combat writing badge C O M B A T
the Literary Expression of Battlefield Touchstones
ISSN 1542-1546 Volume 05 Number 02 Spring ©Apr 2007

It's All About Service

You're all starry-eyed and revved-up ... ready to go. You're all grown-up and tired of lectures. You're super-juiced on hormones and positively goal-oriented, so there's probably not much point in talking to you, but I owe it to your father. Listen to your Dutch uncle this one last time and you might learn something.

You've made plans, which is good ... everybody should have a plan ... but plans are the first thing to die in combat. Knowing how to make a new plan in the heat of battle, how to improvise workable solutions during action takes experience ... and that's exactly what every new recruit lacks. You think you have alot to live up to ... and you do ... and you think you're man enough to handle whatever happens ... and you might be ... but life is not a race ... unless you're in a hurry to die ... so I recommend that you try to conquer this peak one step at a time.

There will always be a war, someplace, sometime. The challenges are never going to just go away ... they will change, but they will always exist ... and there are never enough good people to confront them. Once you get into it, you'll be surprised that there's room for you at the top ... that, in fact, there's even enough room for you, if you're worthy, all along the way.

You don't have to decide what your ultimate goal is at the beginning ... rank, medals, travel, milcraft ... but keep it in mind, because every step in the wrong direction makes your journey harder. You'll meet alot of people who are just marking time, some who are wandering around checking out their options, some genuinely dedicated troopers, and a few who are so ambitious that everything around them is just background and everyone near them is just a useful idiot. Most of those fast-movers will be leaders, so try not to let yourself get killed by their ambition. Some goldbricks and feather-merchants will try to scam you ... charm is their stock and trade, not elbow-grease ... so learn to identify and avoid them, because you are judged by the company you keep.

You've heard this before, but pay attention because you're going to hear alot of things you've heard before. Maybe we shouldn't have let you listen to our stories, but I always figured that you would either satisfy your curiosity and accept our tales as normal, or get bored and find something more interesting to do with your time. There isn't much difference between the lies we've told and the lies you've read in all your books! ... except that you know us, and have heard us ridicule those jerks who make money telling whoppers. Like I said, this is old hat ... everyone puts their pants on one leg at a time. Everyone comes into the military at the same level. The know-it-all are a problem for the DIs because these people have to unlearn what they think they already know in order to learn what they're supposed to know! ... give me someone who's never fired a rifle and I'll teach him to be an expert, but the barracks lawyer and the martial artist, or even the ones with military school training, have to be deconstructed before they can be made into prime specimens. It's not just a matter of the right way, the wrong way, and the military way, but of smoothly meshing into the machinery of the system as it currently exists ... not the way it used to exist, nor the way it ought to exist. I don't want you to play dumb, because you're very bright and have alot of potential, but don't volunteer.

The military is changing all the time ... whether for the better or worse is debatable ... but it is what it is. You'll be taught what you need to know, so pay attention and do it the way you are taught ... and when you are told to change the way things are done, from new weapons and new uniforms to new protocols and new standards, then you do that too. A long time ago, the Army issued rough-out leather boots so that we could tromp around and beat them up without worrying about messing them up, but the military, being its own worst enemy, made everybody spit-shine those boots! ... later it would be no-iron BDUs that got heavily starched. In the early days, paratroopers could not be married due to the rate of canopy malfunctions, and early SFers had to prove their bilingualism before acceptance, and now the old rules about where women are permitted to serve are changing. Old timers get cynical about unnecessary changes, but you're too young to have that perspective, and you shouldn't borrow it from us ... you'll earn your own perspective, just like you'll earn your own stripes and gongs.

In fact, borrowing anything from anybody diminishes you. What anybody else has earned or received has nothing to do with you. You are making your own way up that mountain, so someone else's success or failure, while interesting or informative, has no bearing on whether you continue to march. You carry your load, complete your missions, and make your own reputation. If somebody helps you along the way then that's alright, because maybe you can help somebody else, and because a tour of duty is not about you ... it's about the unit accomplishing its assignment.

The reasons why people are serving in the military are as varied as the people themselves. Some servicemembers are patriots, some are traditionalists, some are opportunists, and some are seeking perquisites ... where else can you play with such expensive toys?! Even when people are drafted, they know why they're serving, so don't lie to yourself about your motives. If you're looking for a friend, adopt a dog! If you want companionship, join a club! If you want to wear a fancy uniform, get a job as a hotel doorman! If you're looking for job security, join a union. If you're seeking rewards, go into business. If you want to tantalize yourself with risk, go on any of the several extreme sports excursions! ... nobody who's ever been to war ever wants to go back, and completing a tour with all present and accounted for is abnormal.

