Commenting on “the military” . . . just stop

Fayetteville, NC apartments aka Ft. Bragg Enlisted Housing

This is a peeve.

Please, those of you who have no experience of the military, and this includes my political allies on the leftish end of things — especially you — stop and think before you pop off with stereotypical nonsense about the military. Because you really don’t know what the hell you are talking about.

I recently posted on facebook that “veteran veneration is militarism.” Not the first time I’ve said that, as a review of my earlier screeds will show. I didn’t mean we should exchange that compulsory veneration for hatred and denunciation of veterans (I kinda am a veteran); but a couple of responses stood out.

“Since the draft was ended all our military are just mercenaries.”

“killers are not heroes. Heroes are not killers.. we need to redefine what amounts to valor and glory”

These are tame compared to some of the other nonsense I’ve seen; but my point is that these kinds of broad generalizations are fairly typical of a certain fraction of the left that reflects the general culture outside the military.

Responding to these comments: The economy functions as a draft; and the majority of those in uniform are in because the military provides things like free health care, job security, a housing allowance, even money for food — and thirty days of annual vacation from the time you join. As to killers, the overwhelming majority of troops — even in combat zones — never fire a rifle except on the range. The majority of occupational specialties are non-combat. Very few members of the military ever see combat; and among those who do, most see very little.

Back to my more general grousing, this kind of drivel is a consequence of people getting their information from entertainment media, which trades on conflict for dramatic tension, spectacle, and recognizable tropes. Oh, and violence. Lots of violence. So when you see soldiers represented in film or television or games, they are always fighting; and given that Hollywood and its ilk have always been nationalist, militarist propagandists, this violence is simultaneously heroic and redemptive. But it is wildly misrepresentative of the actual military. Few points:

Soldiers are not as “highly trained” as you think. They do not reflexively snap to attention, speak robotically, or automatically whip some martial art shit on anyone who triggers them. The military does not train anyone to be stunt-people for the movies. Apart from Basic Training or Boot Camp (two names for the same thing depending on which branch) — where new troops spend a couple of months learning the vocabulary, how to conduct basic drill and ceremony, basic rifle marksmanship, and how to get along with a bunch of people they didn’t grow up with — most troops study a particular specialty, which can be anything from flute and piccolo player to admin specialist to wheeled vehicle mechanic to the infantry. What they all learn in common is how to complain about the military. Even the ones who make a career of it. Hell, especially the ones who make a career of it. By the time I retired, I wanted to burn my uniforms.

The military is not all spit-and-polish, prompt obedience stuff. It is mostly a day job, taking place in the context of a grinding bureaucratic behemoth. Troops themselves are reluctant to admit this to outsiders, because most are from 18 to 25 years old, and they cash in on these stereotypes because it lends them a mystique. Let me repeat, 18 to 25 years old . . . now think about the people you know of that age, and you realize that this is a period when many are trying to preserve or transcend their adolescence. When they go home — seldom nowadays in the on-post billets — they get out of the uniform with a sigh of relief, pop a beer, grab some food, settle in to play video games, change diapers, run out for last minute groceries . . . same stuff as non-military young people.

Many young soldiers, if they’re not married when they go in (that’s why many go in, to get benefits for the family), get married while in uniform. They have a steady, protected job, so they are marriageable. Being young and randy, they also make many babies, which often as not is the reason some reluctantly re-enlist. Back to basics. Health care, child care, family support services, plenty of holidays, plenty of vacation time, and job security. The military is 1000 times more “family-friendly” than, say, Congress. And the pay, even just starting out, is very very competitive.

Troops are very diverse in very diverse ways. Not meaning ethnicities — though the military is America’s most successful institution at racial integration — but in backgrounds, temperaments, practices, interests, and life goals. There are readers and gamers and golfers and fishers and Medieval reenactors and cooks and Nascar nuts and climbers and hip-hoppers and introverts and extroverts and sports fans and sports-haters and Republicans and Democrats and dog lovers and cat lovers and ferret lovers and skydivers and photographers and music-heads and shade-tree mechanics and marathon runners and snake-chasers and baby-raisers and God-botherers and rock hounds and fashion freaks and pottery-makers and spelunkers and skiers and swimmers and birders and cinophiles and swingers and gearheads and conspiracy nuts and painters and carpenters and party planners and tourists and amateur historians and ghouls and [name-your-sexuality] and gamblers and gastronomes and writers and dirt-bikers and gardeners and model builders and off-duty Goths and depressed people and social climbers and political junkies and abusers and victims of abuse and surfers and hunters and hucksters and saintlike empaths and a few psychos who joined up to legally kill people . . . in other words, people. That last category gets elevated to a representation of the whole, but it’s a small slice. You can find the same thing on police forces, only more per capita.

One reason they can be so diverse — I keep hitting on this point — is that they have a little disposable income with which to do things. Present-day American troops are world-class consumers. That paycheck has a ready reception on the part of local retailers, the amusement industry, insurance hawkers, and bunko artists. As you drive past the GI-rich neighborhoods in Fayetteville, or Clarksville, or Tacoma, or Virginia Beach, there is a shiny rainbow selection of new automobiles alongside a smorgasbord of toys laying around outside of the houses which are themselves full of electronic toys, appliances, tchotchkes, and youth-targeted kitchen-ready food. Every fridge has beer or wine. Every pantry is stocked with food. Every Chucky Cheese is full of screaming, puking toddlers. Every zoo cashes out. Every tattoo-piercing parlor, tittie-bar, and dive is flush.

These are not people who have learned to live off the land (that’s hardly even possible now), suffer indeterminate hardship (even the toughest deployment, and they can be tough, has a departure date), bite the heads off of snakes, and make a boat out of straw. We have the most pampered troops in the history of the world; and if they can put up with the shit for 20 years, they draw fifty percent of their base pay for life.

Is it a scary culture? Sometimes. Driving in a GI town can be akin to a gladiator fight. Young people are aggressive, young men (still eighty percent of the US military) moreso. I’ve also often remarked on how awful the military is for women — how dangerous. But the two months (for most) of trained aggression is only a part of it. The age cohort of the military — 18–45 and weighted toward the bottom — is the high-probability rape demographic inside and outside the military. Any run-of-the-mill frat house is more dangerous per capita, because at least the military has the kind of law that drops on you like a strike hammer.

Do any of these people who pop off with generalizations realize that there are more mixed ethnicity marriages in the military, by far, than there are in the general population? That there are more bi-lingual or multi-lingual persons in the military than in the general population? Or does “mercenaries” and “killers” sum everything up? Not that these facts are redemptive, just that they complicate the stereotypes and shopworn tropes of people who think they know something about the military because they can pronounce highly abstracted judgements.

And remember . . . 99 percent of what you see about the military in the entertainment media is exactly what comes out of the southbound end of a northbound horse.

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Stan Goff

Author of the books “Hideous Dream,” “Full Spectrum Disorder,” “Borderline,” “Mammon’s Ecology,” and “Tough Gynes.”