Friday, November 11, 2011

my military

In the Commonwealth, it's Remembrance Day; in France and Belgium, Armistice Day. For some of us, it's Nigel Tufnel Day, remembering the Spinal Tap guitarist whose amp famously "goes to 11." Here in the United States, it's Veterans Day.

I have a conflicted relationship with the military. My father's family had no military connections I'm aware of; my mother's elder brother Hollis (known the nieces & nephews as Bubba) had been in the Navy in the Second World War, serving on the heavy cruiser Minneapolis, the "Minnie." I never heard him tell stories about it, but when he died, my aunt gave me his pea jacket ("Hollis Walker" stitched into its lining) and his copy of the official history of the ship's wartime operations. Hair-raising reading. The Minnie took a Japanese torpedo right in the bow at one point; there's one memorable photograph of the temporary repairs – a bulkhead of palm trunks lashed across the ship's front.

My father was drafted into the Army in the last year of that war, snatched out of high school before he could graduate. By the time he'd finished basic training, the War in Europe was over, & he had the relatively cushy service of serving as part of the occupying army in Austria. It must have been grand, I like to think, for an 18-year-old from Paducah, Kentucky – an all-expense-paid trip to the Land of Mozart & Klimt, where he could gawk at buildings, sketch, & take photographs to his heart's content.

The military was my father's ticket out of his poverty-stricken western Kentucky roots. When he got back from Europe, he went to college on the GI Bill: first as an art major, then a history major. When the money ran out, he enlisted again, finishing his degree in Manila; the University of the Philippines, I'm surprised to say, issues the most sumptuous diplomas I've ever seen. But he could never quite find a niche in society with his bent for the liberal arts. He took a few more years off, marrying my mother and pursuing graduate work first at Vanderbilt then at Duke, along the way serving a term in the Air Force. (The chronology of all this, by the way, is very hazy to me; one day I'll sit down with the papers and work it all out.) By the time I came along, he had once again enlisted, for the duration, in the Army, and was stationed in West Germany. That's how I managed to be born in Frankfurt; I like to imagine Adorno giving a lecture across town during my mother's labor.

So I grew up as a military brat, living (in two-year intervals) in Syracuse, NY (where he was attending a language institute), West Germany, Carmel, CA (another language institute), West Germany again, and finally a dreary stretch in San Angelo, TX, a hellish posting my father assumed was punishment for his decision not to re-enlist at the end of his next term. When he finally retired – still in his late 40s – we moved first to Murray, Kentucky (near his family, and right where my mother's family lived), where he worked on yet another liberal arts degree.

Growing up on military bases, I never reflected that I was living a strange fishbowl existence. Our world was the post, the commissary, the PX, the post movie theater; it extended to the other military bases within driving distance (my mother knew where all the best PXs in the BRD were located). Germany itself, the larger polity within which we were a foreign enclave, was a kind of vast blank, visited only on exotic occasion. I was always aware, however, that I lived in one of the most class-stratified societies possible. The Army was something like 17th-century England, with its rigid social distinctions between enlisted men (commoners), non-commissioned officers (the rising bourgeoisie), and officers (the gentry and nobility): the ranks simply did not mix, especially not socially. Even in school, the second- and third-graders were all fully aware of their fathers' rank, and where that placed them in relation to the other kids.

Dad was a liberal early and late, despite his professional involvement in the ultimate instrument of American imperial power. He found the war in Vietnam a monumental, tragic folly, though I'm sure he didn't tell his superiors so. He spent years on a mountaintop near the East German border, transcribing and translating Soviet military transmissions, but I don't think he took the threat of invasion nearly as seriously as the average American on the street did. He was grateful for what the Army had given him – an education, health care for himself and his family, the chance to read Tolstoy and Dostoevsky in the original, the opportunity to visit the seats of the Western Culture in which he was so assiduously trying to school himself – but he had no patience with the reams of paperwork that characterized the smallest military decision, or with the labyrinths of entrenched bureaucracy that constituted the institution's heart's-blood.

There were pluses and minuses to a military upbringing: on the plus side came a certain cosmopolitanism, an absence of regionalism. I never really picked up a southern accent (tho my parents' accents were quite strong), because I always lived among people from all parts of the US; I never found it strange when someone's parents came from different countries, because half my friends had mothers from Korea, or Japan, or Germany. On the minus side was a painful lack of a sense of place, of belonging, side effect in part of moving every two years, tearing loose from whatever friends I'd made & starting all over. (Somehow, we managed to make that move, every time, over the Christmas holidays, so every other year I got to start at a new school mid-year. It was like the first scene of Madame Bovary, over and over again.)

When Dad finished that last degree, we moved to Clarksville, Tennessee, in large part to be near a military base. As a retiree, Dad would have lifelong access to military health care, to the PX, and to the commissary. Mom saw these things, in the days before ubiquitous dirt-cheap Wal-Marts, as prime selling points for an otherwise nondescript southern city. I did much of my growing up in Clarksville, then – on the north side, dominated by soldiers and military retirees.

