Why I Joined the Navy
The Panzer rumbled forward relentlessly. Frozen snow crunched and fallen branches snapped as the death machine rolled on. Sgt. Ernie Rock huffed frosty clouds as he squinted at the German tank. He bit down on the butt of his stogie muttering, “Easy Company is a sittin’ duck if I don’t stop dat Kraut joy machine.”
Rock peered around at his three dead comrades and the 14 German soldiers that they had slain minutes before. He was the only survivor. “Ya dogfaces,” Rock growled in a mixture of admiration and disgust, “Just like ya to die on me before da job is done.” The burly sergeant with four days of scraggly beard picked up the bazooka from Smitty 10 feet away. “Dis oughta say hello to da Furhrer.” But the firing mechanism was hopelessly jammed. A search of the bodies turned up no grenades and only one clip of ammo for his M-1 rifle. The Panzer was now 40 yards away and the clanking of metal was growing louder.
Drawing himself to his full height and biting his stogie Rock broke into a trot toward the steel behemoth. Twenty yards away Rock opened fire with a blood curdling shout. “Die ya yellow bellies!” From somewhere in the tank a machine gun fired back. Clank-clankety-clank. Sarge was quickly out of ammunition. With 7mm machine gun rounds biting trees and throwing snow all around he dove behind a log. In a flash he snapped his bayonet into place. The thought jumped through the muscular man’s mind that no one had ever been so foolish as to attack a tank with a bayonet. “OK, so I’m da first. I aint gonna let ‘em get to Easy Company.”
Sgt. Ernie Rock, Charlie Company, 4th Platoon, zigged and zagged, slowed and dodged bullets as he ran at the Panzer. “Eat death Nazi scum!” With one final burst Rock hurdled up onto the flank of the iron war wagon. Fanatically, he hacked and jabbed away. Argh! Grunt! Then a spark! A fire! Kabloom!!
Ten minutes later that seemed like ten hours the crusty sarge came to. The Panzer belched great clouds of black smoke. Easy Company was safe….for now. Rock wiped blood from his cheek and slowly lifted himself to his feet. He grinned, sighed, and reached for his helmet.
Wow! My ten year old fingers folded the comic book closed. What a man, I thought.
I saw a movie which portrayed heroics similar to this comic book story. To Hell and Back was a dramatization of the battlefield exploits of Audie Murphy. In World War II he was the most decorated soldier among US fighting forces. In the movie Murphy is given the Congressional Medal of Honor. I cried. This was a man, a brave man, a man I wanted to be like. To me a man worked hard, with his hands (that’s what my dad did). He carried a lunch bucket. He had a wife and a couple of kids. But before starting a work life. A man was in the military, “the service”. Some males didn’t do their hitch. They were men, I guess, but it wasn’t the same. Those guys came up short somehow.
As a man how could you know what the world was about if you had never been through boot camp? Never done KP? The experience of living in the barracks seemed essential to healthy adult male functioning.
These were the assumptions that paced my life into early adulthood. They were largely not learned as direct lessons, but absorbed as part of my blue collar working class family life. Even though less than one in five men in our country has been in the military I contend that all men in our society have been militarized by our cultural conditioning.
I am eager to debate this point, but that will have to wait for later. This is a subjective account of one man’s path into the military. I offer it as a personal recollection, a reconstruction of the influences on my life that led to my enlistment in the Navy in 1968. My experiences certainly aren’t universal, but I have talked with enough veterans and other men to know that they are shared by many others.
I envision three related purposes for writing this down. First, I would have men consider and compare their own experiences to mine. Do you recognize any of this? Second, I hope to convey to female readers unseen glimpses of what it is like to grow up male in our society. Third, and most importantly to me, I hope to embolden other veterans to share their stories. Too many of us have hidden away that part of our lives for fear that: 1) we would be labeled violent, abnormal, sadistic, or worse; 2) we would be ignored, scorned or laughed at; or, 3) we would have to deal with our own unpleasant, sometimes traumatic memories.
