Military Matters: Yours and Mine (Hurt Locker, cont’d.)

Let me begin this renewed meditation on inauthenticity—a response to my friend in Montana regarding the military and the Left—with a transcript of the phone call I just finished with “Ted,” a fellow, in every sense, from Alcoholics Anonymous.

“Hey, Jim, how you doin’, it’s Ted, man, I got 500 minutes to burn here, callin’ everybody, how you doin’ man, you still go to the Bridge?”

“I’m sorry, who is this, the connection is bad, can you say your name again?

“It’s Ted, man, I was at the Bridge, spoke there, you remember, I’m over in the Bronx now with the Friars, 156th, saw you there a lot, you had a lotta years I remember.. . .

“Oh, Ted, no, I’m sorry, listen, uh, I’m out, I went out in May, been drinkin’ and no, I haven’t been to the Bridge, so, I dunno, how’re you doin’, is there something you wanna talk about, you OK?

“Watchu mean you’re out, watchu mean?

“Well, I had ten months, didn’t have all those years, been out for a while now, so I dunno, maybe you wanna call somebody else? Are you OK, you need to talk, what’s goin’ on Ted?

“I’m livin’ up here with the Friars, it’s good, I’m gettin’ into the church, I say the rosary in Latin, and that helps, not a lotta meetings, though, just twice a week now, I wanted to talk with you, haven’t seen you . . .

“So that sounds good, it’s like a monastery or something?

“Like a dorm, it’s where they live, they got rooms for guests, I’m a guest, I been here for a couple months, it’s good, they feed you and give you shit to read . . .

“Well, are you staying sober, Ted, do the friars help there, what’s the deal with AA?

“No, yeah, I’m sober, eleven months now it’s good, they want me to join up, be a brother, I go to meetings but not a lot, I read the bible with them, you know, say the rosary in Latin, that’s a help, but how’re you doin’?

“I’m good, Ted, I’m out but I feel OK about it, I’m pretty sure I’ll get back, I just gotta let it feel better, I had—

“You’re out, watchu mean?

“I’m outta the rooms, Ted, haven’t been to a meeting since June, but it’s OK, I’ll make it back—

“OK, thought you said you went out, almost did myself, you gotta keep goin’ to meetings, it’s like eating, you can’t just do it once, otherwise you starve, you know what I mean, it’s like starvation, only spiritual . . .

“Yeah, I know what you mean, are you doin’ the Steps, Ted, that’s the key you know—

“Oh yeah, I’m doin’ Step 4 again, got stuck on 3, doin’ the advance shit this time with 4, it’s hard, though, it’s hard, yeah, it’s pretty hard . . .

“Well Ted, you sound good, listen I gotta go but maybe you wanna call tomorrow, all those minutes you got, I’ll be around if you need to talk, maybe we can talk longer tomorrow?

“OK, Jim, yeah, I’ll call tomorrow, I’m callin’ everybody, I’ll call you, god bless, don’t pick up—“

I don’t know who Ted is, but I played my part here, because this alcoholic needed to speak with someone who understands what it means to be one, so I pretended I was sober by AA standards and listened, probing where necessary to see if he needed better help than I can give him as a fallen soldier in the cause. I just played a part, in fact, not my part, I just did what I had to because I know the script, I understand the story, and it doesn’t bother me—indeed it helps me—to get outside myself, to be somebody else, and to discuss the intimate details of another’s life as if (as if!) we’re old friends.

This “intimacy” is completely fabricated, it’s an artifice born of the AA community—or rather it derives from the cause, the idea, which constitutes as well as permeates the social body that is the community of AA. It allows everyone who accepts the rules to play the part he or she needs to in the moment, whether at a meeting or on the phone, always helping another alcoholic get through the next hour without a drink.

And this also is the fabricated “intimacy” of comrades in arms, as they have been trained for modern warfare, as they have been drilled in—not dulled by—the minute division of labor that is the post-Vietnam, all-volunteer military. The fabrication is itself the product of an abstraction from, an evacuation of, the authentic self who comes to basic training without understanding the cause, the idea, of the military.

The post-Vietnam military has acted, in this sense, on an insight John Dewey developed as early as 1891, in his first major work, Outlines of a Theory of Ethics: “The term ‘moral community’ can mean only a unity of action, made what it is by the cooperating activities of diverse individuals. There is unity in the work of a factory, not in spite of, but because of, the division of labor. Each workman forms the unity not by doing the same [thing] that everybody else does, or by trying to do the whole, but by doing his specific part.”

So a moral personality or a moral community requires entry into a world that is literally impersonal because none of its inhabitants is self-sufficient—you can’t be yourself if you want to make worthwhile moral judgments, you have to leave that old self behind and see the world from the standpoint of the person you’re not, at least not yet. There’s no time to stay the same, you have to play a role, and in doing so you have to get outside the “real you.” Or, to put it slightly differently, to be true to yourself and your evolving capacity for moral judgment, you have to identify with somebody else.

