Your dad was in the military, or your brother, your boyfriend, girlfriend, your uncle, cousin, neighbor down the street…or maybe you were or are right now. The military isn’t some distant, abstract entity. They are us.
But… misunderstandings are rampant.
Before we dive in to still another third-rail topic, you should know that for four years in college I was a stereotypical hippie: Long hair, beard, peace sign around my neck, protest marches. Yep, all of the above. But… Shortly after, I was also a captain in the Air Force, a jet pilot, a Tempest officer, and a LES (launch enable officer) for the Titan II missile. How do those two reconcile?
Growing up, my dad had been a naval officer, plus a freelance writer, writing mostly about the military experiences he’d undergone, WWII…and so my views were at first shaped and shaded by his perceptions.
BUT then… My own first personal experience with the military was much different. I’d been away at college, studying for exams and got a call from an old high school buddy. He had called to say that John Lindaberry had just died in Vietnam and that his body was being shipped home. He was 18 years old. His funeral was going to be that weekend and to get my ass back to New Jersey. Though it doesn’t really matter to you, John was a little guy, short, huge glasses, and funny as hell. There was a group of us and we’d cruise around Mendham and Chester and Long Valley, looking for girls in my old Chevy, and listening to 77 WABC while John kept all of us entertained. He was great at making up naughty lyrics to the Top 40. But then, eventually, Big Chill-style, we all split up at graduation. We all went our separate ways.
At the funeral, the big thing I remember was the huge American flag draped across his coffin. When John’s dad showed up, he was furious and the flag was removed. John’s letters home from him had been sad…pathetic. He had bequeathed his music collection to Mark, the guy who’d called me up. This too-little guy with the big glasses had known weeks in advance that he wasn’t going to make it. And then it happened, exactly as he had predicted. Back at F&M I went right to numb. BUT… and this is important: I’m not laying groundwork for a diss-article on the military. Much the opposite, though I have to take my time here, so some of the younger generations who don’t know WWI from WWII from Korea, from Vietnam…can just possibly get it straight.
America didn’t just have one Civil War, the North vs. the South, they had two: Colloquially, it was dubbed the Hippies vs. the Hardhats… Effete pot-smoking liberal rich kids at college vs. blue-collar construction workers who were…cannon fodder. They got drafted and went to Vietnam and every night on the news, they’d show the caskets being loaded into C-141 Starlifters for the flight back home. Oh, and by the way, thousands upon thousands of college kids came back in boxes as well. It just didn’t make for interesting news. That was the spin, and it divided families, sometimes brothers, neighbors, moms and dads from their kids, very much like the other civil war. Only this one was more insidious. Households fragmented…quietly and invisibly.
In the blink of an eye, my proud patriotic father suddenly viewed me, his bearded, long-haired son as a commie-pinko-sympathizing-effete piece of shit. Mom disagreed, but then Mom and I had always communicated. When war was declared and it came down to short strokes, I enlisted in the Air Force, went to officer training, and then pilot training and…wonder of wonders, when I returned home on leave, suddenly that effete “p.o.s.” had transformed to that great guy again. Well…….not really. I hadn’t been a commie, and I hadn’t been a coward, but I’d had some huge questions about Vietnam before I enlisted and seeing things up-close as an officer did not dispel those concerns. Unfortunately, history confirmed some of the worst of them. No other country had succeeded in Vietnam. We didn’t either. Think of Afghanistan today…
What was really bizarre, surreal, call it what you like, was what I learned in OTS, (officer training). I had assumed that the military was basically stogie-smoking, hard-assed, blood thirsty killers…and that wasn’t the case, anymore than my being a commie. My flight, Flight 17, to use short-hand, was pretty much the same as me. The surreal kicker was when we had a weekend leave and went into the city of San Antonio to see the movie, Hair. I had gone from looking very much like Jesus Christ at F&M to a pale, bald, skinny OT, officer trainee. Four of us went into the movie theater…in uniform. We weren’t allowed to wear anything else. We sat through the movie, while getting heckled, given the finger and…spat on. FYI: Getting spat on is a very basic thing. As a guy, it’s the lynch-pin just before the fight breaks out…which we were forbidden to do by our commanding officer. I tried to reason with a few of the “hippies.” I pulled out a photo of me with my long hair and guess what, it didn’t do anything, but infuriate them more.