I would like to bring the reader to think about the ways we raise young males, in our families, and in our culture as a whole. Do our values and childrearing practices promote adult males who will be sensitive to the needs of others? Can we hope for a future of peace if we continue to train warriors? Is this the best we can do?
It would be tidy if I could pinpoint one incident from my early youth that clearly initiated my conditioning toward being a sailor. Such is not the case, however. Instead, I have what seem to me rather conventional memories of toy soldiers, playing cowboys and indians and playing “war”.
It seems so commonplace to me, but I’m sure I need to explain toy soldiers. Beginning at the age of four or five I spent many hours with my plastic figurines of combat infantrymen. They were only two inches tall and fixed in some posture of attack. Most were a green or green-brown, not quite khaki. Some stood firing rifles while others fired from a sprawled or kneeling position. There was a bazooka man and several machine gunners. But my personal favorite was always the guy throwing a grenade. He wore a determined grimace as he prepared to heave the three pound hunk of steel.
Your parents could purchase these “men” at any dime store in a sack containing some size of fighting unit. The smallest sack was a platoon, then a company followed by a battalion, regiment, division, and finally, an army. Thus, was I indoctrinated in military organization before I started first grade.
A battle could be concocted anywhere. You just dump the bag over and assemble the little fighters. Sometimes you would pit them against one another, but usually I spread them in some attack formation. Often, it was necessary to assault a fixed enemy position such as a machine gun nest or mountain fortress (played by a sugar bowl and an easy chair, respectively). The floor was the easiest all-weather venue for combat though I liked the lawn where “men” could hide in the grass. The bathroom was interesting for it’s multi-level ambush possibilities.
Two or more could play “soldiers”, but I spent most of my time alone. Playing solitaire I always picked one man to be me. Play proceeded by sheer imagination and subjectively judged line-of-sight shots at the enemy. If someone was hit you tipped him over or dramatically gave him a sharp but controlled thump with the index finger.
The indispensable element of playing soldiers as well as the role-played war and cowboys and indians was the sound effects. The explosion of a mortar shell, the ubiquitous whine of rifle bullets zinging past, the guttural uh-uh-uh of the machine gun brought the battle to life. Without sound effects these childhood games would be drab and boring; it’s like the difference between theory and practice.
Cowboys and indians and war (which for me meant re-enactment of WWII combat) were choreographed dramas acted out by 2-15 boys. Girls were seldom allowed. Usually, sides were chosen and good guys and bad guys designated. Military maneuvers commenced with some agreed or dictated plan of action. For instance, “OK, you guys walk down the path over by Tommy’s house. We’ll ambush you over there somewhere, OK?”
It was scripted or silently understood that being on the bad guys team meant that your side would be defeated. You might be devious Japanese fighters who just blew up a bus full of nurses in which case you would be expected to suffer quite a bit in imaginary death. The indian bad guys routinely died agonizingly as they were regarded as evil and uncivilized. These simulations of combat taught me not only the ways of violence and aggression, but also laid in unhealthy racial stereotypes.
Also starting very early as a young person I was influence heavily by television and movies. The TV documentary Victory at Sea fascinated me. It featured real combat footage from WWII of naval battles, amphibious assaults (hitting the beach), and aerial bombing. The hours I spent fantasizing these battles! I thought about the celluloid sequences at home, at school, eating, doing homework, walking to school, talking to friends. I considered how my hometown might look after extensive bombing. My bored doodles on school papers were of tanks shelling rival soldiers or airplanes locked in a dogfight.
Other TV influences were Daniel Boone and The Lone Ranger. These two programs were not as violent as some others. However, they elaborated the violent themes of my youthful warrior training. The former revolved around subduing the hostile wilderness while the latter dealt with the solitary fight of one righteous man against the forces of evil. Several John Wayne movies seized my imagination. His portrayal of Davy Crockett at the Alamo filled my eyes with tears. In The Sands of Iwo Jima his Sgt. Stryker defined the U.S. fighting man for me.