Western culture has been promoting family values while Eastern culture has been promoting family development, but since philosophy has declared that God is dead, America has been promulgating feel good to the me generation ... so if you accept that he who has the gold makes the rules as our national watchword, then you will be very discontented in the military, because the brass obeys the same rules as the yardbirds. Not that there aren't opportunities to cheat and steal, but that every theft and lie is supposed to benefit the unit, and not the individual. Your father and I used to manufacture war souvenirs for trade to the REMFs, but the stuff we acquired was for our people ... stuff that should've come through channels but got diverted somewhere else, so our midnight requisitions and other transactions were just a way of reprogramming the resupply route.

And, if you think that the military only exists to create generals and Medal of Honor winners, then you will be dissatisfied, because that old sexual metaphor is right on target: it ain't what you've got but how you use it!. As long as you think that the best goes to someone better, then you won't ever be happy in the military until you learn to make the best of what you've got.

Wannabes are only the most obvious example of greedy people stealing what doesn't belong to them, but it applies to every aspect of military affairs. It's easy to feel envy or jealousy or resentment when awards or promotions are dispensed, but life is not fair. In fact, despite the aspect of superficial uniformity, there's nothing about the military that's fair, and shouldn't be ... because a soldier is always looking for an edge to unbalance the equation so that he can triumph over his adversary as quickly as possible. The military is a hierarchy ... although some people like to pretend that it's a meritocracy ... and as such, only so many people can move up the chain-of-command.

At one time, such as in the old Brown Boot Army, or in some specialties, such as with Warrant Officer technicians, it was possible to be perpetually retained at one's proficiency level, but the up or out policy has been enacted since World War Two, reinforcing the fact that warm bodies are expendable in the big picture. If it were a meritocracy, then those who were obviously unqualified would be eliminated early, but it is a human institution ... flawed and defective and subject to influence or manipulation, just like every other human endeavor ... which means that some bad people with good connections can displace some good people without backing. Some people just happen to be at the right place at the right time when something occurs ... and if they act appropriately, they are customarily rewarded, and if they act inappropriately, they are usually punished. Sometimes their acts, whether right or wrong, are overtaken by circumstance ... and sometimes they are overlooked or overshadowed. The informal back channel network usually takes note of these things, and sometimes tries to avenge a particularly egregious miscarriage, but it's enough for most of us that our mettle is recognized by the folks we esteem. Mutual respect is always more important than tokens.

Even in an unpopular war like Vietnam, where a million servicemen and servicewomen served in the region on land and sea for over ten years, there has developed an army of more than nine million phonies who now claim service in that theater ... and where the hell were they when we needed them?! Most of the wannabes lie about their supposed achievements, bestowing badges and medals upon themselves for imaginary or unrecognized actions, while others allege exciting encounters and dangerous assignments so beloved of fictioneers. If everyone who claimed to have been a recon scout or sniper really served in-country then there wouldn't have been anywhere for Mister Charles to hide! And if every covert op took place ... well, you'll acquire your own bullshit detector when you're not so wet behind the ears. The military is unique among modern institutions, being reminiscent of the old ways, in that a person's word is his bond. This trust and reliance on the word, which can be documented after the fact by denoting Verbal Order of the Commanding Officer, is equally applicable for the OP lookout, or the RTO signalman, or the HQ runner. While you're developing that intuitive sixth sense, remember to compare words to actions ... watch what people do and recall what they said. You'll find that doers and talkers are from two different tribes, and you'll want to affiliate with the quiet professionals.

Most of the people in the military never experience combat, and most of the people sent into a war zone are as safe as they were back home. Even on the counterinsurgency or counterterrorism battlefield, there are relatively safe and distinctly hazardous areas ... most of the fighting in Vietnam, where Victor Charles supposedly ruled everywhere, took place in the border provinces. And just like the fact that it takes five cops to keep one policeman patrolling the streets, it takes nine soldiers to keep one grunt on the frontline. We can wrangle over the legitimacy of that ratio, but that's the way it's been in modern times, and only slightly different in ancient times. Being cannon fodder is inspiring twenty or fifty years after the war is over, but at the time, it's a little too thrilling for most people! Besides, getting paid on time and eating regularly and being resupplied is important, so the drones who perform these thankless tasks must be pretty important too.

Most of the people who perform the regular support functions in the military are not unlike their civilian counterparts, except that the suit they wear to work is regulated, as is their personal conduct. It's commonplace to factionalize, and competition encourages group cohesion and exclusivity, but it's stupid to bite the hand that feeds you. The soldier you scorn may be the one who helps you get out of trouble, or moves your requisition to the top of the stack, or secures the training that you need. The soldier sitting behind a desk or staffing a kiosk might be a sport parachutist, a skin diver, a hobbyist armorer, or a knifemaking machinist, and disrespect will never build a bridge between you. You can't shun him for being just a functionary because you too are just a cog in the Big Green Machine yourself! Everybody needs a little help or consideration at one time or another ... whether it's trigonometric artillery solutions or substitute guard duty ... so figure out how to let one hand wash the other. Everybody in uniform is on the same team, so learn to play together. If you don't, then you better not ever need a favor or a friend. It's pretty easy to force something till it breaks. Hard-ass is one management method, and cut some slack is another. You'll experience both, so you'll get a chance to decide which works better.

