lemieux

    I think you are right, Sgt. Mom. My BIL used to brag how he would pilot transports to all the nice places all over the world. Flight time was mostly spent on automatic pilot while the pilots threw footballs in the cargo bay, drank coffee, played cards and napped.

  • Bookworm

    It’s amazing how the culture in the various branches differs. My experience with the Navy is that officers dine separately from the enlisted men (am I correct?), while an old friend of mine who is a colonel in the Army says that all dine together.  Any opinions on the pros and cons of these differing approaches?

    Vis a vis the Navy, I do suspect that some of the difference is tied to the importance of maintaining the chain of command in very close quarters.  The army moves around more, so I suspect the rigid dining that dominates the Navy (assuming I’m correct) is too difficult to be worth the effort.

  • suek

    >>The army moves around more, so I suspect the rigid dining that dominates the Navy (assuming I’m correct) is too difficult to be worth the effort.>>
    I suspect it has more to do with target identification.  In the “olden” days, officers and enlisted did not mix.  Period.  The Navy has the luxury of being in a circumstance where targeting of officers isn’t really a pressing concern.  The army and marines, on the other hand, find themselves in circumstances where isolation by separation would make their officers an easy target.  Officers used to wear brass – still do in dress situations, I believe – but now their rank is either black metal or black embroidered.  The difference is the enemy.  Remember the old cowboy and indian movies?  The idea was to pick off the chief – the others would retreat and disband if their leader was killed.  In the battles of today, there’s some of the same theory – kill the highest ranking leaders you can.  On both sides.  So we don’t want our leaders of any rank easily identified – either by insignia or by separation.
    But that’s just my guess…

  • Ymarsakar

    The threat of being picked off in the field has enormously affected NCO, enlisted, and officer methods of communication and habitation

    The military also deals in what I would call life and death drama, where the importance of choosing the right death becomes the capstone to a life well lived. Nobody chooses who they are born to or where and when, nor can they choose to evade death and mortality entirely. They can only choose how to live with what they have and how to die. These dramatic questions on life and death are not asked in your normal drama classes, in case people had yet to notice this in America. But that’s not true of everywhere.

  • Ymarsakar

    My experience with the Navy is that officers dine separately from the enlisted men (am I correct?), while an old friend of mine who is a colonel in the Army says that all dine together.  Any opinions on the pros and cons of these differing approaches?

    Beyond the company level, which is commanding 100 people, you can no longer know the individual quirks, personalities, and strengths of each individual under your command. This necessitates a much greater reliance on the authority and demands of the chain of command. For smaller units, authority is vested as much in the person as in the rank. They follow the cpt not because he has a rank tab assigning him as the cpt but that he is the single authority of the company. Everyone knows it and knows him. As the unit becomes smaller, the degree of personal familiarity increases. This has led many 2nd Lts fresh off of OCS to believe that they need to become buddy buddies with everyone in their unit. That actually decreases their rank authority while at the same time not increasing their personal authority or respect amongst the troops. It’s hard to like or follow a kiss up who worries more about what people think of him then what is good for the unit.

    On a Navy ship, the unit sizes are predominantly much larger than 100 people. Thus the separation between the Cpt of the ship and enlisted or petty officers are enormously higher then would be the case on an equivalent land field command. The Navy has to deal with such things as mutinies and complete harmony of crew, ship, and command in battle. In such a case, personal authority becomes greatly less meaningful. WHen a crew has sustained 50% casualties and the cpt and first officer are both incapacitated or dead, what will the crew rely upon for authority? Personal relationships and respect? No, it can only ever be the authority of rank. The lack of the need to disperse officers into petty officer class gives the Navy a much clearer definition between the various different classes of ranks. It also cuts down on the tendency of officers to micromanage every little issue in their areas of responsibility.

    What the Marines and Army have done with field integration accomplishes a sense of esprit de corps. They never forget that a colonel is different from a sergeant major which is different from an enlisted man. In tactical situations, however, it becomes easier to work together beyond the boundaries set by rank. An enlisted man may be hesitant to speak up against what a lt says in the field, thus prioritizing rank hierarchy over field expediency. With the integration and removal of some barriers between officers and enlisted, small units can focus much more on the tactics at issue then on who out ranks who.

    For joint operations that cover multiple branches and divisions, there is no personal relationships binding, so the only value of esprit de corps comes from the commonality of obeying the chain of command. What this tends to mean is that cooperation becomes limited only to a top down hierarchy, which the officers give orders and the rest obey them without question. This presence of inflexibility has led to many issues regarding joint operations and is one reason why NATO doesn’t work and everybody else would blow themselves up if they tried to have a similar level of jointness as the US military.

    Both the Navy and the Marines/Army rely upon experienced non-commissioned officers to bridge whatever gap exists between officer top heavy seeing the forest but not a falling tree, and the enlisted seeing the falling tree but not the forest fire. Iraq’s army at the beginning had no experienced NCO cadre force and thus much of the commands that filtered from the top became un-executable on the bottom, aka mass clusters.