In the years before I turned 16—mid-’50’s to mid-’60’s—my experiences, the media, my family and all of society presented me with a constant message delivered with many variations. Remember WWII. It can happen again. In fact, it likely will happen again. You will have your war to fight. Be prepared young man. You will have your war to fight.
I used to look out the window of the car as we drove to Anderson, Missouri to see my grandma. It was about 100 miles in the days before Interstate Highways became common. We passed through lots of little towns in a wooded countryside dotted with farms and pastures.
As we went I imagined that I drove an Army jeep along parallel to the road. I had been given a mission to drive my jeep through enemy lines with a life-saving message—send reinforcements! Our regiment was cut-off, surrounded, doomed. My impossible mission was to somehow drive across 100 miles of enemy territory fighting my way out with the lives of thousands of my comrades at stake. The Krauts or Japs (the only bad guys I could conceive of at that point) were closing in, all radio communication was gone, food was running short.
It was a long shot, but the only alternative was certain death. It was suicide. I knew it and every brave soldier I left behind knew it.
Out the car window I saw the jeep crashing along across fields, through ravines, dodging the bullets of hundreds of angry enemy rifles. Grenades exploded, fire leapt around me as I raced through pastoral scenes turned to hell by war.
I had a pistol and a sub-machine gun and a limitless supply of ammunition (just like in the movies). But my task was driving; there was little time to shoot. I wore a flak jacket, a vest filled with lead sheets to stop bullets or shrapnel. Sometimes as dad drove the car down Highway 80 in my mind I would be wounded, near death, but I was tied to the wheel with a rope. And, by god, I wouldn’t be stopped.
When I set out on this suicide mission there was a gunner with me. A .38 caliber machine gun mounted atop a four foot iron pole was planted behind the passenger seat. The gunner stood in the back mowing down enemy soldiers. He whipped the spitting death rod back and forth as he silenced the lousy, stinkin’ invaders front and back. We were a team. From his standing position he could see perils ahead—”Gully! Swerve right!”—and I could slow down abruptly or whip the wheel such that some sniper’s bullet wouldn’t hit my gunner.
But, this fantasy was mostly about solo heroism. Thus, the gunner, my noble buddy, didn’t last long. At times he would topple out of the jeep when hit. Other times his limp body landed on me gushing warm blood. The result was always the same. The gunner died leaving me completely, utterly alone against insurmountable odds.
Often at this imaginary point a lump would form in my throat and tears would come to my eyes. I was alone without support facing an impossible task. Death seemed inevitable. But, by god, I wouldn’t go down without a fight. I’d show them what kind of a man I was, the kind of a man the U.S. of A. produced.
From the lonely depths of this choked-up, end-of-the-line scenario I would bang my jeep into gear and stomp on the gas pedal. The battered vehicle leapt forward usually avoiding a grenade explosion.
The small towns on that road to Anderson, Mo. became treacherous hideouts for snipers. As we idled down Main Street I kept one hand on the wheel while the other nervously cradled an automatic pistol. Rooftops, alleys and overpasses were prime spots for enemy riflemen. As luck would have it when these hidden shooters revealed themselves my aim was miraculously accurate. They died; I lived. We reached the edge of town and the jeep sped on.
Most of this reverie-out-the-window trailed off into some mundane business in the present—asking my dad how much farther to go, quibbling with my younger brother, etc. Occasionally, the heroic climax of my rescue mission played through my mind. In it I arrived finally at the encampment of U.S. forces. Both my jeep and I were shot up beyond all recognition. Everyone was silently, but visibly astounded that any human could survive what I had come through. Usually, I passed the vital message I carried moments before dying. Sometimes I lived and was heaped with medals, becoming a legend, revered by my countryman.
Young people have fantasies that cast them as powerful, omnipotent in a world that is owned and operated by and for adults. My “jeep fantasy” has elements of this longing for power, but I think there is an even bigger meaning to comprehend. Why would an eight year old boy daydream about war, killing, destruction, and his own death? This is not normal. Such imaginary scenarios aren’t rational or sensible for a person of any age. However, it may be close to “normal” in that most men I have asked report similar fantasies of violence, heroism, combat, and death.
