Thursday, November 5, 2009

Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty

posted Thu, 11 Nov 2004

I enjoy 20% off open-stock Calphalon cookware as much as the next person, but sales are not the reason for Veterans’ Day. I think most people know this – it’s Memorial Day that confuses them – but just in case, let me set things straight: the purpose of Veterans’ Day and Memorial Day is to honor those who have served and who do serve in our military.

I am probably more sensitive to this issue than most, being a military brat. A few years ago, my mom and I happened to be in Dorchester, my parents’ home town, on Memorial Day. We went to the cemetery, where my dad is buried, for the ceremonies. I told a friend about this later and she asked why we would do this. Because my dad was a vet, I answered. She still didn’t understand. I realized she had no idea what Memorial Day was about. To her, it was just a three-day weekend.

Remember the real reason you can say what you want about the government in this country without being thrown into jail or being stuffed into a wood chipper. It’s the soldier who defends our freedom every day.

When I left military dependents’ life, I discovered that civilian culture is very different from military culture. They don’t play the National Anthem before the movie in civilian life. They don’t play “Taps” every evening as the flag is lowered and everyone doesn’t stop and salute, including those in cars, in civilian life.

You don’t have to show identification to get into the grocery store in civilian life. There is litter on the streets in civilian life. If you get a traffic ticket in civilian life, it goes to you – they don’t call your dad’s boss (maybe there is one advantage of civilian life).

There are some other big things in military life that you don’t see in civilian life. Rank is everything in the military. Color and ethnicity really don’t matter. I have a friend (black) who says he did not experience racism until he was 14 years old when his dad retired from the Army and they moved to M’town. In the Army, all that mattered was that his dad was the chaplain and a lieutenant colonel.

Civilians don’t understand rank. If someone asks your dad’s rank, it is like asking your dad’s job title, salary, and social status – and more. At a party (civilian) once, upon learning my dad had been career military, a woman whose son was a general asked my dad’s rank.

I felt the blood drain from my face. I should have asked her why she wanted to know, but I am never that quick. Instead, I told her my dad had retired as a captain. She said maybe two more words to me, then ignored me the rest of the evening. I could be of no use to her. My dad could not get her son his next star.

When my dad first got sick, he was teaching at Sigonella Navy Base in Italy. A captain in the Navy is much higher than a captain in the Air Force. When the hospital admissions people saw his rank (as a retiree), they put him in a big corner room in the hospital. He had no intention of informing them that he was an Air Force captain, not a Navy one.

The big shock to me, though, of the differences between military and civilian culture is the disdain that some civilians have for the military. Until a few years ago, I didn’t realize many civilians thought the only reason someone would join the military was that he was too stupid to do anything else. (News flash: you actually have to have half a brain to be in the military.)

In a magazine story (Esquire, I think) about General Wesley Clark last year, the writer was astonished that Clark attended West Point, even though he had been accepted at other universities. He chose to go to West Point, the writer noted – as if it were Clark’s safe school, like Little Rock Community College.

No names here, because I am not trying to embarrass anyone, but one friend innocently asked me weren’t the service academies what the military meant when they said you could get an education by joining the military. For the benefit of others who do not know anyone who went to West Point, Annapolis or the Air Force Academy – no, that’s not what the recruiting ads mean. It is extremely difficult to get into one of the academies. That’s where generals are raised. The academies pick from a very large applicant pool.

Years ago, a woman expressed surprise to me that the military would not accept those with criminal records, even if the applicant was a juvenile when the crime was committed. I asked her if she really wanted criminals in the military.

Another friend told me that the problem with the military is that those soldiers aren’t allowed to think for themselves. All they do is follow orders, she said. Um, yeah, I answered. Just what is supposed to happen in the heat of battle? A conference? “They’re trying to kill us, sir.”

“Yes. What do you think we should do?”

“Fire back?”

Fine. But by now, everyone is dead because the enemy has not stopped to have a team meeting.

This friend did later admit – with surprise – that she had known an Army captain in graduate school and he was really smart and open minded. I was depressed that she was so surprised and slightly – only slightly – heartened that perhaps she was seeing that intelligence and military were not mutually exclusive characteristics.

Men and women do not join the military for the money. (That’s a joke, for those of you who don’t know how low military pay is.) Yes, the military might be a path from the lower class to middle class for some, but that’s OK. What’s wrong with that sort of ambition? Our country is getting a great deal out of it.

They do not join because they are too stupid to work anywhere else. They do not join to keep from going to jail or from paying child support or from avoiding responsibilities. (They might try, but the military won’t let them in.)

Most of them join because they want to serve their country – to be part of something greater than themselves – to be part of a cause. And we are the better for it.

Thanks, vets.

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