My favorite lesson from the military
The other evening I attended a lecture at a local university.
It featured Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, famous journalists for those who don’t bother with that sort of thing. It was going to be crowded. I planned to arrive early to team up with some friends and get decent seats.
The campus police were out in force, shunting traffic through various side streets. I had to park a couple of minutes walk away—nothing too arduous (glad I was there an hour early, though!). As I got out of my car, a dozen others nearby were doing the same. We all began to meander toward the auditorium.
Closer to the venue, pedestrian traffic concentrated, as did the vehicle traffic of people just starting their quest for parking. The campus police officers were there to keep things flowing.
As I approached the final crosswalk to the auditorium, one of the many cars in line pulled forward, blocking the crosswalk and stopped.
“Ma’am, please don’t block the crosswalk,” the nearby campus police officer said.
The black Cadillac remained stopped. The long line of cars behind it stopped as well.
“Ma’am, please don’t block the crosswalk. I’m going to need you to move, ma’am.”
At this point, the pedestrians were now clumped up to the side of this car, unable to cross. The car’s windows were tinted, but I could see a passenger. She suddenly opened her door after a few more seconds. She was being dropped off.
The campus guy was now leaning on the open car door as the passenger started climbing out. He said, “Ma’am, I can’t have you blocking the crosswalk like this to drop off. You’ll need to go to the other—“
The driver interrupted, “No, you can just wait a minute. I can go where I want!”
“Ma’am, there are others waiting, please keep moving.”
The passenger finally managed to emerge from the car, now to a waiting crowd of pedestrians and lengthening line of car traffic behind.
“Who do you think you are? You can’t talk to me like that!” the driver started in again.
And so it went back and forth for another minute: the campus security guard trying to do his job, and the entitled driver aghast that her course of action had been impugned. The driver got in a few choice words about how insignificant the security officer was and how she was a graduate of the university and could do as she pleased.
Hardly the worst I’ve seen people treat each other, but it reminded me of one of the few aspects of the military I miss: the general intolerance for that sort of bullshit. People in uniform don’t normally treat each other with that level of disdain. When someone’s behavior needs correction, it happens, and all go about their lives.
One of the lessons from the military that I am the most thankful for is the general sense of humility about things. Ironic, I know, bragging about humility; but there it is.
As an enlisted man in the armed forces, I learned very quickly just how much power I didn’t have. It’s not just represented in the modest pay, but also in how others in the service treat you.
I could tell 1,000 stories. While in basic training, there was this one time I was with several soldiers from my platoon. We were performing “area beautification” in the grounds surrounding our company headquarters. This time, that meant crawling around on the ground for a few hours, handpicking out the clovers and dandelions from the grass.
For some strange reason there was a second lieutenant who walked up to our work party. Not normally used to seeing officers, I was a bit startled and, being in charge of the work party, quickly stood up, snapped to attention and saluted. The second lieutenant told me to carry on.
He was visiting from some college ROTC program and wanted to talk to some soldiers. We spoke for a minute. He asked where I was from, asked what we were doing, joked about how silly it was to handpick weeds and even started picking weeds with me. He said he was passing the time until his captain was done with a meeting.
“Chris, what the hell are you doing?” the captain said, appearing from around the corner of the building.
Again I snapped up and saluted. The second lieutenant did the same, “Just talking with the troops, sir.”
“Chris, come here,” the captain said, returning the salute.
The second lieutenant walked over just a couple of steps away.
“Chris, let me tell you something, son. These men—they’re enlisted. They’re not your friends. They’re your tools. Learn to use them as such.”
The two men walked off. I returned to my weed pulling.
And the captain was right. For a commander to send men and women into battle to die, he or she needs to not think of enlisted as individuals, but as means to an end—numbers toward victory. If a commander connected and humanized every soldier, that person would go nuts or be paralyzed with fear in the face of losses in combat.
That’s why enlisted are never first names, they are their rank. That’s why enlisted will be told to wait hand and foot on the whims of officers or senior enlisted, standing in the cold, the rain, holding some damned bag, always awaiting further instructions. Whether it’s mowing the lawn, disposing of human waste, digging loogies out of urinal cakes, standing in formation in the Texas heat for hours or staying up until 3 a.m. waiting to be inspected; the military is a system that humbles and lays low a person’s arrogance and ego.
What it does is it takes normal people…hopelessly self absorbed and oblivious, and teaches them that actions have consequences. The system by its nature also teaches an incredible amount of that humility I mentioned earlier—that my place and my comfort and my preference should always be subordinate to others. Not in a weak, subservient way (I was literally running, gunning and kicking ass more than I ever had), but in meekness, willfully showing restraint despite the power to react.