While planning our wedding my ex-wife, Rebecca, confronted me about my seeming indifference to the detailed plans she had conceived. In exasperation she asked, “What did you think your wedding would be like when you were growing up?” “I don’t know, never gave it a thought”, I replied. She was astounded. I knew marriage was always held out before girls and young women as an event of paramount importance. But, Rebecca’s question alerted me to how much time and energy females expend contemplating a 20 to 90 minute wedding ceremony. I speculate that many young males spend at least as much time in combat fantasies as females spend in dreaming of wedding gowns, floral arrangements, and marital bliss. For us men and boys it is that central to our image of ourselves and it is that central to being able to fulfill our societally designated roles of protector and provider.
Thus, the meaning of my “jeep fantasy” was that by the age of eight (and probably before that) I had internalized images of the male as a soldier. Since men were soldiers, if I wanted to be a man, I too must be a soldier.
My only sibling, David, is three years younger than me. We were rivals for the scant attention available at our house so what we can both remember is competition from very early.
The refrain of our parents was “stop fighting!”, “quit picking at your brother”, “leave him alone”. I suppose it was necessary in lieu of being able to give us the quality and quantity of attention that any child needs. But, I feel that dad pushed us along the path toward mutual resentment. He bought us boxing gloves.
Fourth grade was a tough year for me. We dragged our trailer house across seven states that year. I started the school year in South Dakota, did several months in Kansas City, and finished the year in Salt Lake City, Utah. It was the year that my eyes went bad and I had to get glasses. It was tough on David, too as he had a lingering sickness which eluded diagnosis. Moves are a major stressor; mom and dad surely had it hard also.
If you are my age or older you might remember the Gillette Fight of the Week on TV, Friday nights, 8p.m. Dad watched “the fights” as everyone called them. So did I because I wanted to spend time with my daddy. Besides, if he liked the fights it must be something worthy of emulating. He talked about left hooks, jabs, combinations, uppercuts. This was didactic; later I received demonstration and instruction. I listened carefully asking some questions, mostly curious, but walloping people, and worse yet, being walloped, did not appeal to me.
During the hot summer 0f ‘58 I witnessed Benny “Kid” Perret being mauled by his opponent (whose name I can almost remember) until he was limp and senseless. The Hispanic man was out on his feet trapped against the ropes hands at his sides as the other man energetically battered away. Not outraged, but naively curious I expected the fight to be stopped. Couldn’t they see that this guy had had enough? I asked dad about it. He said something like, “the fight goes on unless your man is on the canvass.”
Kid Perret died the next day never having regained consciousness. I was shocked and a little sad. I perceived something about being male from this episode—that it was dangerous, that men play for keeps, and that you better not be vulnerable because your opponent will keep attacking.
Somewhere around that time mom and dad started joking about getting boxing gloves so David and I could really settle our differences. It sounded ominous to me much like the parental threat “if you don’t stop crying I’ll give you something to cry about!” Mostly though it was a joke in the family about sibling rivalry.
But, on December 25 the joke became real. David and I eagerly tore into the gift wrapping around a medium-sized box that was fairly light. The tag said Santa had brought this one for both of us. My excited Christmas grin turned to a sick feeling in the stomach when we discovered two pair of boxing gloves. Mom wore a patronizing smile, but sounded vengeful and scolding telling us, “Now we will see how tough you two are.” Dad looked happy and seemed curious that we weren’t appreciative of the gift.
Somehow David and I escaped lacing up the gloves right there amidst the festive wrapping paper. It was later, perhaps after dinner, that dad wanted to give us a lesson in the “manly art of self-defense”. We were both scared. Neither of us wanted to put on the gloves. Dad insisted as he herded us to our bedroom at the back of the trailer. David was scared enough to be crying at the prospect of me wailing away at him with dad’s blessing. Maybe he too had seen Kid Perret go down.