Of the many myths about the military, the most basic is that of free will or control ... you imagine that you have made a decision when the military lets you volunteer, but all you've really done is petition the powers that be. In legal parlance, you've made an offer, but there is no contract until the military decides whether to accept your offer or to offer something else ... your only option at that point is to accept or reject the assignment, with all associated consequences. Military service is not slavery, so you can refuse any assignment, even on the battlefield, but the ramifications are substantial. If you volunteer for an assignment and the military sends you elsewhere, then you go where you've been sent, do what you're told, and volunteer again later for a different assignment ... perhaps with better results on the second or third attempt. In short, you must do your duty.

Soldiers don't make policy ... they implement it, execute it, or enforce it. The United States military is directed by civil authority, which has been inconsistent and inconstant, vacillating from election to election, contradicting alliances and compromising allies. The troops don't have to like it or agree with it ... they only have to do it, whatever it is at the time. There are no heroes ... there are only troops doing what they're supposed to do. Sometimes that job is vital and refreshing, and sometimes it's just a dirty thankless chore that nobody else is capable of doing. These assignments run the gamut from constabulary and peacekeeping to hot wars and cold wars ... saber-rattling with the communist bloc was on an eleven minute trigger with the Warsaw Pact and an eleven second trigger with the Korean armistice. So an anatomical inventory should suggest to you that soldiers should look and listen, should work and walk twice as much as they speak. Everybody's got an opinion, but the only ones that matter are the ones that dispatch us in harm's way.

The only obligation in America is taxes, while the military imposes standards upon its cohort as an additional responsibility. America is both that shining city on a hill and a nation of sheep, and it no longer requires its citizens to pledge their allegiance, but the military not only requires the pledge, but a sworn oath of fealty. A servicemember's enlistment is a voluntary commitment that waives some civil rights ... such as free speech, assembly, self incrimination, and others ... while guaranteeing all of these rights to other citizens. The reason for this is that military service depends more upon character than laws to exact restraint and conformity. Soldiers are not beaten into shape but exercise their own self discipline to attain proper comportment.

The name has changed over the years, from War Department to Department of Defense, and from Armed Forces to Uniformed Services, but the meaning has remained constant ... military service is not a politically-correct euphemism for a horde of cruel destroyers! Military action is that force deemed necessary to enable or enact public policy ... there is nothing private or personal about it, and neither is it illegal or unwarranted. If there is ever any question of unlawful orders then each soldier has the obligation to disobey. Our military skillcrafts are becoming more and more precise, such that deadly force can be as limited as single targets or as vast as an entire region, depending upon directives. As the Taoists say, when one has enough power, one does not have to demonstrate it. That gives the military options that it has never had before, which has persuaded some politicians to use servicemembers like social workers in uniform. In any event, and whatever the assignment, military service is all about service. The military does not exist for you ... you exist for the military ... anytime, anywhere, anyway.

I know that it's a little hard for you to believe as you gaze upon this aging specimen of military merit and plangent pulchritude ... as if this stunning radiance, by its sheer brilliance, incinerated your childhood recollections of past revelries with pure amnesia of those impurities! ... but I too was once a foolish young puppy with more raw energy than good sense. 'Tis sad but true ... so let me give you one final bit of advice. I'm not going to tell you not to sing the old ballads that your father and I sang in our cups ... the old dogs won't accept you and the young dogs won't trust you. You'll learn to howl with your own pack, and that will become your own music ... and you too will resent anyone chiming-in who has not earned his place! And I won't tell you not to get tattoos until you've earned them, or been invited to share in the design, because if you're stupid enough to go where you don't belong, then you deserve whatever retribution is meted out! No, that's all common sense, and if you don't have it by now, then you'll never have it.

The only last word that I can pass along to you is: forgiveness. The religionists have made a big deal about forgiving transgressions but I'm really talking about humility. You are not bullet-proof ... and you are not as smart as you think you are. You are going to make mistakes ... everyone does. Don't worry about the mistakes that somebody else is making, because you, sooner than you could believe possible, will have more regrets than you can tote in your ruck! ... if you're lucky, they'll be minor ... of the simple Aw shit! variety ... but they can be pretty painful and haunting. Nobody is perfect ... not you, not your sergeant, not your commander ... and we all must live with that imperfection.

So, my young comrade, learn how to forgive yourself. If you can find a way to put the pain someplace that doesn't turn you into an insensate or insensitive machine, then you'll be a better soldier than your father ever was, than I ever was, than most people ever can be. Warriors are called upon to do terrible things, but they don't have to be terrible people. Soldiering is tough. Carry on.

by Frank N. Ernest
... who is a combat veteran and retired policeman; his work has appeared previously in this magazine.

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