So when I run into people who blithely inconvenience others or selfishly impose their will, I remember how much I used to do the same, and all the times it made me fell like crap when others did it to me.
It remains my most cherished lesson from the military: the desire not to be an asshole.
Novel Update: Preview of Chapter 1 (pt 2)
Hey friends, my blog output has been less than optimal because I’m writing my novel. Many of you are cool to ask how its going. It’s going. Ha!
In July, I gave you a snapshot of the first part of Chapter 1 (HERE). Check that out first, if you haven’t read any of it yet.
Without further ado, here’s the preview of the rest of the first chapter.
All rights reserved and all that lot.
There were sounds, muffled. Eve started to perceive them. In the moment between asleep and awake, real and imagined sounds mingled.
She moved, her neck and joints creaking as she floated in the cryo fluid. Her eyes were still clamped shut.
She started to perceive the actual cold—the freezing fluid. Her body began to shiver, though the fluid was warming steadily. She stayed still for a few more minutes. There were tubes in her nose and mouth. She could feel her tongue against the breathing apparatus. Her jaw ached. Her head ached.
Eve went through the routines from training, mentally mapping out her arms and legs, almost reconnecting with her body. She perceived her toes and moved them, then her feet and legs, then fingers and arms. The fluid became bearably warm, though her body still shivered.
Counting to three, she forced open her eyes for a second then squeezed them shut, the fluid stung a bit, more from the cold than any irritant. A moment later she opened them again. Her cryo tube lights were on, as was the interior display screen.
There were no alarms, no klaxons, no signs of a shipboard emergency. Eve was being allowed to wake up at her own pace. She sighed, relieved, and floated for another few minutes.
The display screen’s large font made it easy to read through the fluid. The system was on standby, waiting for Eve to push the button to start the opening process for her tube.
During emergencies, the ship would take the liberty of doing that for the tech, unceremoniously dumping the groggy traveler onto the freezing deck in seconds. Eve was thankful for the normal wakeup.
Eve began to shiver again. She opened her eyes, found the ENABLE button on the display and pressed it. Some loud metallic clunks and hisses sounded through her tube. A seal cracked and the cryo fluid began to drain away. Eve sank a few inches to the cushions of her tube. The still colder air of the ship’s interior hit her nose and slowly washed over her face and body. She reached up to rub her eyes. The wires and electrodes tugged at her arms.
A final crack and hiss and the tube lid lifted up and away. The room was dark, save for the spotlight from the ceiling on Eve’s tube.
Eve sat up and gagged out the breathing mask. She clung to the edge of the tube and endured her first coughing spell, one of what would be dozens over the next few days. Her skin squeaked and pulled against the leather cushion pads. The sensation of gravity still felt new.
She caught her breath and relaxed, still shivering but more awake. Her breath shot out in ragged plumes into the dark of the room. She noticed some status lights shone through. On the far wall was her medical diagnostic screen, still reporting data from the probes and sensors attached on her body.
She looked down at the probes, then at her arms. They were heavily muscled. In fact, her whole body had been toned and developed in cryo. She ran her fingers along the lines of her abdominals and biceps. She wasn’t sure how to take her new muscle-bound self. She also didn’t much like that it probably meant a deployment on a high-gravity planet or moon. Such missions were unpleasant even with the additional muscle mass.
Sighing, she started peeling off the probes and wires and coughed some more. She looked through the dark at her medical screen. She was now dead, according to her readout. There was another set of readings. Eve looked to the left and right past the empty adjacent tubes. There, about three tubes down, was another tech, still in cryo sleep.
Another tech? It was unusual, but not unheard of. The crew compartment could support up to 10, but in Eve’s years of service, she never heard of more than two on a deployment.
Eve signed again. Another tech meant a more involved mission—not the wake-up/boom/go home missions she enjoyed. That, or it meant a training operation for the second tech. Either way, it would keep Eve awake longer than usual.
Eve groaned as she swung her legs over the edge of the tube. She rubbed her eyes again and yawned. Her shivering had subsided a bit, but it was still very cold inside the ship. The heating elements must not have been on very long.
She eyed the deck, knowing space would have kept the metal at an uninviting temperature during the trip. She looked over to the far wall. Under her flatlined medical display she could make out the faint outlines of the bins with towels. Showers and personal effects would be down the hall of the crew compartment.
She held her breath and hopped down. The searing cold of the floor caused her to hop like a lunatic over to the wall.
Eve yanked open the drawer and dumped several towels on the floor as makeshift sandals. She cursed, and pulled out another and started rubbing her legs and arms to get warm. The cryo fluid was full of nutrients and would be quickly absorbed into the skin. Still, her first order of business would be to get to the showers and fully wash the sleep from her.