I protested feebly as my adult protector pushed my sweaty nine year old hands into the padded leather weapons. My cute, round faced little brother had stopped crying, but looked ready to pee his pants in terror. We were rivals, we did pick at each other, we squabbled a lot, but this was sadistic punishment. Today I look at pictures of us from that time and I mourn to think how I pounded David that Christmas day. It feels like I should have said “No! I’m not doing it dad” and thrown down the gloves.
Why didn’t I refuse? Why did I do it? Basically, I caved in; or, more accurately I was overwhelmed by physical and emotional pressure from my father. I’m sorry, David, I didn’t want to hurt you.
The physical pressure from him was overt. I don’t know how many times he disciplined me with his belt; I estimate 10-12 times total. Were it only once, it was enough to strike terror into my heart. When displeased he could wrap his giant working man’s hand around my scrawny, stick-like arm and lift me onto tiptoes to emphasize his point. It probably wasn’t his intent, but dad conditioned me to cower from his angry voice, his heavy footsteps. When dad wanted me to beat on David that day my inherent power as a young person—the spunk, determination, and spirited refusal to acquiesce to injustice—had already been severely squashed by dad’s violence and physical coercion. Sorry David.
Emotionally I felt the push of being the first born son. To refuse or hold back would have been to risk disappointing my primary role model. For me, as for most young boys, dad’s approval felt like a life-giving substance. For me rebelling against the boxing gloves was an almost impossible act of heroism. I wasn’t up to it at that point in my life. Sorry David. I hope you can forgive me.
My dad served in the Army from 1942 to 1945. He was away from home continuously for 3 _ years and he went around the world. Dad and his brother Donald belonged to the National Guard in Anderson, Mo. With a 10th grade education dad always put himself down as an uneducated hillbilly. But I admired him tremendously for his down-to-earth practicality and his journey around the world. “How many people”, I asked myself, “even rich people, have gone around the world?” “My dad has”, I answered. Occasionally, I had a chance to actually tell someone out loud. I dreamed that someday I, too, would circle the globe.
I was captivated by the stories he told me. For instance, he served in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska for a year. He told me, “The saddest, most pitiful sight I ever saw was the bottom of the Golden Gate Bridge as we shipped out.” After a pause and a grin he added the real-life punchline. “The most beautiful, glorious sight I ever saw was the bottom of the Golden Gate Bridge on the way back in.”
Dad’s unit was the 257th Coast Artillery. They saw little combat; at least dad and Uncle Don downplayed that. He was stationed in many parts of the US—Falfurrias, TX, Richmond, VA, Ft. Lewis, WA, Oklahoma, New Mexico. As I grew up we lived in several parts of the country and it seemed dad was always saying, “I passed through here on a troop train in ‘43.”
Dad told of crossing the Pacific on a World War I-vintage troop transport nicknamed the “Kaiser’s Coffin” because of it’s age and state of repair. His description of being weeks at sea and motion sickness from the pitching, groaning ship gave me vivid images. The troop ship stopped in Sydney, Australia for several days before continuing on to Calcutta, India.
Uncle Don told of dad’s drunken exploits on the sub-continent—falling into a village well as he fled from the military police. The two brothers flew crew on DC-3s ferrying supplies over the “the Hump”—the Himalaya Mountains—to Chinese forces fighting the Japanese. Also, dad told me a story that started me on a path of social activism. So many people were starving to death each night that the British ran trucks down the road at dawn to collect bodies so as to clear a path for traffic.
When the war ended dad flew from India to Egypt with a stop in Teheran. At a military base outside of Cairo dad tells the story of being insulted by an Italian prisoner of war. Enraged, he chased this man on foot, but fortunately didn’t catch him. In my mind’s eye I have always seen dad, the lanky farm boy, sprinting after a short swarthy man in prison clothes, the pair fading into the desert sun as they pass the Sphinx and the Great Pyramids.
After a week in Egypt the path home led to England with fueling stops on the tiny island of Malta (where my ship visited port 25 years later) and in France. After several days lay over in desolated, but victorious England dad spanned the Atlantic to Nova Scotia and then to Fort Dix, New Jersey.
