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.
I must admit I have no memory of you as a young man or young adult ever “blithely inconveniencing or selfishly imposing your will on others”. But if you did and learned that all it accomplishes is to make you out to be a jerk, (keeping it PG here) you learned a very important lesson.