She was closer to the readout screen now and looked it over. Chief Warrant Officer Evelyn Roel, Chief Technician (Level 5), it said. Next to that was the emblem of her component, the FUS Auxiliary, showing her as one of those drafted into military service.
Eve looked over at her companion’s readout. Her eyes were finally focusing as they should, though they, like most of Eve’s body, hurt from transit. Lieutenant Cassandra Matthews, Technician (Level 3), it read. An officer, Eve noticed. Again, not unheard of. And at least she was a level three, which meant she wasn’t a rookie. What did give Eve pause was her component: FUS Regular Forces—a volunteer. That was unusual. Eve tried to remember the last time she served with a regular.
Eve stood draped in towels and noticed the other tube was still locked down. She was the only one waking up. That was odd, but Eve wouldn’t be able to access any ship systems or status reports until she’d dug out her visor from her equipment. For the moment, she was content the ship didn’t seem about to explode.
Eve shuffled along the floor toward the cryo bay door in her makeshift sandals. She felt the walls. The heating elements were on, but the cold of space would take some time to shrug off. The ship was minimally heated and even the crew compartment stayed cold during the voyage. It would take a couple of days for the bulkheads and walls to absorb enough heat to take the biting cold edge out of the air.
Eve made it to the open door and hit the light panel. The ship seemed to notice part of its crew was awake and turned on some lights. Floor and ceiling banks flickered on, their cool blue light added to the idea that Eve was in a meat locker. Even with the lights on, the crew compartment was dimly lit.
She shuffled out into the passageway, the lights faded in the cryo bay and activated in the hall. The ship was tracking her movements, at least.
“Morning, ship,” Eve said, and coughed.
She continued shuffling down the hall. The smooth lines and panels of the crew compartment gave a cold, yet softer impression than the more utilitarian build of the remaining ship spaces she’d see later. Eve tried to imagine comfortably shuffling along the floor grating and exposed pipes and wiring of the maintenance spaces. Here, she could nurse her aches and hobble into the showers like an old woman if she wanted.
She walked into the shower room. Again, a space built to accommodate up to 10 people. There was a bank of sinks and mirrors on the right. The shower modules were in the middle and went farther back into the space. Behind the shower modules would be benches, lockers and equipment bins—where her clothes and personal effects would be, so long as the loading drones had loaded the right containers at the expedition station.
Eve shambled over to the sinks and tested the water. Warm, then hot. Good, Eve thought. She looked up at herself in the mirror. There were bags under her irritated eyes. She looked haggard, but most did after waking from cyro sleep. She noticed her face had slimed a bit, no doubt from the physical conditioning. Specifically though she wanted to check out her implants. She wore her hair longer on the top and left, leaving the right close cropped around the interfacing nodes. It was a hair style normally not allowed in the service, but was tolerated for techs, especially level fives and their unique hardware. She ran her fingers along the visor seating points on her temples. There didn’t seem to be any inflammation. She brushed aside her auburn bangs to better see the interfacing nodes. The grey metal plates blended with her skin well enough, even if it meant living with the bald patches. The port was clear, again no infections.
She took a second and made some faces in the mirror. Her jaw and neck still hurt. She noticed the tense areas and stretched and yawned, then shivered. It was still freezing. Her mind turned back to the showers.
She shuffled over to the module, second from the left, her usual, and activated the controls. Turning it on maximum heat, she waited for the steam to begin bellowing out into the dim cold space. The ceramic shower modules would become comfortably warm in no time.
She hung up her covering towel, leaving the two piles on the floor, and stripped off her sleeping suit. Dialing down the heat a bit, she walked in to the comfortable warm embrace of the shower stream. She laughed, leaning against the module wall and letting the water leech the creaking cold from her body.
The insidious divide
For my first two years of university, I went to a community college. I wasn’t quite sure what I wanted to do (I still fluctuate), so I saved some money in the first couple of years…
…Which I quickly burned through in choosing to go to a private Baptist university for my final two years of undergrad.
This school had plenty of social controls, behavioral restrictions, pledges and contracts on where to go, what to do and how to act. There was no dancing, no public displays of affection, curfews…all that lovely stuff.
So, naturally there was one very strong political affinity there at the school. While there were the scant few rebel Democrats who hid in the shadows, the overwhelming culture of the vast majority of students was militant right-wing Evangelical Conservatism.
Why did I go there? Long story. Not the purpose of the post, but one I’ll be glad to share if you’d like. I’ll need a beer—maybe six.