The effect of these tales and travels on my young mind was profound. It was akin to the 1001 Arabian Nights—romance, adventure! They fired my imagination with visions of distant people and places and things to do, unknowable, desirable, adventurous. Like growing up itself dad’s stories hinted at the delicious, unseen future waiting to unfold.
These stories were important in my development as a male. In my adolescence the military beckoned to me as a solution to the confusing task of becoming a man. I was at least as unconfident and awkward as the next guy. If the teen years are a time of doubt and confusion for all young men I didn’t know it. I bought completely the locker room lies of my high school peers assuming that something must be wrong with me since: 1) I didn’t get laid every weekend (actually not at all); 2) I didn’t get drunk with the boys; and, 3) I didn’t have a girlfriend. Thus, I felt awful about myself; I was not measuring up as a young man.
For males, including adolescents, there are three legitimate masculine identities—sports, womanizing, and he-man activities. Playing sports or being a rabid fan qualify one for admission into the man club. Having a letter jacket for track and cross country covered me in this area. But “just running around in your shorts” was way down the scale from real sports such as hockey, boxing, wrestling, or most of all, football.
In the second area of male legitimacy—women—I was a complete flop. It wasn’t just that I didn’t have a girlfriend, but I never even had a date in high school. It is indeed paradoxical that ones being considered a real man depends upon the females one can attract. But, at the same time a real man was certainly not supposed to be dependent on others (especially women).
The third legitimate identity is “he-man activity”. These well known pass times include hunting, beer drinking, hard physical work (bonus points for long hours), anything dangerous, fist-fighting, weightlifting, and the military (especially combat). In high school I was generally considered a wimp because I was skinny, didn’t drink or hunt, was bookish, and actively avoided fights. That made me woefully deficient in the he-man realm of legitimacy. The only thing that I had going for me was a mainstream attitude of support for the growing war in Vietnam.
Thus, my male quotient as I approached the end of high school was skimming the low end of the scale. Not coincidentally my self esteem was also very low. By society’s yardstick of masculinity I fell short. I thought I was a total failure. I suspect that many young men in their late teens are in similar shape, socially and emotionally.
The three realms of male legitimacy are clearly false criteria. When we pursue our self-esteem through these bogus avenues we funnel our lives and potentials into a narrow pathway. Any deviation from this rigidly defined role can leave us feeling less than fully male. Thus, we men have created—or more accurately have inherited—a system ready made to make us feel bad about ourselves.
Against such a background of adolescent vulnerability the military sucks up recruits. When I was 17 there was a recruiting poster for the Navy showing a cute and coy female in a sailor suit under the caption “Be a Man and Do It—Enlist”. The military and it’s mystique appear as a magic solution to bedeviling problems of youth. Scrawny? Boot camp will toughen you up. Fuzzy cheeks? You’ll shave twice a day. Love life? A girl in every port. Pimples? You won’t have time to worry about them. Inexperienced? Drink this, it’ll put hair on your chest. Unconfident? Be all you can be! The few, the proud, the Marines. Can’t decide what to do? Just sign right here, son, we’ll take care of the rest. If our families and society could produce a crop of emotionally secure 18 year olds who had decent economic alternatives, I believe the military would have little drawing power.
So, when dad told me of far off places and things I had never done nor even imagined my teenage brain was primed to respond. All I had to do was to survive boot camp. Then my masculinity would be validated permanently; things would get better on all fronts. My fear of women would evaporate when I got a little “experience” thanks to the well known aphrodisiac effect of a uniform. My timid, slouched posture would be replaced by a proud Navy swagger. All this and more, I believed, awaited me on the other side of enlistment.
Dad didn’t like to talk about his experiences in World War II. In fact, once when assigned in 8th grade to write of the war he refused me an interview. I was puzzled and hurt. He was so keen on my education as were so many Depression-era school dropouts. Why wouldn’t he tell me about the big war?