If you haven’t personally served or been the mate of someone who has, here are a couple of things you should know because somewhere along the line, the message gets lost. Military men…and women aren’t any different than civilians. Every single officer and enlisted man was first…a civilian. They are handsome and they are ugly, short, and tall, and they are also our brothers and sisters and dads and uncles. They are us…in uniform. And yet…we are different because of what we have experienced.
Four years at Franklin and Marshall College and decades later, the major thing I took away from it wasn’t Kant’s Critique of Pure Reasoning, or differential equations…they taught me how to think and reason and argue…logically.
In the same amount of time in the US Air Force, I learned much weightier things: How to take responsibility for my actions, and more importantly to take responsibility for the welfare of the men under me. It’s one sentence, but it’s effing huge….. One month in the military and you may very well experience more responsibility than the entire rest of your life as a civilian. It is a heady experience and it is never forgotten.
When you first walk into the military meat grinder, you are a “rainbow”. That’s the term for civilians and civilian dress. They immediately strip-away every single affectation. No beards, moustaches, designer boots. Your fancy car? It doesn’t exist. It’s just you… a bald, skinny larva in a sea of identical larva. And it’s up to you to shine on your own merits. Sound horrible? No, it isn’t. It’s actually a good thing. It’s the best. Racism? It goes out the window in the first ten minutes. Stereotypes? Gone. You’re all equal. Women? There’s still a big asterisk on that category, but more about that later.
More good stuff: If you are going to survive, you learn almost instantly that your word is everything. Everything. If you tell your superior officer that you’ve completed your job or you will show up at a certain time, by God, it better be true. Get flippant with your commander…sass him back, cut him off… it’s called insubordination and I guarantee, you will only do it once. That much, everyone learns. Sound harsh? Not really. To steal from Judy Collins, “I’ve looked at life from both sides now” and keeping your word is always the way…the only way.
Who Starts Wars? It seems like the Army, Navy, Air Force, and the Marines start wars…and it ain’t true. Civilians start wars, and more specifically, our congress and the president of the United States. The military is literally the muscle, the might behind the decisions made by…civilians. The captain of the USS Nimitz doesn’t wake up one morning and decide to chug over to the Persian Gulf. A Navy F-18 Hornet fighter pilot doesn’t saunter on deck, strap-in and think, “Let’s see, what am I going to shoot at today.” He receives a direct order, and he follows that order. In retrospect, the hippies giving the finger to the returning vets had it all wrong. They should have been giving the finger to their congressmen and senators.
Peace Signs and American Flags: During Vietnam the two were polar opposites, like a Union Flag flying next to a Confederate Flag. And that misunderstanding still persists today in some areas. When I showed up at Columbus, Mississippi, for pilot training I was driving a slick, fancy Shelby GT-350. On each rocker panel was a sticker of an American Flag…right next to a Peace Sign. I was stopped, trying to get on base (it was a vest pocket SAC base by the way…Strategic Air Command with two B-52s tucked away…just in case). They wouldn’t let me come through the gates. I asked them to get the base commander on the line…which they did. He was at the O Club when I called. He said, “Ya can’t come on with a peace sign, lieutenant.” To which I replied, “Sir: What’s the motto for the Strategic Air Command?” Silence…followed by, “Peace is Our Profession, lieutenant. C’mon in…but I’m gonna be watchin’ you.”
Loyalty: Here’s the thing most civilians don’t get. I didn’t, until I was in long enough to have men under me…with me. Men I was responsible for, and who were responsible for me as well. It’s basically survival and there’s not a lot of tighter bonds than men watching out for each other’s backs. It’s not loyalty to country…just too abstract. It’s not really loyalty to your branch. It’s the guys you need to survive, and buddies you want flying back in a transport…not a box. It’s that crudely basic…and it’s that beautiful.
Responsibility to Our Returning Servicemen: We are not doing so hot on that front right now and it needs to change……right now. PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder is real, not imagined. General Patton was wrong.
Suicides: In many instances the death rate for our boys and men is higher due to suicides than for battle. There is a reason for this and it must be addressed…now, not later.
Keeping Your Promises: All four branches train us that the most valuable thing we have…is our word. We get it. We learn it. It is ingrained in our guts. But… When our boys come home, and they need an artificial leg, a new arm, PTSD treatment…by God, give it to them…….
Women in the Military: Okay…here is where all four branches are screwing-up big time. We know it. They know it and it has to stop…right now. Women in the military are literally our daughters, our moms, our aunts, our girlfriends. There is zero excuse for allowing them to be abused or for turning a blind eye. This is a problem whose solution is waaaay overdue. Generals, admirals, colonels, officers and enlisted… It’s time. You wouldn’t stand for your wife or girlfriend to be abused…and that is exactly what is happening.
