Thursday, February 10, 2011

Rehumanizing the Military

My discussion with The Diplomat about foreign affairs and the military forced me to think more deeply about the subject. The military is a topic hard to avoid when you have close friends in ROTC, and doubly hard when one of your oldest friends is a newly minted West Point graduate currently in Ranger School.

At Friend's request, and as a means of support at Ranger, I've been writing to him as often as possible. I've been happy to oblige him, because as I elaborated in my first letter, my own words are in mon avis, the purest gift of self I could ever give. Letter writing, then, is a very selfish venture. My hope is that he gets to be the cool guy who has to explain to his buddies a) why he has so many darn letters from friends and family and b) why the hell he has letters from France. Nonetheless, my lettered endeavors are a lovely way to reflect on our going-on-twelve-year friendship.

Twelve years may not be much in a lifetime, but when you're 23, twelve years is half your life. And in half my life, I've packed in many memories with Friend, several that stand out. One of those is a particular January afternoon in 2006. I was barely eighteen, the world before me, with a blue skied future and burning sunlight. But perched over the kitchen sink and scrubbing dishes, I received a phone call, and Friend proudly announced that he'd been admitted to West Point and chosen to join the long gray line. That afternoon was the first clap of thunder in a brooding storm: it took me by surprise. And while I was happy for Friend to have what he wanted, I was also crestfallen, in the most selfish way possible. I was crestfallen because inspite of my pride in his commitment to himself and his country, I knew his choice of path would inevitably lead him to danger. And selfishly, I'd wanted him not to be admitted. So I got a little weepy and put the "you could be shipped to Iraq" thoughts into storage for another four years.

Almost exactly two years after that January afternoon, and when I was a collegiate sophomore, Friend invited me to one of his military balls. The ball, known as Yearling Winter Weekend, was on February first, the day after my 20th birthday. Let me assure you, as a civilian, even if you are decked out head-to-toe in heels, makeup, and a fancy dress, this will not stop you from being intimidated by a five-star general. Friend and I were outside taking photos on the steps of Washington Hall when he froze with a deer-in-the-headlights look. A small caravan of black vehicles had driven up.

"Let's move let's move let's move!" He sprung up the steps. "The Big Brass is here!"

My weekend in New York with him is one of my favorite memories of our friendship. He showed me the West Point campus, I met some of his friends, and we went sight-seeing in New York City. I stole his fancy hat in our hotel room and took pictures with it and laughed when he and his buddies wore their very uncomfortable wool uniforms to the top of the Empire State Building. When he deposited me at JFK airport on Sunday, I was sad to say goodbye again. And in the terminal, yeah...I got weepy.

And so time rolled onward. Nearly two years after my weekend in New York, I'd reached my senior year at Berkeley, and Friend had reached his Firstie year. Last fall, he'd been waiting to branch, or figure out what branch of the army he'd enter. I'd known all along he'd set his sights on going infantry, which once again, was (selfishly) not my favorite pick for him. But regardless, I told him to call me the night he knew. I was at home that weekend visiting my family and loading my belongings into my car to make the eighty mile trek from my home back to Berkeley when I felt my cell phone buzz in my pocket.

And of course, I congratulated him on going infantry.

I then shoved myself into my car and cried all the way to Berkeley. What he doesn't know is that I not only cried the entire drive, upon arrival, I went straight next door to my friends' apartment and burst into more tears. I think I soaked the shoulders of several shirts.

"I need alcohol," I sobbed. I then proceeded to drink some strong vodka cranberries.

Fast forward one year and a half from that moment, and what you will find is once again, on a cold January afternoon, the day of my 23rd birthday, Friend reported for his first day of Ranger school. And I've been writing letters. And so the story goes.

And so my opinions about the military are neither black nor white, but a shade of gray. On one hand, I understand how very human it is, because of Friend, because of the personal connection there. On the other hand, I see it as a cold, grinding machine reported on by the press, on ABC and Fox News, a cog in the wheel debated about objectively by bloggers and critics. I admit vociferously that I do not always agree with what the military does, nor the policies it is ordered to enact. If there is anything I have learned from Berkeley, it is to question, to think, to interrogate. And so I question freely what the military does, and I've debated with Friend about many, many things. I've played devil to his advocate in more than one conversation. However, this in no ways means I do not support the individuals who've dedicated themselves to service, because I've seen first hand what kind of a commitment the service demands. I support firmly the people even if I do not support the cause. This is why I am irked when soldiers are discussed as nothing more than brainwashed robots, machines trained to destroy and kill.

Curiously enough, the universe tends to throw interesting reading material at me at opportune moments, and yesterday I stumbled upon a blog in which a journalist talks about "rehumanizing the military." He stresses that of all the people he's ever met, those in the military are those who appreciate life the most, especially since they know how easy life can be taken away. This was a refreshing perspective in a world where left-wing Democrats seem to demonize the military and its operations overseas and a world where right-wing Republicans seem to have a cult-like adoration for armed service.

Why do I say this? Because at the end of the day, underneath all the layers of training, the hours of sweat, the tactics, the uniforms, the weapons, and the emotional scars, those in the military are still humans. Humans like every other breathing, living human individual on this earth. The "Otherizing" and labeling we as humanity like to do needs to stop. Traveling and being abroad has taught me this, but so has this friend.

So here's to my confidence that Friend will not only pass Ranger and get his tab, but that at the end of it all, he will still be as human as ever.

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