Friday, April 4, 2008

Stereotypes and the Military

For the rather large number of folks surfing in from the Whatever this morning, Greetings. Feel free to wander around.

As seems to be a continuing tradition here at Stonekettle Station, in today's post I want to expand on something I said elsewhere. In this case in the comments section of this post on the Whatever, and to a certain extent on yesterday's post here on Stonekettle Station.

In the Whatever post, one of the commenters pushed a particular button for me. I won't repost the comment here, because I don't have permission to so, but I'll summarize. The commenter basically said that those who serve in the US Armed forces are volunteers, i.e. they had a choice. However, he seems to feel that for many, it really wasn't much of a choice at all. He implies that many US Service men and women joined because they really had no other good options, i.e. they're poor and jobless and the military offered a way out of poverty. He goes on to say that he originally had "very little sympathy for Americans in Iraq" because they choose to be there. Eventually he changed his mind and came to the conclusion that even though they did volunteer, it was because of the reasons stated above and now they are "hemmed in" by the circumstances that existed in their own lives when they made the decision to enlist.

I have long held the opinion that the military is the last acceptable stereotype in American Society. Make a movie, write a book, or speak publicly using racial, religious, or scientific stereotypes and somebody will call you on it. We've gone to great length in recent decades to rid ourselves of stereotyping. I'm not saying that it doesn't exist and that people don't get away with it, but sooner or later somebody will call you on it.

Except when it comes to the military.

Television, movies, books, and media commonly portray the members of the military as poor, disadvantaged, uneducated and unimaginative dolts who scream "Yes sir" or Yes ma'am!" at the top of their lungs in a predictably robotic fashion and march around with a ramrod up their collective asses. NCO's are uniformly sadistic bastards with a venereal disease, junior officers are unthinking naive idiots, and senior officers all have a secret agenda and strange sexual fetishes. Oh, and we all know about the UFO's and alien bodies stored in Area 51.

Nobody ever gets called on it. Movie critics who wax self righteously rabid over the stereotyped portrayal of woman, ethnic minorities, and religion in popular media, are strangely silent when military members are portrayed as shave-headed thugs bent on some secret plan to overthrow the democracy or steal gold from some foreign land or are repeatedly portrayed as just plain stupid. And the biggest stereotype is the one implied by the commenter on the Whatever - i.e. those of us who choose to spend our lives in the military do so because we are the poor, uneducated, foolish dregs of society who only have the option of joining up or going to prison. I've run into this stereotype on countless occasions, in countless places, both online and off.

Thirty years of collective guilt regarding the treatment of veterans following Vietnam has changed how we treat military folks today. People, in large part, seem to be able to differentiate between the individual soldiers and the government who sent them to war under false pretenses. And while there seems to be a fairly wide show of support, or at least a measure of sympathy for those serving under arms in the US Military, it seems to me to be based more on pity than an actual sympathy. A rather significant number of Americans seem to feel similar to the commenter on the Whatever, i.e. those who are caught up in this war were simply too poor and stupid to get out of it. They fight because they have no other option.

This is a form of contemptuous arrogance that I find irritating, demeaning, and patronizing in the extreme.

It is true that I was firmly at the bottom end of the lower middle class when I joined the Navy. I wouldn't say was I poor exactly, at least not in the sense of abject poverty, but I lived from paycheck to paycheck. But that's not why I joined the military. I didn't have to, I had other options, I could have stayed in Grand Rapids, Michigan and gone to work in a factory (and I did for a time). I could have spent the next 40 years in some union job, making furniture or car parts. But it became obvious to me fairly quickly that the horizons of Michigan were just too damned close. I joined the Navy because I wanted adventure, because I wanted to see the world, because I wanted to surround myself with others who thought the way I did, because I wanted to see what I was made out of and be tested, I wanted to be part of something bigger than myself. The Navy made it damned clear right from the very first day in the recruiter station that they'd take care of me, that they'd give me an education, and adventure, and useful skills, and that I'd see the world and maybe even meet exotic hookers in strange and distant lands - but that I should consider those things an advance on a loan that might or might not come due one day.

We all join the military for one reason or another, and yes sometimes that reason is to get out of poverty. BUT, we stay in the military for one reason and one reason only, because we find a home there. For some of us, it gets into our blood. Far from restricting my freedom, the Navy gave me a life and pushed me to accomplish things that I never would have otherwise. I saw things and did things and went places that I myself can hardly believe. The Navy was my home for over two decades and I stayed because I loved it.

