Saturday, January 19, 2013

Fiction Speaks The Truth

I came across something in a novel by Lee Child the other day that struck a bit of a harmonic note in a topic that has been on my mind for a while. It’s a difficult subject for me because it can come across as critical of the military and that is not something that I want to do. My reason has nothing to do with fear of criticism or backlash, but with the fact that the best years of my life were those which I spent serving in the US Navy, and I have the highest possible regard for those who choose to serve in our armed forces.

That being said, I have had a growing feeling that something is going sour in the relationship between our civilian establishment and our military, and that it is happening in both directions. It’s not a big thing, or necessarily alarming, but I’m bothered by it nonetheless. On the civilian side I sense an almost unhealthy attitude of worship, and on the military side I hear a sense of entitlement the goes beyond the original contract. There seems to be a sense that veterans should be a superior class, entitled to good jobs when others are unemployed, for instance; not merely treated as equal to those who did not serve, but better.

In his novel Nothing To Lose, Lee Child has a former Army major saying,

“I mean we bitched, and pissed and moaned like soldiers always do. But we bought the deal. Because duty is a two way street. We owe them, they owe us. And what they owe us is a solemn promise to risk our lives and limbs if and only if there’s a damn good reason. Most of the time they’re wrong anyway, but we like to feel some kind of good faith somewhere. Now it’s all about political vanity and electioneering. That’s all. And guys know that. You can try, but you can’t bullshit a soldier. They blew it, not us. They pulled out the big card at the bottom of the house and the whole thing fell down.”

The former major goes on to say,

“I think the answer is for civilians to get off their fat asses and vote the bums out. They should exercise control. That’s their duty. That’s the next biggest card at the bottom of the house. But that’s gone too.”

The major is talking about betrayal. There is a term that most people know but few understand, “to soldier on.” It means that the job has become all but impossible and you have no support doing it, but you keep moving forward in your best effort to do it anyway. You have been betrayed by those who you serve, but you soldier on.

And so our civilian establishment risks the lives and limbs of our soldiers for “political vanity and electioneering” and exhibits their guilt in the form of idolatry. The poor bastard with stripes on his sleeve rather than tin on his collar watches his friends getting killed and maimed, asks why, gets bullshit answers and is pissed off about it. You can't bullshit a soldier, and deep down he knows he's not really defending his country and that he's serving a people who are not worthy of his sacrifice. He feels he’s owed something for it, and I think maybe he is.

For me, as the major in the book says a little later, “I had the good times.”
I served when we didn’t really have to ask why, and if we did the answers weren’t bullshit, or at least weren’t entirely bullshit. When Thresher was lost we grieved, but we knew those lives counted for something, were part of a larger picture that mattered. The major’s little rant gave me a little more sympathy for today’s uniformed services.

Duty is a two way street. The civilian establishment needs to do its duty.

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