A Bit of Irony: Chicken Hawks: When a group of ex-military guys get together, rarely will you hear them yucking it up about killing someone or bombing a village back to the Stone Age. It just doesn’t happen. Unlike video games and some dumbass TV shows, it isn’t that way. Strangely, the ones you do hear frothing and ranting, shaking their fists and complaining are the guys who never showed up for the fight. You don’t show up, that’s fine. Just…put a cork in it.
A Final Point: Cannon Fodder: There has always been a profound misunderstanding between parents of boys in the military…and people protesting the war. It’s insane. It’s stupid. The issue is, to put it bluntly, the term: cannon fodder. When your son or daughter, husband, wife or best friend goes off to war…you want that war to mean something. You want it to be because it’s necessary. You have a right and a duty to be disgusted if your son or daughter is getting sent off because Exxon or Mobile need more oil fields. History has proved beyond a doubt that Vietnam was a HUGE mistake. The protesters, goofy and creepy and unwashed as they may have looked, were protesting something that was wrong. Make sure your congressmen and senators and…president treat your (our) sons and daughters with respect and concern for their well being. They are not…cannon fodder.
Henry (formerly Captain Harvey, USAF)
P.S. There’s no secret handshake among men who have served in the military, but there is…something. It’s a look and it lasts for about a quarter-of-a-second. It’s an understanding. It says, “yeah…. I get it.” It means: If I give you my word…that’s it…period. No need for adverbs, adjectives, or explanations.
And there’s an instantaneous way to tell who was in the military and who wasn’t: Agree to meet them at, say, seven pm, it doesn’t matter for what. The ex-military will be there…at seven pm, not seven-thirty-ish or eight o’clock. Or if, they have a flat…you’ll get a call. It’s a little thing…representing a huge thing.
P.P.S. John… It’s been 47 years… And yet, here we are. Yeah, you left a legacy, buddy. Rest assured you will always be remembered, liked, and loved.
As usual, another great and beautiful read. I missed the Viet Nam debacle, and admit it, am really glad. I appreciate every one who served and am sad they had too. They had too because of a lot of politicians. I was raised by a World War II veteran, and taught that my Word is the only thing I own. I reinforce what you say about a man and his word. At the same moment, I am reminded of the politicians that don’t keep their word, especially the Commander in Chief, who did not serve in the military, did not have a father that was a veteran. He and many in Congress seem to be lacking this very important quality — and it shows.
Thanks. I think a military background would usually be an advantage…sometimes a profound one. But, there have been some questionable presidents who did serve, and some damned good ones who didn’t. At the core of the thing, in my opinion, is that presidents and senators and congressmen, should be highly aware that there are faces behind the numbers. Good, solid, men and women, with ethics, families, and the desire to have a good life. These men and women who are our assets should be considered seriously, before indulging in any global bravado. I wonder how many wars would be fought if our presidents and congress had to lead some of the offensives…at the front, not the rear.
I read your article and found it interesting.
I believe you asked if there was any similarity between the British and American military experience in that era. No, there wasn’t. For one thing, we were not at war with any “nation state” at the time – indeed a first – and for once the Brits (mindful of their success in democratizing Iraq, getting kicked out of India, ditto the French in Indochina, etc.) were wary of doing anything east of Calais. What we WERE doing was keeping apart the Protestants and Catholics in N. Ireland, two groups known for their intellectual capacity and thoughtful discourse. (Almost forgot: the other thing was keeping apart the Turks and Greeks in Cyprus – same remarks apply). What? Cyprus is of course east of Calais, but it’s tiny and therefore forgettable.
Regarding your They are Us theme, that applied absolutely to the Brits. “They” was every male in the land – National Service obligations – so there was no finger-pointing, scoffing, or any other form of disrespect. You could be exempted from NS, but only by a personal letter from the Queen of E. I was a “regular”, meaning a 3-year commitment vs. the NS 2 years, which meant better pay (x 2), and one more year teaching cadets and wondering why I signed. But that was all “before your time”. An awful lot of stuff went down in the 4 or 5 years between my leaving the service and American advisers arriving in Vietnam.
I don’t believe armies start wars, but I do think there’s the danger that if you have an army you can be tempted to use it.