And the same was true of the vast majority of my shipmates. And here's the funny thing about those people: some were from poor families true, but many were from middle class backgrounds, and a few were even rich. A few were somewhat less that agile minded, but the vast majority were highly educated, intelligent, innovative, motivated folks who truly loved what they were doing. A finer bunch of people I have never known.

It always amazes me that Americans seem to think their military is manned by poor, uneducated, unimaginative robots and yet they trust billion dollar, highly complex machines and the safety of the nation to such as us. Like all false perceptions, when held up to the light of day even the most entrenched stereotype really doesn't hold water.

When the bill came due, and they sent us to war, we went because we had given our word. We went for the same reason a fireman rushes into a falling skyscraper. Not because we were stupid and ignorant and poor, but because it was our duty and our obligation to do so. We went fully knowing what the cost could be. Of course we knew, it's our job to know. We went because we are professionals. We went because that is who we are.

It's not about poverty and lack of options. It's about honor, duty, commitment, and keeping your word. It's about service above self. It's about standing up for something you believe in - not the conflict, but the ideal of Service. Unfortunately, that kind of idealism seems to be an alien concept to many Americans these days, and if you don't get what I'm saying - you never will.


  1. Those who have posted and therefore believe the idiotic notion that there are nothing but fools and dupes in the Military should remember the number of people who left universities, coporate positions, professional sports careers, law firms, factories, farms, and any other host of careers and income brackets to join up when those four planes slammed into the twin tower, pentagon and that field in Pennsylvania. They should remember the waivers that were issued for the pharmasist who joined at age 49. Additionally they should take the time to read a little about the role of the National Guard and their rotation schedules to/from and back again to Iraq. They should maybe talk to a few of their neighbors who made the trip over and back again and again about what it did to their careers, families, and their pension plans. They should maybe take a trip to their local airport and see the faces of the kids enroute their first assignments after pitifully short technical schools that barely prepare them for the rigors of their volunteered choice. Should take an ASVAB, DLAB, Rating Exam, do a PQS or JQR. Hell they probably wouldn't survive training from you or I at the standards we put on our Sailors. Mindless dupes eh? Yeah give em my email address and we can see if they have guts enough to come out from behind the safety of a Blog comment window.

  2. Ah, I see you're home from work, Beastly. Well said.

  3. My family was upper-middle class.

    I joined for my own reasons. I stayed for the reasons you described.

    Like you, I'm always amazed that people think the young men and women who serve are slack-jawed mouth breathers. Even the least intellectually challenging roles on a ship at sea (BM's for example - sorry, Boats) have an enormous amount of responsibility.

    People who don't think so have never seen a LSE do his or her thing in high winds during an emergency MedEvac.

  4. All right Jim. This is starting to piss me off. One of these days, you're going to post something I can argue with you about. That'll be fun.

    But today isn't that day.

    Janice, BM's?

  5. Nathan, BM's = Boatswain's Mate. Respectfully called "Boats" as in "Good Morning Senior Boats" when addressing the Senior Chief Boatswains Mate. Disparagingly called "Deck Apes," because BM's are the grunts of the Navy - Deck Division, which includes the Non Designated Seaman. Non Des are the kids who come in at the bottom of the barrel, no guaranteed rating (specialty) or school, few skills, and etc. However, Deck Ape is often used as a term of affection as well. It's one hard, dirty job, and it's a damned tough place to be. But Boats are proud of who they are and what they do - and make no mistake, a ship could put to sea without her captain, but she's not moving an inch without the Deck Division. They are usually highly respected, especially the senior ones.

    As to the argument, I mentioned movies. Movies. Mooooovies. Don't you know something about that? Sheesh.

  6. Jim, you rock - both on The Whatever and here. You are further cementing your Mary Sue status.

    I don't see how anyone could disagree with you - your views are clearly and concisely stated, with considerable personal credibility and passion behind them.

    Way to go!

  7. Yeah, but you didn't say anything about movies that I care to argue with.

    Now, try to tell me "Braveheart" sucks and we're gonna have some fuckin' words! (I really didn't need to curse there; I'm just still trying to get your rating into the toilet._

  8. My family was middle class. I joined, in part, because I didn't know what I wanted to do with my life, and felt that the military would give me some discipline and some time to try and figure things out.

    It did both. And it let me work with a number of people from various backgrounds - some poor, some middle- and upper middle-class. Some became good friends. A few were pains-in-the-ass. Sound familiar.

    I have a niece who is an Army MP who did a tour in Iraq, and fell in love with and married a Marine she met in Iraq. They both CHOSE to join because they felt it was the right thing to do. Socioeconomic status didn't have a damn thing to do with it. She and I do not agree about the war, but I am proud of her and her husband.

