Tuesday, January 17, 2006

The View From An Army Base

It's been a great three days in Seattle. I coordinated with my dispatchers and weather people at work to ensure that the rain held off for a few days explicitly for my visit. And so it did. (It's nice to have influential friends. Of course, THEY had to perform an anti-rain dance and appeal in prayer and ritual animal sacrifice to their personal weather sprites, but hey, they owe me.)

My brother is a captain in the Army and is based out here in Seattle. We went over one day to take a tour of the post, and for him to show me his office and all the adjacent facilities. I'd never seen any of this. We finished up our walking and car tour with lunch at the PX.

This is a new world for a civilian, and it brings a whirlwind of thoughts and impressions. I think the civilian world thinks of the armed forces as a tool of government, as an arm that implements a government's policies (or at least a certain kind of policy). We are accustomed to following the messy news of the executive and legislative branches of government as they wrangle out policy (or sidestep the wrangling), and our military is seen as an extension of the business of government. This is how it seems to me, anyway.

But the view from the army base is entirely different. The sense of unity, the sense of pride and of sacrifice, and the love of country that is both required and engendered by this environment is palpable. Not everyone is on board, of course--there are always behavior and discipline issues with 100,000 young people--but overall it is a radical change from the civilian world. There is mind-boggling complexity to an army, looked at as a whole, and a gigantic amount of complex and ongoing training. I was not prepared for the aspect of fresh-scrubbed goodness that emanates from these young men and women, and for the enthusiasm and pride that comes from tackling an exceedingly difficult job and making a success out of it. Regardless of one's take on the policies themselves, this is more than most of us accomplish in life; and it's moving to see.

As for our opinion of the policies, I guess this is probably my biggest epiphany: we do an unspeakable disservice to people who are volunteering to lay down their lives for their country--for us--when we fail to differentiate between those who make the policies and those who implement them (actually, I have long held this conviction, but it was very much reinforced by my time spent on base). I have been quite outspoken about my opposition to our present policy in the Middle East, and in particular about the nature of the way we worked up to war. I have stated that it would please me to see our president removed from office, for this and many other reasons. But there are regular protesters here around the army base, and they remind one that every exercise of free speech is not informed or helpful. These base protesters are biting the hand that seeks to feed them. There are many stories about Vietnam vets being spit on--by Americans!--when they returned home from the war, and I cannot imagine how, as citizens, we could be lower.

I certainly do not propose that we do not protest, nor that we support a war effort if it goes against our convictions. But we DARE not spit on a soldier that is willing to take a bullet for us, and I think if our heads are on straight we would have no desire to. The soldiers do not get to choose who is shooting at them; theirs is but to go where they are told and to do the job that is laid before them.

No, our protests belong at the feet of our policy makers. We need the information to make informed judgments, and our elected officials need to be accountable to the citizens who elected them (we will all be accountable to history). For my part, I have a renewed gratefulness to these men and women, and an appreciation of their skill and sacrifices. I think we owe them a lot.

Here endeth the sermon.


mango said...

From one civilian to another, what's a PX?

I quite agree with you too about the people who go to war for us. It's a conflicting emotion to feel both angry and upset at the government policy to go to war and proud and admiring of the people who go...

Esbee said...

Years ago, when I was in university in DC, I had a 10 year old Honda Prelude. And one day something went hinky in it in Arlington, and everytime I turned the steering wheel to the right, the horn would sound cheerily.

On the way back to DC, where I had a friend who was a mechanic, I had the pleasure of driving pst what appeared to be the entire Marine Corps out running on a road that veered to the right.

I honked cheerily but unintentionally the entire time. They waved and made that sound Marines make.

My long-departed Honda Prelude and I agree with your post utterly.

wunelle said...

Hi, Mango. PX stands for "post exchange," and has become kind of the shopping center of an army post. They have a kind of mall that has 20 or so shops and a barber and food court, etc. It's where soldiers can buy stuff duty-and tax-free.

On this base, it's a very nice place (tho I know they are not all so nice).

