Reader Anon called attention to the fact that I’ve not yet discussed my experience in the military in much detail. Being as my experience has broader implications and that it’s Veteran’s Day, I’ve decided to indulge him.
My two tours in the Army were from mid 2003-2005 and in 2009. I was active duty for the first tour, but got out when that was done. However, when you sign up it’s for a minimum commitment of eight years, thus I had six years remaining on my contract after I got out as an inactive reserve. Just before Christmas of 2008 I got a letter in the mail telling me I was getting pulled back in and sent to Iraq (I went to Afghanistan instead).
I signed up just after the invasion of Iraq. My personal beliefs regarding the invasion both then and now aside, I kept seeing reports of individual soldiers who were actually accomplishing important things, even if it was only for the sake of their buddies and not necessarily Peace and Freedom. At the time my life was going nowhere; I lacked the requisite internal executive required to accomplish much of anything, so I figured that if I couldn’t get anywhere controlling my own life, I’d let somebody else take charge of it for a while.
Still, I was a bit hesitant to sign away too much of my life, for I knew that military life was no paradise and might very well not be for me. Either going in as an officer or linguist would have required a longer commitment than I was ready to give, so I took a really crappy job in the Quartermaster Corps instead that only required two years. Being told that I could re-enlist with another MOS (Military Occupational Specialty, or “job” to normal people) after a year, I figured that I could give the Army a shot, then either change jobs or get out.
Thus, although there are experiences common to all soldiers, I won’t claim that my experiences mirror that of the infantry or special ops. In most respects their lives are infinitely more challenging, but mine was probably mired in a bit more useless crap.
The seeds of my eventual disillusionment began at Reception, doing all the processing stuff before Basic Training begins in earnest. We got yelled at a lot (which was expected and fine by me), but we also spent hour after hour waiting in line, waiting in line some more, then waiting in line a bit more than that. Stand at parade rest, snap to attention, walk forward a step, snap back to parade rest, repeat hundreds of times. We filled out countless forms, ate ridiculously fattening food (virtually everybody gained at least five pounds), and had to just sit or stand in silence for an entire week. Apparently it takes the Marines just a day or so to do all the same stuff.
When I finally got to Basic, our platoon was lead by three Drill Sergeants. The first who noticed me was Staff Sergeant Baker. She asked us to fill out some form, and I was forced to admit to her I had no pen. It wasn’t my fault I had no pen, for during reception when our unit was sent to the PX to buy supplies they were out of pens and I had no chance to go back. No matter, she reamed me to hell.
Next came Staff Sergeant Torres, a brash Puerto Rican from New York who looked like he was three quarters man and one quarter bull. After that, Sergeant First Class Mauran, a rural black North Carolinian who actually seemed to notice we were people.
Torres and Mauran had the perfect good cop-bad cop routine and obviously intense respect for each other. You were terrified to ask Torres anything for fear he’d rip your head off, but Mauran would take as much time as necessary to explain what needed explaining. If Mauran got mad at you, you know you messed up. The one time Torres gave us a compliment, it was one of the most touching experiences any of us had ever felt.
On the other hand, Baker was an utter jackass. She had no idea what she was doing (we noticed the other Drills correcting her more than once), and whether or not she was lax and indulgent with us or “smoked” us (made us do push-ups or other exercises as punishment) for an hour had nothing to do with what we did and everything to do with her mood. Whereas Torres and Mauran simply oozed competence in their respective ways, being led by Baker felt like have a dictatorial toddler ruling your every thought and action.
Yet Baker’s idiocy provided me with my proudest moment during Basic training. All the push-ups were tough, but sitting on the floor for classes for hours on end was tougher. Once while sitting on the floor during one of Baker’s “classes,” While switching from one position to another for an instant (sincerely) I was lying on my side with my head rested on my hand. That’s when Baker caught my eye and thus put me in the front-leaning rest position (the starting position for a push-up).
When put in the front-leaning rest, usually eventually the Drill noticed you and would tell you to recover. Baker seemed to have forgotten I was there. Under such circumstances normally the recruit calls out “permission to recover?” and the Drill would either grant or deny permission. You then waited another couple of minutes and repeated the little ritual. Eventually permission was granted.
But I knew Baker noticed me and was relishing the fact that I had been in that position for an exceptionally long time. The recruits next to me kept whispering to me to request permission to recover, but I refused under any circumstances to request mercy from that twat. I was shaking. I went numb. I could hardly breathe. I kept having to switch the position of my hands and feet because there was so much slippery sweat underneath me, but stayed in position and did NOT ask for permission to recover. When she finished the class, she told me to relax. I won, and I could see a flash of disappointment in her eyes, too.
Despite Baker’s inadequacy, the competence of Torres and Mauran would have been enough to have given me the genuine test of manhood I was seeking. Of course, three weeks into training they were sent to another platoon and I got a team of another jackass female, a burned-out male just passing time to get his pension, and a competent but detached reservist who although relatively competent blew up at random.
Basic Training hardly turned out to be the transformative experience you see in Full Metal Jacket or in documentaries about the Marines. The greatest skill I developed was the ability to just sit and wait, the only discipline I developed was the ability to not say “that’s stupid” to somebody who outranked me.
