Midwinter, always a good time to ponder the vanities and nose into a little trouble. Now that the Army is about to be cut, and the Warhawks are predictably outraged, let's think for a few paragraphs about what service in the military has turned into.
Last week I finished making my way through Duty, Robert Gates' memoir about his eight years as Secretary of Defense. Gates' bureaucratic colleagues have been publicly outraged by Gates' frankness about the policy bloodbaths behind closed doors, especially during the Obama tenure. More consistent -- more moving -- are Gates' accounts of his visits to military hospitals, where the disoriented survivors of too many deployments in Iraq or Afghanistan and sullen quadruple paraplegics and burnt-out veterans praying for the opportunity to kill themselves gazed up from their wheelchairs or festered in their sick beds and demanded of the Secretary some justification for their sacrifices. Why had this happened, what was that all about? Robert Gates had very few answers; each visit haunted him.
Almost incidentally, Gates mentions that, of the Special Forces personnel who served in Afghanistan, roughly half have been either killed or permanently disabled. The IEDs were killing and maiming our people wholesale, but Gates can't help getting into the fact that there wasn't really enough money in the budget for long-term aftercare or adequately armored personnel carriers. These were apparently sacrifices the Rumsfeld secretariat was prepared to make. Our national interests -- power projection, access to resources, crushing the jihadists -- had automatically gotten top priority. They needed to be defended, if exclusively by other people's children. Most of our Chief Executives after FDR had logged in time in the military and so had some awareness of what war was all about.. Since 1992 that hasn't been the case -- George W. Bush's absentee months in the National Guard don't really qualify as service. Perhaps it's no accident that, inside the Obama War Room, the most stubborn holdout against jumping into embroilments around the world was Joe Biden, who has a son on active duty.
As faithful readers of this blog surely remember, I put in a couple of years in the Army in Germany. My first winter, 1956, I spent as an Acting Sergeant presiding over four other live-wire draftees -- a Puerto Rican numbers runner, a Mexican railroad telegrapher, a seventeen-year-old black professional pickpocket from Detroit, and a very hard-nosed breaking-and-entering expert off a North Dakota farm who had chosen the Army over the penitentiary. The five of us were in place in the deep woods for over a month at the edge of the Grafenwohr training compound, just over the Czech border, in a mobile communications unit, an "Angry 26." We were there as part of the "tripwire" system to alert NATO by Morse Code if the nearby Russian troops -- we heard their artillery booming away day and night -- started to move.
My biggest responsibility that winter was keeping my charges from killing each other or me or winding up in the stockade. There was no room in the communications trailer we trucked along, so we took turns running the radios and reperforating equipment and sleeping in the snow. A couple of weeks into this hitch I came down with some kind of flu, accompanied by a fever. One morning around five, while I was sacked out in a snowdrift, I felt the tip of a boot nudging my head and looked up into the disapproving face of Major General Andrew O'Mara, the commanding officer of our Fourth Armored Division. O'Mara styled himself after George Patton, complete to the pearl-handled six-guns on each hip.
"On your feet, Sergeant," O'Mara was barking. "I want you in that unit, running your radio."
"Can't handle that," I muttered. "Too sick."
"I don't want to hear any excuses," the general said, and unsnapped one holster.
Fever was making things bleary. "General, I'm in bad shape," I said. "If you're going to shoot me, shoot me."
A long moment passed. During the previous year several friends of mine had died for very little reason -- a black professional boxer who had sneaked off the base without a pass and been gunned down by the officer of the day when he tried to make it back around the guard post, a trainee during basic training who wanted another stripe so badly he kept struggling along until pneumonia killed him. The military can be unforgiving.
O'Mara's pistol went back in its holster. There was a pause. "I'm going to be watching you, young trooper," the general conceded, in a growl, and climbed back into his jeep. Months later, when I had managed to snag a job as a German translator for the Seventh Army and found myself driving around with O'Mara investigating maneuver damage claims, I wondered if he remembered the incident. He never brought it up, and I certainly didn't.
All this comes back as the country-club Superpatriots clamor for more war, more involvement, more ignorant youngsters sacrificed. Perhaps a smaller army will use up its people more carefully.
The past. It isn't really ever past.