Thursday, March 16, 2006

The military, eh?

I read daily (well week-daily) BlogHer, a collection of blog entries by an interesting assortment of women bloggers. I was lead there from Kim Ponder's blog Femme La Guerre (I read her book too and anxiously await her next one). There always seems to be something there to spark my mind and make me think about things I may not usually consider.

Now I found "Blogging for Books" and their weekly contest. This week they challenge us to enter a blog post about the military. Given that I spent 5 years on active duty and 13 years in the National Guard (just like the Boy Scouts but without Adult supervision) I guess I'm qualified. I know most of my friends (and thus most of the audience of this beast) have heard most of my stories but I find that very few of them are down in writing anywhere. What is down is exerpts from other places, Colby Buzzell's book on his time in Iraq and a piece I really like about a British steamer lost of South Africa at the turn of the century. But nothing of my stories (a few of which are good, some funny but most just me).

However there is one thing that I occasionally ponder (without a real conclusion so far). Why is it that we (service men and women and former service "people"?) are so difficult to understand? Why is it that the preponderance of the American public don't get us? Why we do(/did) it, how it felt doing it and how we feel about having done it now, afterwards. I don't speak from the perspective of a combat veteran, I was on active duty as an Army Corps of Engineers Officer (I was a 21 juliet 5 papa, jump qualified combat engineer officer) serving in a mechanized combat engineer battalion assigned to V Corp in Central Germany from 1983 to 1986 (a year before in training and a year after at Fort Leonard Wood as a staff officer). So that makes me what had come to be known as a "Cold Warrior".

And now the cold war is over and we won. It was a hollow sort of victory since none of what we ever trained to do was necessary. Kind of like practicing as hard as you can for the Big Game for twenty five years only to have the game called on account of rain. However many of us realized what it would have meant if we had been called off the bench and sent into the game and are glad we didn't have to. It's a very sobering thing to think about what war means when your only 22. To deal with the idea of getting killed and know how likely it might have been. Or (what was more disturbing to me) to realize that if you didn't know your job inside and out, upside and down, you might make a bad call and get one (or more) of your troops killed. Having to write that "we regret to inform you ..." kind of letters. To go to the funeral service whose centerpiece is a pair of highly shined combat boots with a kevlar helmet on top of them (we only had to go to two in my three years in Germany).

But why don't they get us, why don't they understand? The intellectual side of me thinks back to John Keegan's book "The Face Of Battle" where he considers why men (and women) fight. His conclusion is that they don't fight for grand national ideals, they fight for their squadmates and for survival. And I think that's the key of why servicemembers have such a strong bond that seems to defy interpretation and understanding by outside people. "Shared adversity" is such a simple sounding phrase and fairly easy to decipher and understand. But such understanding remains only intellectual. It lacks the depth which is implied by night watches in freezing cold temperatures on wind swept hilltops when you have to stay behind as guard before your vehicles can be loaded onto the trains for the trip home tomorrow, when everyone else is on the bus on the way back to their own beds. The depth of wearing a chemical protective suit, gas mask (with hood), rubber gloves and boots for five hours to complete the annual training requirement, sweat pouring off your back unable to see clearly through the lenses because you don't know where you put your glasses inserts. The depth (and perhaps satisfaction) of watching four hours of hectic work putting in the last of the fake "minefields" to a defensive plan work exactly as you forecasted and allow your side to win the wargame after ten days of 23 hour workdays. The depth of working for two weeks before the annual inspection counting every darned screwdriver, hammer and wrench, every record of every soldiers who fired at the range, every counseling record for every one of your soldiers and every other little bit of minutea that even might be looked at and getting a superior rating by the inspection team. Of working for a week on a briefing for the colonel so hard that you think you got tunnel vision and could only see the colonel and the map, then briefing so well that months later your boss noted it on your annual performance review.

And yet still after coming up with these examples I don't think mere words, especially my words (since I'm not very talented at this) can convey the meaning of all of this and the kind of bond it forms between me and the sergeants, specialists and my brother officers who were there with me then. Men who drove across a state and a half to visit me when my dad told them I had had a motorcycle accident. Men who I seriously considered trying to find a way to fly to Baghdad so I could attend the ceremony when he took command of a battalion shortly after they had been deployed to Iraq.

But if you can't understand, many of you know someone who has served and perhaps you can see it in their eyes when they tell you stories about "from when they served". I know I loved the stories my dad told me from when he was in WWII, even if he was only in the merchant marine. Talk to them. Try.


Blogger Mata H said...

You are so right about this. I recall watching the very end of a film about the British Colonial forces in India..and one officer said "At the end of the day it isn't about patriotism or glory. It is about the man to your left and the man to your right." I think men who have experienced combat have an ever deeper bond because of the horrors they have come through together. Horrors that shape their lives from that point on . Horrors that defy description. You are right to say "Talk to them. Try."


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