He denied ever being in combat. By dad’s telling his unit worked in a supportive role. However, once dad did let slip the comment that despite the stereotype of Japanese as a short people “don’t believe it because every one on of those god damned Japanese Marines are at least 6’6”!” How would he know this? Perhaps his knowledge was second hand, a boozy boast told by some other soldier or an Army propaganda film. But, perhaps he knew first hand. It is not widely known that Japanese forces actually landed on U.S. territory in the Aleutians Islands early in the war. Since my father was stationed on this sweeping arc of barren Alaskan islands early in the war I wonder if he didn’t fight Japanese Marines—regardless of their stature.
Another story makes it clear that if there was combat in dad’s experience he may not have wanted to remember it. After my dad’s death Uncle Don told me of the time they were in India. They flew as crew on airplanes ferrying supplies into China.
One day the two brothers were doing a rotation as ground support at the air base. A horribly shot up plane returned; two of it’s four engines weren’t functioning. It drooped to a landing and rolled to a stop at the end of the runway. Dad and Don were dispatched in an ambulance to the plane. Of seven crew only the pilot was alive. He had passed out from his own wounds after setting the plane onto the runway. Don sped away in the ambulance with the broken body of the pilot. “Your dad stayed to clean up the mess. That plane”, Don shook his head, “was shot to hell. There was blood and the smell of death everywhere.” After several hours in the sweltering heat, alone with six dead men, the plane was finally towed back to the hangar. “Tony, your dad was never the same after that day.”
Don explained that as a young man dad was a happy-go-lucky, cocky soldier. After that day there was an edge of seriousness. In pictures of him I see a lean and handsome youth with a tightening around the mouth, the former energetic glint in his eyes has turned guarded, knowing. The words haunt me, “never the same”.
The story is poignant. I shudder to think of my dad groping across those bodies, examining the red, sticky dogtags. I imagine the stench. The young soldier wrestles limp bodies out of gun turrets and away from the tiny navigator’s table. He drags them out and arrays them across the cargo deck of the aircraft. Six corpses in a row falling in for their last formation. Bob Switzer, Private First Class, 23 years old, is overcome with emotion and the odor as he beholds the scene. He gags, pukes, climbs out of the plane. Dragging on a cigarette he sits on the runway. In the steamy, tropical twilight he puts his head down and cries.
Dad, I can understand you not telling me as a teenager, but I wish you could have told me as a man. When you died I was 28 and on the civilian side of four years in the Navy. It could have brought us together if only a little. Did you ever tell anybody? Did you tell mom? I doubt it. Did you tell your work buddies? Was alcohol a release from that terrible remembrance? I’m sorry you had to carry that memory all your days.
Weeks after my 19th birthday I went into the U.S. Navy. The Tet Offensive, the bloodiest campaign of the Vietnam War, was raging on the other side of the world and on the nightly news. At that time I was only vaguely aware of the war as well as the domestic protest. For me there was no decision making process about going into the military. When I was 17 my dad told me, “Son, if I were a young man like you with a military obligation I would join the Air Force or the Navy so at night my bed would be right there with me and I wouldn’t have to sleep in the mud or on the hard ground.”
That little spiel left a lasting imprint on my thinking. Two things stood out. First, here was my dad telling me in a subtle, indirect way that I was “expected” to serve my country by joining the military. Obligated he said, as in owing a debt, as in living up to a promise or paying off a debt. Obligated as in something you have to do. I had never thought seriously about actually being in the military as opposed to my war hero fantasies. Now, here was my father, World War II veteran of the Aleutian Islands, India, and Burma, informing me that I had an “obligation” to go to war.
My first thoughts? Immediately I was disoriented and bemused. “Oh…I have a military obligation….well, yes, of course, if dad says so. Why didn’t I think of that?” Dad’s statement took me by surprise. The thought of joining the military was brand new to me. I neither agreed nor objected. But, I surely didn’t want him to think I disagreed with his statement because I sought his approval. Therefore, my response was an appropriately serious look and a mumbled acknowledgement that I had heard.