    What really pisses me off about many commentators of the sort you describe is that they have no direct experience of anything they talk about, and couldn't research their way out of a paper bag. And until they do DO have some experience and /or bother to some actual reaseach, they should, if you'll pardon the expression, shut the fuck up.

  9. Jeri, well Ian M. just plain pushed my buttons with his condescending drivel. I was trying to be reasonably decent (and hopefully remain out of the moderation queue this time).

    Nathan? Uh OH. Uh, Braveheart? Okay, I won't say it sucked, but I didn't like it at all and I'd have to be liquored up to watch it again. First, probably because I couldn't buy Gibson's performance (and really dislike him as an actor anyway) but mostly because I thought the pacing was horrible. Who edited that thing anyway? Also I think it suffers in comparison to two other period movies I saw around the same time, namely Rob Roy and The Last of the Mohicans - both of which I thought were fantastic and rank among my top ten.

    So, you know, let fucking fly. :O

  10. Thank you Jim.

    I've got two cousins that are career military. One Annapolis graduate and the other joined the junior ROTC at 16 and has been in the army since. (Both have been in the military since the late 90s)

    The Annapolis grad was top of his class in high school, all state in several sports, and just generally hell of a guy. He's got a desk job at No Such Agency right now, so his career path was very different from yours, but it doesn't matter.

    My the other cousin joined the army because he grew up listening to my grandfather's stories about life as a career man in the Air Force. He did two tours of Iraq, two tours of Afghanistan, and earlier tours of Kosovo and North Korea.

    His marriage dissolved during those war zone tours, and he got stop lossed after his second tour of Iraq, but he's still career military and all that entails, and I have nothing but respect for him.

    Neither made their choices out of poverty or ignorance. They made their choices for patriotism and to do something they believed in.

    To belittle their choices and the choice of other servicemen and women is an insult, and how anyone could see it otherwise is beyond my ken.

  11. This is actually the type of thread where I wouldn't normally go off topic, but the host has challenged me. (Yes, there is such a thing as a subject that I am hesitant to derail, believe it or not.)

    I could go on about a lot of things. I could talk about the score which is fucking brilliant. I could talk about the casting. The kid who plays him as a child is perfect. The woman he marries is HAWT. Ditto the wife of the prince. I could go on about the battle scenes with their brutality that may have been the first time I ever said to myself, "what could make anyone advance into such a thing and how did anyone survive.

    I could talk about a lot of things.
    But I won't.

    I'll merely tell you right here to your face on your very own blog that if you don't like that movie, you're just fucking stupid!

    -Summer Glau

    P.S. I can kill you with my brain.

  12. Damn! that Summer Glau is one mean chick.

    I see somebody has been reading XKCD - and the whole Summer Glau thing is hysterical but you're wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. Here's why

  13. Michelle - Annapolis guy at NSA? Hmmmm, it's entirely possible that I might know him, or have heard of him anyway, since I knew most of the navy officers around there. Same him with me. I used to have an office in Ops 3 and in a round about way worked for them for twenty years. Ask him if he recognizes my name - Chief Warrant Officer Jim Wright, SIWO, USS Valley Forge and NIWA. I was fairly well known in certain circles around there.

  14. First of all, I don't find the Rickroll meme amusing and second of all FuckYouFuckYouFuckYouFuckYou!

    ::Looks off dreamily while realizing that his arguments with Jim were everything he ever dreamed they'd be and more::

  15. BTW,

    I really kinda do feel bad about throwing a Hijack™ at this particular thread. Shall we take this out behind the blog and settle it with pasta at fifty paces?

  16. Jim,

    His dad retired from the NSA, and is now, I think, contractor now for the agency. His dad was also in the Navy, only it was quite awhile ago!

    It's been awhile since I've seen them outside a family gathering where I end up running around and don't get to talk to anyone for more than a few minutes.

    And since I'm more likely to see his dad, I'll as him next time I see him. :)

  17. I somehow missed Vince's comment earlier - and, yeah, what he said.

    Michelle, Hmmmm, it is very possible that I may know these folks. Which is sort of weird, because I actually think I know Nueron doc's husband too, we were at the same technical training school at the same time. It is a small world.

    Nathan - never gonna give you up, never gonna let you down, never gonna... Ahhhhahahahahahaha!

  18. Jim,

    I'm reluctant to reply, because this is the sort of situation where it's extremely easy to be misunderstood. And I will probably sound a bit like a politician (and in the worst possible way) when I say that I think I understand where Ian was probably coming from without actually agreeing with the totality of what he wrote.