Esbee--I'm choosing to use your Honda's malady to explain every honk I ever got when out jogging. (It's harder to do when the assault is verbal. I used to pretend "fat ass" was really "nice ass" until the delusion became absurd.)

Kate said...

There are some who would have it that you can't be against the war and support the troops; but that's nonsense. The side that is always accused of being unpatriotic have fought for years to protect veterans and active duty soldiers. And they'll be doing it for years after this. But I'll spare you that speech.

I'll admit that it's preaching to the choir for me but this is an excellent post. It never hurts to remind people of the humanity and fresh-scrubbed goodness of our soldiers.

BrianAlt said...

Intellectually I agree with you. But let's go back to WWII for a second, a subject you don't seem adverse to. What about all those soliders that carried out war crimes? Many were still held accountable. There does need to be a line when you realize you're doing something wrong. I don't think that people were spitting on Vietnam vets because they knew what was going on over there. I think they really had no idea. But now that we know more, perhaps some of it was deserved. It's not ok to kill children in a village just because you think there are some bad people in it.

Well, my point is, it's a fine line.

wunelle said...

Yeah, I know it's not all lilly-white. I think human nature doesn't change, and I think some of the excesses and atrocities of Vietnam stem from frustration from soldiers having been given an impossible job, and from lack of proper oversight and accountability (I should stress that I know relatively little about this conflict). But I think in a general sense that discipline and order do not break down without a loss of leadership, from however far above. The further up the chain the breakdown, the more widespread the malaise down below. And when the problem is the motivating policy, the shitstorm spreads far and wide indeed.

I think the saying "war is hell" is apt in that war represents an extremity in human experience, something which brings out the very best and the very worst of our characters. These dark corners lurk in all of us, and certainly not least in soldiers, who in wartime are tested to the very limits and beyond.

But even in the case of war crimes--and they certainly happened and will happen--I have to believe that these things are isolated and not systemic (this, as I understand it, is where the Abu Ghraib controversy stems from, from questions about how codified and sanctioned these behaviors were).

I think people don't generally sign up to be a soldier desiring to do cruel or brutal things. I also think that a person convicted in a court-martial of war crimes should be punished according to the law; their service should not exempt them from the law. But a civilian spitting on a soldier is not justice; it is a sign of disrespect to a profession (and / or, as I mentioned, a sign of disapproval of a policy which the soldier might represent to that person). It falls outside a civilized legal proceeding as surely as a police officer beating a suspect is behavior outside the strictures of the law.

Joshua said...

"As for our opinion of the policies, I guess this is probably my biggest epiphany: we do an unspeakable disservice to people who are volunteering to lay down their lives for their country--for us--when we fail to differentiate between those who make the policies and those who implement them"

Well said.

My best, and closest, friend in this world is an active duty Marine. The thing that pains him more than anythign he is asked to do is the impressions of the weak minded, and how those manifest themselves upon thier faces when they look at him.

Me, it just makes sick, but he carries all that, with duty, honor and sacrifice to boot, with him each day.

Kate said...

Wunelle, I've tried to comment again and can't do it without it becoming 100 things about war....so well said again.

wunelle said...

The extremity of the subject lends itself to long diatribes (I seem to have posted several novelette-sized posts on this). (But then, I post novelette-sized posts on everything.) So any progress toward brevity might count for more than wisdom and insight!

wunelle said...

And Kate--in reference to your assertions (with which I am in total agreement) about patriotism and the opposition of war, I assume you're aware of Hermann Goering's quote from the Nuremburg trials:

"Of course the people don't want war. But after all, it's the leaders of the country who determine the policy, and it's always a simple matter to drag the people along... whether it's a democracy, a fascist dictatorship, or a parliament, or a communist dictatorship. Voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism, and [for] exposing the country to greater danger." (emphasis mine)

This is in no way an indictment of the soldier. On the contrary, it reminds us of the folly and horrific costs of an immoral leadership using these same fresh-scrubbed men & women to do their bidding.

Yeah, that's another post (hell, this comment is almost a post in itself)!