Moreover, the Army’s equivalent of grade deflation belittled any sense of “earning” your graduation from Basic. Every platoon had at least one idiot who everybody knew should not become a soldier, but about ninety percent of the time that idiot graduated just like everybody else. The Drills told such idiots, “They’ll whip you into shape at AIT!” (Advanced Individual Training, where you learn the basics of your job). At AIT they told them “They’ll whip you into shape at your first duty station!” At their first duty station they put them on extra duty a lot and maybe demoted them but just passed them on as soon as they could to the next station.
There was one such moron who was in my Company at Basic who objectively sucked, but he wound up in my platoon at AIT and demonstrated even more incompetence. He wound up in my platoon in Korea and acted even more stupid, but although he got demoted from PFC to PV2, he was sent back with me to Fort Lee. In Fort Lee upon hearing he was going to be deployed to Iraq, he wigged out every Wednesday night. One Wednesday night while drunk he broke into a storage locker for deployed soldiers and passed out in the locker on top of somebody’s clothes. Another Wednesday while drunk he stole somebody’s car keys and was busted off post for DUI and driving without a license. Thus, even though any idiot private could knew this guy would never be a real soldier four weeks into Basic, after the Army spent God only know how many hours training and disciplining him and tons of money feeding, housing, clothing, training, and paying him, two years later (and the moment before he would have been ostensibly useful) the Army finally let him go.
I knew soldiers who graduated from Fort Benning (instead of Jackson like me) who had a genuinely challenging experience during Basic and afterwards never had to put up with such idiocy. Moreover, I’ve seen some genuinely competent units that put up with no crap whatever. Unfortunately, I suspect with the feminization of combat arms that future military hardasses will be far more likely to have experiences that reflect mine. Pass them to make them feel good may have started with female soldiers and leaders, but the attitude spreads to males.
I was never called on to storm buildings or rescue a fallen comrade under fire, but I was a good soldier in that I always did what I was called upon to do and did it well. I can’t claim with certainty that I would have responded well under fire, but I responded well to everything I underwent to prepare me for that eventuality.
Yet I got out, and a lot of other quality soldiers did likewise for the same reasons as me. The Army let too many dirtbags through Basic, thus saddling competent soldiers with them in other units. I got horribly sick of being lectured because other people couldn’t show up on time, listening to lectures with the rest of my Battalion about the dangers of drunk driving because somebody I never met in another company got a DWI, and having a new rule pop up to govern my life every time somebody else broke a rule that was already there. When I was in Korea, four female soldiers got pregnant within a month, resulting in lecture after lecture on the importance and accessibility of birth control. Far too much of my life was prey to a system that had been set up to control the irresponsible actions of others who never should have gotten out of Basic Training in the first place.
I understand that the military is a collective endeavor, that “the chain is only as strong as its weakest link,” but it wasn’t my fault the chain had so many weak links–it was the Army’s. Yet I still had to suffer for it. The competent soldiers and NCO’s did what they could to strengthen some of the weak links and sometimes even succeeded, but usually they were hamstrung in what they could do. Can’t hurt anyone’s morale too much.
I’m aware that most combat arms positions are far more stringent and disciplined, but I’m also aware that the brass is doing everything in its power to change that. What began as watered-down standards for non-combat females morphed into a culture of “tolerance” for weak males. Thus, I see no reason to believe that the combat units that were exempt from some of this crap until now will soon become inundated by it.
That’s not to say I never encountered some great leaders and men. I did, and most of the most strong and competent men I’ve ever met were in the Army, but I could tell that they were getting disillusioned. Still, I saw some great examples, some of whom have affected my outlook on life to this day.
(And not to sound sexist or anything, but the number of competent female officers and NCO’s I worked with during my total of three years comes to a grand total of one.)
Yet my attempt at developing my masculine strength through the military largely failed. Yes, I probably should have selected a better MOS, but it’s the Army for crying out loud. The military is supposed to be the most masculine of our institutions, one in which even cooks are supposed to have some mettle to them, yet it’s no longer masculine and no longer mettle. The culture of the support troops is spreading to the combat troops when it should be the other way around.
I did develop some internal strength and I’m much better and working with authority. Before the Army, I had huge problems with bad bosses; since then I don’t.
Yet I wanted to find men to push me to achieve more than I ever thought I could, not just endure more idiocy and incompetence without telling somebody off. I put up with a lot of crap without blowing up, and I suppose that’s an accomplishment of sorts. However, growth entails not just enduring bad but also achieving something good. At the former the Army helped a great deal, at the latter not so much.
I suppose I also learned a bit about leadership. By the time I left Afghanistan, I was myself an NCO and had soldiers under me. Still, the focus of my job was less getting the most out of my soldiers and more shielding them from crap sent down from the top. Nevertheless, I was still respected in a way I hadn’t been before, and that counts for something.
However, knowing full well that there were plenty of idiots in the military even prior to its feminization, it used to be a largely male space, somewhere that a guy who didn’t have the best father could go to learn a bit of what he should have learned earlier. It may still be that way for Navy SEAL’s, but probably not for much longer.
Yet as more women join the “best of the best,” we’ll soon discover that not enough of the truly best want to be there. Men will abandon military responsibilities like they’ve abandoned so many others. One day we’ll wake up and realize we actually need tough men to defend us, inspiring yet more cries of “Where have all the good men gone?”