    Tradition, obedience to the chain of command, and unit cohesion (esprit de corps) are all important. Even if it doesn’t make sense, there’s something to be said for tradition, whether Navy or Marines. Rank must be respected, yet by itself it is not enough to lead men into battle. Unit cohesion is vastly important on the tactical level, but if it was based solely off of personal relationships, there would be no continuity once those personal relationships were broken due to issues or combat casualties. Feudalism and tribalism both have this fundamental problem. Kill off the leader and every warrior that obeyed the leader now disperses because they lost their “personal relationship”. The chain of command is designed such that a unit will be combat capable regardless of how many casualties they sustain. Although in reality, normal units break down past 20% casualties, elite units break down at 50% casualties, and super elite units break down when they’re all dead on the field (Leonidas’ unit). This is a general scale and doesn’t take into account firepower, surprise, force multipliers, or morale shock.
    Ideally, a unit is bound by tradition and respect/love for their fellow comrades and their leaders. Ideally, a unit is trained to obey proper commands and to respect authority by being self-disciplined, for he that cannot take orders cannot give them either, yet not in a way that makes them follow orders blindly or takes away their individual initiative.. A well trained force, whether they be company, brigade, regiment, or fleet in nature, is able to obey commands without becoming rigid, able to cooperate without allowing personal biases to make them take favorites, and to fight until they are ordered to withdraw or when they are annihilated.

    That is the ideal, but few have ever come close to it. What makes the US military so powerful is not their technology as many people and nations believe, but the training and body of experience in the members. There are instances and times when this breaks down due to political generals, politically micromanaged wars, and lack of proper order in the ranks. All in all, the US military has done more than a passable job of cleaning up their former mistakes, although not all the solutions would be what I call “ideal”.

  • suek

    >>Iraq’s army at the beginning had no experienced NCO cadre force…>>

    They had no NCO force _period_. They – and all the other muslim countries in the middle east – have officers and enlisted men…unless they’ve had training/input from the US. The officers give orders, the enlisted obey them. The enlisted have _no_ input, and the officers are _always_ right – even when they’re wrong.

    My husband worked with the Egyptians at a particular time when the US started working with them on training on the tanks they were buying from us. He remembers one time when there was a presentation with speech making, and a wind was blowing. They called out the enlisted men to stand and provide a windbreak for the speakers. That’s how they considered their enlisted men – simply bodies for them to use as they saw fit. When the enlisted men were dismissed, they went … wherever. No concern about where they lived or how. Cannon fodder, in other words. The NCO system was needed in order to better provide for the enlisted men, and to provide communication between the enlisted men and the officer corp…to say nothing about the experience that the NCO corp provides! When you start thinking about “no NCO corp”, you have to wonder how they accomplished _anything_!

  • Ymarsakar

    That structure is good enough for suppressing rebellions, going out in the middle of the night and terrorizing the local populace with rape and murder, but it’s not enough to fight a truly dangerous enemy.

    Arabs are, culturally, institutionally, and politically, backwards. Unfortunately for the Middle East, the Arabs conquered them and made their culture extinct, replacing it with the Mohameddan version called Islam. Thus places like Assyria, Turkey, Syria, and Persia, all non-Arabic originally, are now more Arabic then perhaps the rich Arabs watching strip clubs.

  • Ymarsakar

    The Syrians and the Egyptians were originally part of the Roman Empire. The place we called Turkey, Anatolia, hosted a contingent of Celtic tribesmen who somehow migrated there all the way from Europe. Constantinople and the Hagia Sophia were built by Romans, Byzantine branch.

    Now they all are under the sway of Islam and nobody seems to remember that it wasn’t Islam or the damn Arabs that made a damn thing.

  • Ymarsakar

    Combat cements personal loyalty and respect for rank. It gets pretty obvious who is or isn’t worth their rank in combat.

    The Navy hasn’t had a blue water war in a long time. The Marines and Army have had periodic combat deployments, enough to get rid of the whole “looks good on paper”, aka paper tiger army. Whenever the military gets put out to pasture and it’s peacetime, the paperwork starts dominating the perception of reality and you have entire divisions listed as “combat ready” but only about a quarter of them actually are. The rest are either dipping into the company coffers or doing some other shenanigans.

    Anyways, because the Navy does not in fact have combat to use to cement the relationships of everyone on a ship, the Navy has to rely upon rank designation and chain of command authority to maintain discipline and order on a ship. Far more than would be the case for a ship that has been in combat with a proven crew and proven commander.

    The Navy’s fighter jet pilots are, of course, constantly exposed to combat of one sort or another. Not as a unit in dogfighting, but closer then any submarine or destroyer has faced in the last few decades. As such, the Navy and Air Force pilot wings are the most “military” and gung ho of the bunch. They all tend to congregate there, but of course, that means the other areas are lacking in manpower… motivations you could say. There are constant leaks coming out of the Navy because of this. Even though the last one was from Manning (who thought it was a good idea to give a private that high a security clearance. All privates should be good enough for are cleaning the barracks and latrines) and the former to last one was Hasan in Ft. Hood. The army is big enough such that they get the same “bleed off” effect as the Navy, with all the motivated individuals gravitating towards combat sub branches of their respective military branches.

    The only branch this ISn’t true for is the US Marines, since they are so tiny to begin with. Their traditions are almost small unit to begin with.

  • Ymarsakar

    It is funny that you mentioned Groundhog Day, Book. Since ML Alternative has a plot/theme very similar to that. Time loops and working through love.