    In the liberal, pacifist tradition--and this is a tradition I consider myself a proud part of (though I suppose my views of what is sometimes necessary and what is always ideal have terribly forked)--it can be very, very hard to understand what is perceived as "military culture." It's a misunderstanding that's probably reciprocated: there are many of us who adore the ideals of our country, and would happily die for those ideals, but wouldn't kill for those ideals. We'd go to prison, take a beating the way civil-rights demonstrators in the '60s American south did, get ourselves shot at while trying to engage in some non-lethal act of sabotage like some of the Dutch pacifist-resisters in the occupied Netherlands would have. But we wouldn't pick up a gun. And so you get this terrible miscommunication where some of us see people who would pick up a gun as murderers and some of the people who would pick up a gun see us as cowards, and of course all those people who would make those kinds of assumptions are dead wrong on both sides. Reality has nuances.

    Ian's problem, in my view, is that he appears to have gotten part of the way toward nuance but not all of the way: he's figured out that not everyone who serves in the military is "bad" but I don't think he's quite gotten around to the realization that everyone who serves is actually him, in that universally, essentially human way. (Because, as trite as it is to say it, every human being is fundamentally the same to the exact same degree we're all fundamentally different--perhaps we forget this precisely because it is such a banal sentiment.) So he sort of confuses pity and sympathy, and doesn't get to the stage where he can fully separate a war from the warriors. The worst thing that Ian says, in my view, isn't that many soldiers came from disadvantaged backgrounds--many did, many didn't, but for those who did what he says in the first paragraph of his first post has some truth to it--it's that he says he originally had little sympathy for the ones who are there. That's a horrible thing to think.

    But I can understand why there would be a gut check (I suppose I sympathize with Ian, in other words). I have no idea how old Ian is (and it doesn't matter), but personally I might have said something similarly smart and thoughtless when I was in my early 20s. I guess I'm trying to say that yes, he's wrong, but I think his heart is probably in the right place even if he sounds like maybe his head was about 18" lower (and if he's reading this--it's nothing personal; my own head spends quite a bit of time in my ass, hopefully not right now, though).

    I'm not sure if I've said what I wanted to, but I've tried. I hope I didn't make an utter asshole of myself in the process, and if I offended anyone I apologize. I have no idea how to wrap this up, so I'll just sort of stop writing....

  19. Jeez, Eric, for a guy who was reluctant to reply - you sure said a lot! ;)

    Actually, Eric, I thought approximately the same thing. I was NOT, uh, incensed or insulted at his post - and he is certainly entitled to his perception of the military, even if it's based on a single data point and is demonstratively wrong overall.

    I understand how the military can appear as an alien culture,and in fact is an alien culture, to most civilians - and especially to civilians who are of the liberal/pacifist bent. However, I also think that it is important that liberal/pacifists understand that we are not the robotic psychopaths that they see in every James Cameron movie (most recent comments from Baghdad on the Whatever not withstanding).

    As I said above, I wasn't offended (and seriously, it takes a great deal to offend me - usually you have to speak disparagingly of Mark Knopfler's guitar work before I put down my beer and stand up), but as I said after twenty years that perception of us, that we're feeble-minded poor-folk who simply couldn't make it in the real world - well, that gets on my nerves.

  20. Well hell, Jim, anyone who speaks disparagingly of Knopfler's guitar work is obviously an ignoramus. Sympathy has its limits.

  21. Exactly, you've got to have some standards, that's all I'm saying here.

  22. So after more than twenty years of service I'm in a room all day with a buncha kids straight out of boot camp and a sprinkling of second termers.

    You've got yer:
    --kids whose parents are rich.
    --M.A. graduates who went ABD (all but dissertation for a Ph.D.) to enlist.
    --kids whose families are powerful in their home states.
    --kids who spent a couple years teaching before signing up.
    --kids who already speak a couple of languages and could get a job making as much as I do

    and finally, all of them are:
    --kids who are deeply committed to exactly what they say they are doing.

    Yeah, Ian needs a little recalibrating.

    Nice to see you over at Whatever. You sell those bowls, eh?

  23. Chap, I've been a regular on the Whatever for a couple of years. I've been quiet over there of late for a number of reasons.

    I do sell the bowls. Currently I have only one available #55, click through on the flickr link on the right hand side of the page to see the gallery.

    I assume from your avatar that you're a bubblehead? You teaching in Groton?

    Out of the 30 enlisted I had at my last command (I retired as XO of a specops det in Anchorage, decommed now), at least half had 4 year degrees, two had Masters. Most of the rest were pursuing degrees. Not one was there because they had no other options.


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