Reference your last sentence…absolutely true. However, on a global scale, having a military arm is necessary if you plan on being “in the game” The military are the poker chips. The stronger your military, the bigger the stack of chips you have. And…I wonder aloud, if suddenly we had women in places of power world-wide if some of these wars wouldn’t just be set aside as foolish, asinine, or just not profitable.
Thank you. It’s nice to hear support from someone who, as you said, has seen it from both sides.
Question though: What is Tempest? I Googled it and it seemed like it was 99% classified.
TEMPEST was and is a highly classified military program dealing mostly but not exclusively with counter,counter-counter, and counter-counter-counter techniques in handling bugging and debugging of our military communication. It was…….exciting and challenging. When I left the Air Force, the agreement was a 20 year gag order for my repeating any information at all. A lot of the James Bond stuff looks goofy and silly by comparison. But… some, not so goofy.
Great article, my friend.
I thoroughly enjoyed this blog. So much is written about the men and women who serve, and they deserve to be treated with every resource available when they return to civilian life. We owe them that and so much more.
The other side of the coin is the spouse, who accompanies the military guy or gal from one assignment to the next. There are numerous sacrifices that are necessary to support the military and to further your mate’s career. Being supportive, keeping up morale under adverse conditions, the politics of living on base, and the hierarchy of the officers’ wives and NCO wives can be daunting…especially to a new bride.
Although I technically wasn’t in the military, as a spouse of an Air Force captain during the Vietnam War, I feel that I served my country, and did my part. The uniforms had to be perfect, our house had to meet “inspections”, the last minute trips to Korea that left us alone, doing the tasks required of an officer’s wife, and being a broken field runner in time of war is something I will never forget.
Finally, giving birth in Japan, with no friends or family, which at the time seemed like a third-world country, was
a test of strength. Military hospitals are not the country club, cushy, fuzzy-wuzzy experience that US civilians take
for granted. What it did, however, was make our family bond that much greater. Also, when we went home with our brand new son,the total bill for the delivery was $18.00. Yes, the military definitely has its perks.
Small world, Lynn,
Our son was born in Japan as well, Tachikawa to be exact and I do believe our kid didn’t cost much more than that. I understand now in the NYT that getting one single stitch in a hospital can cost $500.00 You could have had 28 kids for that price. The times, they have changed.
For what it’s worth, with your background, you and your husband might really enjoy a series called “Army Wives.” It sounds awful and it’s really wonderful, gutsy, accurate, and best of all moral. Give it a shot. Let me know what you think.
Great essay. You need to send it to the Pentagon, to whoever is in charge there (if anyone is in charge there). As a former flight surgeon in the RAAF, I agree 100% with everything you wrote (except a few grammatical errors, which should be corrected before you send it off to the Pentagon).
Boy you RAAF guys are a hard act…and the only ones who care about grammatical errors. Keep in mind…we’re in America where “It was literally raining cats and dogs” is just fine. Or…Artic Beer. I don’t know if it still exists, but how much more expensive would it have been to add that “C”. Thanks for your comments. It is a topic I care about.
Good one, as always. I can’t recall ever holding a negative attitude toward the military. I cherish a great, 1944 picture in uniforms of my Navy Dad, Navy Uncle Raymond (lifer and ultimately Chief Petty Officer) and Uncle Harold in his spiffy Marine uniform.
I can instead remember active fear of going into the military and at least as a 40+ year old reflection believe that fear went way beyond being sent to Vietnam. I just thought of myself as too physically incapable. Or something.
And I remember your, lottery number 17 and the night on the phone with Pamela as the numbers were called.
Hello old friend,
Yes, we go waaay back, before either of us were married, before I’d ever even met Pamela. And…we’ve both seen and lived a bit of history. It’s really nice to have had our friendship survive so many years, pressures, ups and downs. Thanks for writing.
I vividly remember that infamous night of the lottery. The phone lines crashed, the pay phones were lined up with college kids for hours, and students were either celebrating or thinking of their demise. It was a heady time, indeed. When my boyfriend was drafted, I thought it was the end of my happiness and our future together. Most of my friends felt sorry for me, and I felt helpless. But, we got through it, and my boyfriend came home unscathed, but more serious and capable. Sure, he had seen and learned a lot, but he matured into an even greater guy then I remembered.
That was many years ago, and we are
still going strong. He could have dodged the draft, but he didn’t. Looking back, the military was mostly a positive experience for him, for me, and for us.