"a fish, a barrel, and a smoking gun"
for 23 April 2001. Updated every WEEKDAY.

Guts and Glory

For a retail operation, it was a unique piece of marketing, featuring the reassuring image of an MP in battle dress scowling into the camera — with a German Shepherd seated attentively at his side. At post exchange facilities, the poster explained, you can shop with confidence; most are, after all, located on secure installations, and are patrolled by well-armed folks with stern facial expressions and the occasional big dog. Not to mention the fact that they only admit customers who can produce valid military identification. In short, went the concluding promise, you can browse with confidence here at your AAFES exchange, knowing that only authorized personnel will be found within your shopping environment — as if those sorry bastards who are stuck buying bread at the Piggly Wiggly are regularly being cut down by random shotgun blasts from all the dirty longhairs on the prowl in the bakery section.

It's been a bad few weeks for the military, with helicopters crashing and an airplane almost crashing and a kind-of-helicopter, kind-of-airplane being exposed as something that pretty much couldn't help but crash. The obvious conclusion to anyone watching the news lately has to be that military service is terribly dangerous even in peacetime. That's partially true, but it surely overlooks quite a few things — like the fact that there are more than 1.5 million people in the U.S. military, putting the number of training deaths a lot closer in relative figures to the number of Los Angeles television executives being killed on bad landings at the Aspen airport. Blackhawks crash, but so do Cessnas.

The greater problem is that the view of the military as a constant field of mortal danger feeds a frustratingly stupid idea about the people who serve in the thing, and about what they're like — the idea that people who are drawn to military service "have some very hot blood in their veins," as one particularly awful writer put it. The military — cue Kenny Loggins anthem — must be full of seat-of-the-pants types who thrive on walking the razor's edge, out there past the point of no return, getting off on the sheer wild uncontrolled hot rush of constant extreme danger. There may have been a Charlie Sheen movie about this.

But the peacetime military is itself acutely uncomfortable with people who register a whole lot more than a tepid arterial temperature. In his terrific 1997 book on basic training for U.S. Marines, Making the Corps, military reporter Thomas Ricks — a writer who, you may have noticed, is perceptive enough to merit multiple entries in the Suck hall of fame — focuses on a drill instructor charged with playing the heavy to his platoon. Sgt. Darren Carey was a former Force Recon marine, his face deeply scarred following a boat collision in 1985. The boat had collided with — well, with Darren Carey, who was in the water doing scuba training. It broke his skull and his jaw. And then he recuperated, and went back to achieving perfect scores on his physical fitness tests. Carey was a graduate of "just about every special warfare school operated by the U.S. military," including Army Ranger school — which he finished at the very top of his class — and a course called "Special Forces Target Acquisition and Exploitation," which he didn't feel comfortable explaining.

"Despite all that," Ricks wrote, "he is still only a buck sergeant after eleven years in the Corps... (H)is aggressive streak hasn't always helped him.... The Corps has long been ambivalent about 'Force Recon' Marines such as Sergeant Carey, fearing that they would become an elite within an already elite service... 'We're kind of like bastard children,' Sergeant Carey explains."

Because the kind of person who thrives in the peacetime military — and there are all kinds of exceptions, exceptionally smart and strong people who often force themselves to hang on because of a strongly developed sense of duty — is frequently someone who needs to see all the outlines very clearly in order to function within the system. When the elevator stops in the headquarters building, the female civilian exits first, then the guy wearing colonel's rank, then the lieutenant, then the sergeant first class, then the corporal. (And then the two privates both push out at the same time, to make sure the other one doesn't think he can punk him out.)

The rules are explicit and complete, one for absolutely every occasion, and you can determine where you stand in relation to every other man in the room by looking at their collars. One of the most common stories you'll hear on a military post is the one about the guy who got out after four or eight years, then went racing back to the recruiters office a few months later — begging to be sent back to the world where things make sense.

Even when it takes on risk, the military is built on a risk-averse foundation. Doctrine calls for the use of overwhelming force and stand-off technologies; you attack a platoon with a company or two, after a good artillery barrage. Note the long bombing campaign that battered Iraqi forces before the ground attack kicked off in Desert Storm, or the levelheaded caution of the so-called Powell Doctrine. And that is, for those of us who prefer not to see young Americans slaughtered by the box lot, a fairly pleasing reality. Most troops seem to share the notion that the best kind of warrior is the old kind, who gets to live quietly on his pension and go fishing whenever he feels like it.

And yet the reportorial habit of pumping media product full of adrenaline when the topic is a military one rages, always, in disproportion to anything that exists in the real world. The former Army colonel David Hackworth recalls visiting the Today show, just before fighting began in the Gulf war, to express his contrarian belief that Iraq wouldn't be much of an enemy — and wouldn't inflict large numbers of U.S. casualties. No one on the show believed him at all.

"Afterward I thought a lot about that moment," he writes, in his book Hazardous Duty. "There was something peculiar about the media frenzy, something that went deeper than the excitement and stress of covering an important story. It was almost as if frightened reporters who knew nothing about military realities wanted to inflate the war to inflate themselves."

And this may be why the pontificating and explaining is so jarringly awful as media personalities try to explain Timothy McVeigh — who was, apparently, turned into a stone cold killer by his service as a mechanized infantryman. It is, again, a pretty stupid fiction, and a willful one. Tim McVeigh is a sad, tiny man who, having misunderstood everything about everything — having wasted the only finally precious thing on earth, over just about nothing at all — is committing the final, awful obscenity of casually giving up his own life and being smug about, as if it proves something. To view him as a tough, hard-edged killer is to escape from seeing the incredible sadness of the totally hapless: He filled a truck with shit and blew up an office building, and believed he was nourishing the tree of liberty.

The real military is startlingly mundane, for the most part, and sometimes so excruciatingly dull it can literally be mind-altering — there's this sort of waking coma that sets in. And quite a few of the tough, hot-blooded, danger-craving men and women who fill the ranks pretty clearly prefer it that way.

Courtesy of Ambrose Beers

contact us | home | letters | archive | search
©2001, Automatic Media, Inc., home of Plastic, FEED, Suck, and Altculture.