However, back to it, I initially drank the Kool-Aid. I would listen to the sermons preached every day at chapel (we had mandatory chapel five days a week). I would hear people talk. I would watch current events unfold and hear professors weigh in. I was there during 9/11.
I was surrounded by one side of the political spectrum, isolated from all other influences. I was so far entrenched in this apparatus, that I started to think it was foolishness how anybody could even think another way.
I fell victim to confirmation bias (link). It was inconceivable that people could be against the conservative way of thinking. Conservatism was the only logical explanation for everything.
And liberals were the antithesis of logic. They were idiots. They made no sense. They were dead set against everything the freedom-loving, patriotic conservatives loved.
I’m not trying to be glib. I believed this. I didn’t even think Democrats could be Christian. How could they possibly be reading the same Bible I was? My views were so solid! There was no way—absolutely no way, any of these opposing viewpoints could be true. It wasn’t even worth looking at them. Our fortress of apologetics, our mountain of evidence on everything from the social gospel to free markets was foolproof. There was no refuting any of it.
After college, I went on to help start a film company (link) that featured a then somewhat controversial pastor named Rob Bell. We made these little vignettes called NOOMAs (link). And it was then I started to run across people who thought differently than I did.
Now I wasn’t a zealot. I had chaffed greatly under the repressive culture of my university. I was nearly expelled (that’s another six-beer story). However, I still had been girded with the foolproof armor of my conservative forebears.
And yet, I started to run across very smart people who—shockingly—didn’t agree with me at all. I won’t get into the theological points here. At this time I’m mainly speaking about political affiliations: the role of government, the concepts of laissez-faire government, regulated markets vs. free markets, and the general social responsibility of the church vs. the state.
I would saunter up to these liberals and routinely have my ass handed to me. I would toss all the fact grenades I could find. I would cite all of the supply-side economists I knew and lay out the cause of all of the conservative social commentators I could remember…and would be thoroughly dismantled in my logic and approach. Not all the time (I was a pretty good apologist), but often enough.
How could this be? How could thinking Americans disagree with what I had been brought up to believe? How could logical, smart Americans possibly be liberal? Liberals were all idiots. They were worse than idiots, they were subversive, seditious communists, bent on destroying the family and all that.
But when you actually spoke with some of these liberals, you found they often loved America. I was shocked. Again, I’m not meaning to be glib, but it was a moment in my naive, young life when I realized that not everything spoken to me up to that point was truth.
It seems ridiculous, but I finally started to learn to doubt the words of my elders. Not to disrespect them (I feel I’m taking half of this entry to qualify everything)…but to doubt what many people said.
This doubting would come in handy as I became a journalist. I was taught never to trust anyone—to always verify information with a second source (or at least we should). Only bad journalists wrote one-source stories or didn’t try to get the other side. It was doing a disservice to the audience to not portray the other side.
I learned the value of this other side. They weren’t maniacs (well, most weren’t). These people who had spent a lifetime cultivating a way of thinking opposite of mine were amazing people. As a naive middle-class white boy, it took some time to undo my prejudices and predispositions.
The Army taught me a lot as well. I served with Wiccans, Hindus, Mormons, Muslims, Buddhists, single dads, former addicts, immigrants who barely spoke English—and hell that was just in my basic training unit.
I slowly learned to appreciate the value of people and their views.
Now this self-aggrandizing has a point. And it’s hardly to ask for some sort pat on back. What I’m saying is it took me considerate effort to break away of the normal bubble I feel a lot of us grow up in.
Every day, when I read about how quickly we demonize our political, social and even spiritual opponents—how quickly Ed and Susan and Anna become “them”…and how we must stop “them” from harming “us”…when we take individual people and apply sweeping generalizations…when that happens, I’m amazed at this often unrecognized insidious divide that has separated us far from each other.
We are now so polarized, having built such magnificent defenses of our opposing ideologies, that what we love most is the lethal splendor of our intellectual armaments. We cheer when our ideological enemies impale themselves on our bulwarks. We all but erupt in song when we win an argument and we can scarcely hold faith in Creation when our righteous cause loses an election.
I think back to when I discovered, scarily late in life, my way of thinking actually had flaws! And I remember that there were smart and intelligent people who opposed me on many intellectual, ideological, political and social fronts—who yet were civil and informative and often logically sound.
I remember turning 20 and feeling like I had just turned 5.
It was liberating. And humbling. And enlightening. And it allowed me to know about what I actually did believe and to stand up for what I actually did hold to be universally true…with respect, even!
I found it was much easier to compromise and discuss differences when I showed respect and saw my opponents as people, instead of demonized caricatures.
I know I’ve written about this before, but in light of recent events, I thought it was worth saying again.