The second message in dad’s statement was in code that I came to appreciate only years later after he had died. The part about “having my bed right there with me” struck me as smart, common sense advice from a poor farmboy grown to be a construction worker. Although dad strongly supported the war I think his coded message about a bed was designed to steer me away from jungle combat in Southeast Asia. Sound advice. I took it and it may have saved my life.
What amazes me today is how I didn’t question dad’s assumptions about obligation. His attitude was “Uncle Sam is in a scrap with the communists over there”. The rest was implied. Of course, young men had to go fight. He did in ‘42 and it was right. So I, too, would have to go because it was right. Men went to war when their country needed them. Those anti-war protesters were disgraceful, they were cowards, wimps, and chickens. Most of all they were non-men as revealed by the most virulent names hurled at them—”pussy”, girl”, “queer”, “faggot”, and “fairy”. To reject dad’s assumptions about military obligation would have been to cast myself with anti-war lepers.
On February 25, 1968, I enlisted in the United States Navy.
I reported for my physical on a crisp Monday morning in Spokane, Washington. As I and several other scared, blustering teenagers approached the induction center we confronted the enemy. No, not the Viet Cong. Worse. Several anti-war protesters were handing out leaflets to passersby.
Immediately I felt panicked, intimidated. I had only seen these characters on the evening news. It was even more disconcerting that the two weren’t stereotypes of funky hippies, but seemed like ordinary middle Americans. One man was in his 40’s while the other was about 24. I was so confounded I couldn’t speak. On the one hand, these two represented treason by all my traditional training to support my country, to fulfill my military obligation. I wanted to scream at them, better yet pound them into the ground. Yet, on the other hand, I wondered what their leaflets said. It impressed me that anyone would be out at 6:30 a.m. in the cold merely to express their unpopular opinions. I may have harbored doubts about the war in Vietnam, but that was far below the level of consciousness.
As we drew near the others made sarcastic remarks. I was too scared. Adrenaline pumped and emotions tore me one way then another. I tried to look straight ahead with tunnel vision not noticing them so I wouldn’t have to decide whether to take one of their diabolical leaflets. At the last moment just as I came up beside them the younger man subversively said, “Good morning” as he extended a piece of paper toward me. Reflexively I took it and stopped breathing at the same time. Read it! Punch him! Stick it in your pocket! Call him a traitor! Hesitating a split second, not breaking stride, I crumpled the paper and tossed it at his feet with a muffled half-hearted sneer.
Just as I might have thrown down the boxing gloves in refusal, but didn’t, another watershed moment came and passed by. Of course, I couldn’t see it as a potential turning point in 1968. Only much later do I have the luxury of speculation. What if I had stopped, read, conversed? Suppose the young man was persuasive? Maybe he had just lost a brother in Vietnam. What if I didn’t go into the induction center? Didn’t raise my right hand that day? Called the whole thing off? What if I showed up to leaflet with the “traitors”? Three months later me and the young man together along with 50,000 others marched on the Pentagon. What if?
But, just as had not the emotional strength and independence to refuse the boxing gloves when I was nine, likewise, I didn’t have the strength to even consider an anti-war idea when I was 19. That is how strong my conditioning had been. Mom, dad, school, and society had all done their jobs well.
My training as a young male had taught me how to respond as men before me had responded, but I was not equipped to think for myself. I knew what was expected of a 19 year old male in wartime. I did not fail that expectation. Sociologists would say I acted in a role congruent manner. Doing what was designated as proper legitimized me. It felt good; I was proud of myself like I had never experienced.
For you see, my war, the one I had been groomed for, the one I had contemplated, fought a thousand times already, my ticket to manhood and the good life, waited on the other side of that induction center door. My brain was wired for the military by that time. Be a man and do it!!
Of course I didn’t read that leaflet.
[Reprinted with permission from On the road to healing: A booklet for men against sexism, issue #2. Contact: PO box 84171, Seattle WA 98124, USA. http://www.pscap.org]