03. May 2005 · Comments Off on In Which We Serve · Categories: General, Military

(Regular commenter “Dex” sent me an e-mail with a link to this conservative blog, and a note about how one particular thread had devolved into a discussion of why people joined the military. As none of the comments were from people who were or had been in the military, or seem to have even known anyone in the military… or even very much about the military to start with, other than the fact that we wear uniforms, and play with guns and high explosives… well, trying to enlighten via my own comment looked pretty fruitless. I will send a link to this, so I can tell Dex I have done my best.)

It is an assumption in some circles at least, that we are mercenaries, doing it for the money. Or at least, the money and the whole package of benefits, which the wicked military recruiters dangle before the poor and gormless rubes who just can’t get any other job. According to the Chablis and Brie intellectual set, this constitutes an economic draft, achieving by those means what used to be accomplished by a draft board, with exemptions for the college-bound and the well-connected. They’re not really volunteering, they just don’t have any better place to go and it’s all the fault of Halliburton/AshKKKroft/the Trilateral Commission/the military industrial complex/Bushhitler/the Teletubbies/time-traveling lizard-creatures, or whatever. Anyone particularly cherishing these beliefs can stop reading right now. The real reasons people join the military are much more complex, much more mysterious than simple economics, and way above the simple comprehension level of a devotee of conspiracy theories, being a mixture of very real human emotions. (Re-adjust the tin-foil hat, return your levels of snobbish superiority to normal operational levels and go away.)

Mind you, for someone who is fresh out of high school and considering the alternatives— fast food, crappy retail sails jobs or low-level manual labor—- the pay and benefits do look pretty good. Not great, not much more than adequate, really, but for a single person living in a barracks, it’s OK. Health care, paid vacation, extra pay, BX/PX, the commissary, educational benefits, and various allowances… at entry-level, it compares very favorably to your average crappy sales job. Although, once, as an E-4, I sat down and worked out that even with pay, separate rats, housing and overseas allowance, with the hours in my duty schedule, on an hourly basis it worked out to about as much as the fruit-pickers were then on strike for. Even with promotions, and increased allowances, for most military it is never quite as much as they would have been paid on the outside for the same skills and experience. No, it’s not the money. People who enlist for the money are usually pretty disappointed.

The second justification for enlisting is… basically, boredom with a dead-end life in a small town, or a big-city project. Well, for them, it’s boredom; for people who have the resources to enable them to become bored in the Marin suburbs or upper-east side condo, it would be called a yearning for adventure, or to challenge yourself, or to just get a life. Joining the military is certainly the fastest and most efficient way to get a life… and a life as different as the one that you were insufficiently interested/challenged by as it could possibly be. I would put more credit in the second justification, actually… the fact that to someone looking for thrills and adventure, nothing short of the circus or white-water rafting can deliver highs quite like the military. There are people who only feel alive when they are hanging out there, risking it all, with lots of engine noise. And to live at the business-end of America’s defense sword, to be at the very top of your game, with your teammates… for some, that is living life at full throttle. For those people, everything short of it seems like a half-life, sleepwalking through existence. Even those of us more sensible of risk are not immune to the thrill of just doing a good job, of meeting a challenge with confidence, thanks to the solid teamwork of which you are an integral part.

I also had a theory that post-draft, military service is a family thing. In my basic-training flight, about a third of the other women turned in DOD dependents’ ID cards. It is anecdotal, based purely on personal experience, but still… a lot of the young troops serving today, if I am reading the newspapers and blogs correctly, had parents who served in their day. (Consider my daughter, for one, and Rev. Sensings’ son for another.) Growing up in a military family means that joining up yourself, is just one of those things you do. You are already open to the realistic possibilities, anyway. This may be something even more marked in various reserve units: in all the reporting about various activated reserve units participating in Gulf War I, the military Times used to note the occurrence of units containing several generations: fathers, mothers, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, husbands and wives all in the same unit and deployed together.

Even in peacetime the feeling of obligation to serve may just be felt a little more powerfully, when it is a family or community thing. Wartime just ratchets up that feeling to a new level. No one who enlisted after 9/11 could possibly delude themselves about what the military was for, and what it might involve… or about how fragile our lives and very safety could be. I myself enlisted after two years of working with refugees; some of my motivation was boredom, and some was wanderlust, but the largest part was the cast-iron conviction that no one I loved should ever, ever have to leave home and country, cast out by an enemy to live as a rootless refugee, dependent on chance and charity. I would think those who enlisted after 9/11 have similar feelings about never wanting to see people jump from tall burning buildings, not if it something that by their service can be prevented.

(Add your own motivation, or expand upon these, in comments.)

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