Fort Campbell, the home of the 101st Airborne ("Screaming Eagles"), was in the late 1970s not a place to give one a positive impression of the military. In the wake of Vietnam, the Army had become a volunteer force – at some times, it seemed to be a repository for the sweepings of society. As I waited at the hospital for brutal (but free) dental care – I had my wisdom teeth cut out & extracted under local anaesthetic, the dentist removing every bloody fragment right before my horrified eyes – I would be surrounded by GIs who seemed unable to form a single grammatical sentence, who talked about nothing but partying, whose every third word was "fucking." The highway leading to the base was for miles and miles a non-stop carpet of pawnshops, bars, and strip clubs.

It never occurred to me for a moment to join the military after high school. Even if my father had had anything good to say about his own service, I'd seen enough of who was in there, & how things worked. Whatever I did, I knew, I wanted to be in some social niche in which there was room for eccentricity, for the intellectual & the aesthetic; and God knows I didn't see that space anywhere in the military. Let's be frank, as well: I was pretty damned sure I wouldn't be able to handle the discipline, or put up with the bullshit.

A bunch of my friends went into the military. For many of them, it was their only choice; they'd screwed up so badly in high school they couldn't get into college, or they needed to start earning money right away. Some of the brightest guys I knew in high school wound up enlisting, for one reason or another. I don't blame their choice; but I don't envy them either, or particularly admire them for it.

When Veterans Day comes around, when the flags get trotted out and the tear-jerking videos get played, I get all uncomfortable. I hate what the last administration did thru its lies to the 4000+ soldiers who died in Iraq, and to the uncounted thousands of others who've come home maimed & damaged, physically, mentally, & spiritually. I hate that this was done in my name, to "protect" me. And I hate the rhetoric of "service" and the high-flown cant of "sacrifice," which all too often is a tool to drag patriotic young people into a job in which they will never be adequately compensated for the risks they run on behalf of cowardly & calculating politicians. But on Veterans Day, I can't help recalling Ruskin's words, in Unto This Last, on the moral distinction between soldiers and merchants:
Philosophically, it does not, at first, sight, appear reasonable (many writers have endeavoured to prove it unreasonable) that a peaceable and rational person, whose trade is buying and selling, should be held in less honour than an unpeaceable and often irrational person, whose trade is slaying. Nevertheless, the consent of mankind has always, in spite of the philosophers, given precedence to the soldier.

And this is right.

For the soldier's trade, verily and essentially, is not slaying, but being slain. This, without well knowing its own meaning, the world honours it for. A bravo's trade is slaying; but the world has never respected bravos more than merchants: the reason it honours the soldier is, because he holds his life at the service of the State. Reckless he may be – fond of pleasure or of adventure – all kinds of bye-motives and mean impulses may have determined the choice of his profession, and may affect (to all appearance exclusively) his daily conduct in it; but our estimate of him is based on this ultimate fact – of which we are well assured – that put him behind a fortress breach, with all the pleasures of the world behind him, and only death and his duty in front of him, he will keep his face to the front; and he knows that his choice may be put to him at any moment – and has beforehand taken his part – virtually takes such part continually – does, in reality, die daily.


Archambeau said...

Do you think Ruskin might have been cribbing from Kant? Here's a bit of section 28 of the Critique of Judgment:

"For what is that which is, even to the savage, an object of the greatest admiration? It is a man who shrinks from nothing, who fears nothing, and therefore does not yield to danger, but rather goes to face it vigorously with the fullest deliberation. Even in the most highly civilised state this peculiar veneration for the soldier remains, though only under the condition that he exhibit all the virtues of peace, gentleness, compassion, and even a becoming care for his own person; because even by these it is recognised that his mind is unsubdued by danger. Hence whatever disputes there may be about the superiority of the respect which is to be accorded them, in the comparison of a statesman and a general, the aesthetical judgement decides for the latter. War itself, if it is carried on with order and with a sacred respect for the rights of citizens, has something sublime in it, and makes the disposition of the people who carry it on thus, only the more sublime, the more numerous are the dangers to which they are exposed, and in respect of which they behave with courage. On the other hand, a long peace generally brings about a predominant commercial spirit, and along with it, low selfishness, cowardice, and effeminacy, and debases the disposition of the people."


JL said...

I think what bothers me most about this holiday is the implication that all the sacrifices were necessary--and that if we fought the war, it was both just and necessary. I don't say that it usually wasn't--merely that usually the facts are more complicated. My father, as you know, served in the Korean War and reaped more or less the same benefits that your father did--which were considerable. The war itself, however, was a fairly complicated set of circumstances. Overshadowed by Viet Nam, the Korean War is seldom much thought of today.