But the Marines went farther than the other branches in rehearsing and performing this moral personality, this moral community, and they did it quite self-consciously, as if (as if!) they were painstakingly rewriting male role models, and thus inventing a new family romance, using the unlikely raw materials that were the remains of American society, ca. 1975.

Thomas Ricks’s brilliant Making the Corps (1997) is the locus classicus here, it shows how the Marines reconstituted the esprit de Corps under the most unpromising conditions. By my reading of this book, supplemented by my son’s experience in basic training, and by Jennifer Middlestadt’s forthcoming work on the subject, the conclusions to be reached about the all-volunteer military are, first, that it posited and enacted a “matrilocal” culture in reconvening role models for working class males from mainly African-American and Hispanic backgrounds, and second, that in substituting a social body for the nuclear family, it became a social movement, a public institution, that lived up to the egalitarian ideals of the 1960s.

Let me briefly flesh out these conclusions so you don’t think I’m just making it up, and then give my friend from Montana the direct answer he deserves.

In basic training on Parris Island, Marine recruits go through a twelve-week, three-stage process, the break-down, the build-up, and the making of the social body. These are my categories, invented as a way of understanding what Ricks described and then what my son experienced on Parris Island. First it’s die to your old self, then it’s welcome to your new self on this new planet, and then it’s matriculation at your new address by answering a question that goes something like this: where and how does my new self fit into the Corps and the world elsewhere? Most of the difficulties recruits face—most of the dropouts—will come in the later stages, in the new psychological terrain of the new planet, as they begin to understand what roles they might play there and back home on Earth.

The enablers of these stages and transitions are (1) the senior drill instructor, (2) the “heavy,” and (3) the “third hat,” the three men (or women) who supervise the training of each platoon (about 100 guys), in order of their seniority, first, second, and third in command. Their roles are carefully rehearsed, cultivated and conveyed to the recruits as just that, roles being played for a broad social purpose.

The senior drill instructor is the distant patriarch whose judgment is final, but periodic, rarely invoked. He’s anything but a “hands-on” Dad like the yuppie fathers who leave the office early to coach their daughter’s softball team. The “heavy” is the ever-present, demanding uncle who plays by the rules—he probably made them—and expects you to conform. He wants you to excel, which means you should aspire to be just like him, but not just yet. In the day-to-day routine of basic training, he’s the central figure. The “third hat” is the big brother who beats the shit out of you, every day, just for fun. He torments you because you offend him in some deeply ontological way, because you’re there on his planet. He doesn’t want you to finish, he wants you gone. His physical prowess is impossible to match—his time on the obstacle course is legend—so you’ll never win the fight you want to have with him.

Again, these roles are presented to the recruits as just that, as parts to be played by men (or women) who, as the “third hat” in this rotation, for example, will be the “heavy” in the next platoon class. Nobody mistakes the roles for the particular individuals who inhabit them for the time being, but nobody dismisses their demands—their orders—either. That would mean expulsion and disgrace.

I say these roles, these models, posit and enact a “matrilocal” culture because they don’t place all their bets on Dad, they distribute the teaching about what it means to be a man among several possibilities, as if (as if!) the husband moved to the wife’s quarters upon marriage, matrilocally speaking, or as if an absent father didn’t mean the absence of male role models because extended families with their uncles and brothers were always around.

Whether or not I’m right about this totally inauthentic family romance, it’s hard to argue with me on this: the post-Vietnam military has become the most progressive, egalitarian, meritocratic social movement in our society. Every day it lives up to and enlarges upon the ideals of the 1960s, from racial to gender equality—and it’s getting there on sexuality. Its leadership was the most vocal and effective critic of imperial hubris in the Bush years, meanwhile serving as the most vocal and effective advocate of affirmative action. It serves as the portal through which working class kids of every color learn skills, get an education, and become adults.

Jennifer Middlestadt would call this process the militarization of welfare; I’d turn that designation around. Either way, you’ve got a historical phenomenon worth serious thought. The American Left can’t supply that thought, however, because, unlike the all-volunteer military, which remade itself after the debacle of Vietnam, it is stuck in the sensibilities of the 1960s. By and large, the Left still thinks progress, socialism, democracy, whatever, appears as the insurgent from elsewhere, the guerilla movement that overthrows evil old capitalism, militarism, sexism, whatever. It can’t believe that progress, socialism, democracy—all of the above—have arrived in the ungainly shape of the post-Vietnam, all-volunteer military, because the good, the true, and the beautiful are supposed to come in more attractive packages..

Me, I can believe it. And not just because my son is a Marine.

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One response to “Military Matters: Yours and Mine (Hurt Locker, cont’d.)

  1. Jim

    “So a moral personality or a moral community requires entry into a world that is literally impersonal because none of its inhabitants is self-sufficient—you can’t be yourself if you want to make worthwhile moral judgments, you have to leave that old self behind and see the world from the standpoint of the person you’re not, at least not yet. There’s no time to stay the same, you have to play a role, and in doing so you have to get outside the “real you.” Or, to put it slightly differently, to be true to yourself and your evolving capacity for moral judgment, you have to identify with somebody else.”

    O.K., is this what you and the pragmatists consider to be the “social self”? … stated crudely.

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