In the faculty dining room, "Larry" and I were lamenting the passage of time. He expressed disbelief that forty years have passed since the Tet Offensive. "I flew a helicopter there, you know."
"Yeah. It was bad enough seeing, from up there, what was happening. I can only imagine what those guys on the ground went through."
"Thank God I never had to experience that. I mean, I was only a reservist, and it was peacetime, except for that little thing called u2018The Cold War.’"
"So why did you join?"
I explained that, like countless other young people before and since my enlistment, I signed up, in part, to pay for college. Also, having come of age a few years after the US ended its military involvement in Southeast Asia, I, like so many other people of my generation, didn’t think we’d actually see battle unless the Soviets launched an attack on us. The prevailing "wisdom," to which I subscribed, said that it really wasn’t in the Russians’ interest to do anything of the sort, and if they did, we’d all be toast anyway.
"Besides," I added, "It seemed that there would be a lot of career opportunities."
"That’s one of the biggest lies recruiters use."
"Tell me about it!" But, I conceded, the Army did pay for my undergraduate schooling — a good part of it, anyway.
"Same here," Larry said. "I probably wouldn’t have been able to go to college without the Army, without the GI Bill."
"You were poor," I speculated.
"Not really," he countered. Rather, he was a "feckless and reckless kid" who didn’t do well in high school — when he deigned to attend at all — and had unofficially dropped out by the time he turned sixteen. The following year, tiring of his run-ins with authority figures, his father signed him into the Army and promised, "It’ll make a man outta ya."
He laughed bitterly at those words. If anything, he said, "I’ve become a man in spite of my military experience." It wouldn’t have mattered whether he or his father had enlisted him, the government had drafted (as it could’ve in those days) him, or whether he’d joined the Navy, Air Force, Marines or Coast Guard, he explained. "My growing up wouldn’t’ve had anything to do with being in uniform."
It’ll make a man outta ya: Countless young men have heard those same words, or variants thereof, from other men in their lives. Even in today’s politically correct climate, I’m sure that young men still hear it; however, for the sake of argument, I’ll amend that phrase. Let’s say, "It’ll make you grow up": That, I think, is more or less what people mean when they talk about a boy becoming a man. Or, if you like, we can substitute Paul’s (the apostle’s, not the Presidential candidate’s) injunction to "put away childish things."
Now, I mean no disrespect to those of you who served, perhaps spent your entire adult lives, in the Armed Forces: I do not wish to insinuate that you are immature. I also don’t doubt that you have matured since the day you enlisted or were drafted. However, most of us change, intellectually, emotionally and physically, from the time we’re, say, 18 or 19 until we’re in our twenties, let alone thirties, forties or beyond — whether we enter the Armed Forces, college, an apprenticeship (Who does that anymore?), marriage or any of the other experiences that have defined late adolescence and early adulthood for generations.
I’m no developmental psychologist, but I’m willing to venture a guess as to why most of us make some sort of passage from childhood to adult life during the years in question. Obviously, changes in our body — and brain — chemistry have something to do with our transformations. However, I think the more important factor is our development of perspective about our life experiences. It seems to me that, when we turn twenty or so, we can really look upstream at the river of our lives and see, for the first time, that the part of the bank on which we’re standing isn’t just like the spot where he once stood. Even more important, I believe, is understanding that, however the river flows, we bear responsibility for how we arrived wherever we’re standing and how we’ll get to wherever we’re headed. It doesn’t matter whether we sail, swim, walk or fly: Getting there is our choice and responsibility.
Yet the structure of a recruit’s life seems to go against this process of understanding one’s responsibility for one’s self, of truly feeling and pulling one’s own weight. If we learn by doing, we learn how to make good decisions (to me, one of the hallmarks of maturity) by making decisions and being subject to the consequences. Recruits — and, for that matter, most people in uniform — are kept from making decisions about any aspect, serious or mundane, of their lives. Thus, when they have to make decisions about their personal lives (e.g., about finances), they are not equipped for the task.
Their day begins with reveille: They do not have to take the responsibility of getting themselves out of bed early enough to ready themselves for the day’s tasks. Everything about the day, including what, where and how they will eat and wear whatever they put in or on themselves, is proscribed — and provided for them. So are the places in which they live: They may not be a young person’s dream, but they’re provided free of charge, and the recruits don’t have to look at listings, make phone calls, budget their money or set other priorities to keep themselves housed, fed, clothed and shod.
Admittedly, the military isn’t the most financially remunerative of employers. However, a young single person has few, if any, expenses. Some young soldiers save money; others help to support their families. However, for many others, their military pay, however modest, is disposable income. And, dispose it they do: What can we expect of a young person who’s had no training or guidance in that area? One result is that officers and NCOs say that one of their chief concerns about young enlistees is their financial management skills, or lack thereof.
To be fair, increases in military pay don’t always keep pace with inflation, so finances can be very difficult for enlistees who are supporting families. However, that is not the issue I’m discussing in relation to young enlistees: Rather, they tend to behave like any other young people who have an allowance but no day-to-day expenses.
Part and parcel of a recruit’s life is, of course, their training, which includes lots of hyper-masculine role-playing (what some would call "overcompensating") and is laced with misogyny. Now tell me, does a "real" man have to continuously prove that he is one? Does a truly manly man have to degrade, or even disrespect women? We rightly denounce rappers who claim all women are "bitches and u2018ho’s," yet we willingly turn over our sons to drill instructors who call them "ladies" when their performance is, for whatever reason, unsatisfactory. And, we tell our children and students that they don’t have to be the kind of heroes they see on TV or in the movies in order to lead meaningful lives, but we (and other nations) allow the military to inculcate our young with visions of themselves as Rambo.
Is it any wonder that recruits in Iraq have raped and tortured civilians? Does anyone think that such behavior is a characteristic of mature men or, if you like, evolved adult human beings?
All of this begs these questions: What do people who have been trained to kill and to inflict suffering on the living do when they enter civilian life? And how do they manage their lives once they have to start divvying up whatever money they make for housing, food, utilities or any other necessities of their lives?
Ironically, when recruits decide not to re-enlist, they hear variants of these questions during their separation interviews. Commanders and counselors regale those who are leaving with taunts of "You won’t make it on the outside!" and "You’re nothing without us." The recruits, as often as not, joined to learn new skills or to further their educations; the goal in either event is to become a self-sufficient and self-reliant adult. But, as they’re leaving, they’re told that is exactly what didn’t happen. I don’t care how tough you are; you still have to believe in yourself in order to become an adult, a man or whatever you want to be.
So, don’t let anyone tell you that joining the military will make your kid "grow up." And don’t believe that they can "make a man" out of someone. After all, they didn’t do that for me, now, did they?
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] is the deputy director of the Office of Academic Achievement at York College in Queens, New York.