Tuesday, April 11, 2006

“America does not go abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

John Quincy Adams

• There was at one time an ad campaign for the Army, I think, with the tag line, “be all that you can be.” It is sad to think that once you have been in the military, that may be all that you can be.

The reason I joined the Navy had nothing to do with any misguided patriotism or pretext that communism needed to be stopped from spreading. I understood that the only importance the Vietnam War had for me was in how low my draft number was, 32. Once I had lost my student deferment in 1970, there were few options open for me to avoiding being drafted. I hadn’t conceived of heading to Canada and I had no desire to kill anyone or to be killed for someone’s arrogant pointless political power play; so, on a rainy summer day, maybe in August, I enlisted into the Navy. The recruiter called me later to tell me that, when he had called the local draft board to report my enlistment, they asked, “How did he know? We just mailed his draft notice out.” It was the times. A few days later I did get that draft notice in the mail. I threw it unopened into the trash.

My memories of Navy boot camp are of being manipulated toward thinking a certain way. At one time, it was called brain washing. To survive and function in the military you need to shelf civilian morals and ethics into a place where they will not get in the way of your following orders. Through sleep depravation, physical exhaustion and constant denigrating verbal abuse a recruit becomes a more willing recipient for indoctrination into the military. Activities like marching and drilling reinforce this imposed identification as a member of a group, not as an individual; and you become use to following seemingly meaningless orders. I wasn’t immune to these techniques. I survived by presenting the image that I had been reprogrammed. The most obvious changes in me were that I learned to curse like a sailor and instead of, like my father had taught me, “do the best job you can,” I found out that good enough to get by was the way to maintain a feeling of personal freedom. It was a great relief to become a civilian again after four years and to find that I could go back to doing the best I can.

It would seem that someone in a combat environment, like in Iraq or Vietnam, could be imprinted a second time by the same conditions – disorientation, physical and mental stress, that were present in boot camp; but, unlike basic training, with combat’s uncontrollable factors. The effects could be much stronger this second time because of the higher intensity of the situations. In fact, one of the reasons for such a harsh basic training is to get a recruit familiar with functioning under intense emotional and physical situations; but, there is a perceived limitation to what you will be asked to endure in basic training that doesn’t exist in an actual combat environment. I’m glad that the government is taking the reorientation of combatants into a non-combatant role more seriously than they have in the past.

On my first Vietnam cruise, in late 1971, the first time we were on the line in the Gulf of Tonkin, the first assignment our ship had was to search for debris scattered over the ocean from a crashed plane. I was on starboard bow lookout. I saw a long line of someone’s photographic slides leading back to many mail sacks floating in the water. The plane had been a COD. I don’t remember what that stands for; but it was a propeller plane used to shuttle mail and passenger to and from the carriers and onshore air bases. Even everyday, routine tasks now had risks involved. I had never taken military life and discipline seriously; but after that, I did take my job more seriously.

Being on an aircraft carrier, in a war zone, can be an intense and sometimes dangerous environment. With the scale of the ocean to the ship, it is a little like sailing off on a raft with a campfire burning on the middle of it’s deck. If everything is controlled and balanced properly, you can survive. If the fire gets out of hand, or if you take one misstep, the only direction to go is down.

While at sea, the ship I served on, USS Coral Sea, used up a lot of fuel, food and bombs. All of these could be replenished while being underway. Taking on new supplies of food and bombs required a lot of physical labor and the assistance of extra hands. On one of these bomb working parties, I was with a friend (hi John G., wherever you are) on the hanger deck. We were cleaning up as pallets of bomb parts were being taken off of them and moved, by hand along human chains, from the hanger down into storage holds below decks. The orders were to just throw all the debris over the side, into the ocean. John was moving empty pallets with several lengths of metal banding trailing from the pallets, to throw off the elevator. John did not notice, as he hauled them to the open hanger, some of the metal bands had wrapped around his legs. When he shoved the wooden pallets over the side, he was immediately thrown off his feet. The bands, thankfully, let go of his legs and he landed flat on his butt (I don’t curse as much now,) in a sitting position, on the furtherest edge of the hanger deck, with nothing but the night between his dangling feet and the water a hundred feet below. For some reason, I do not think the usual safety nets were in place. It was probably so we could shove the debris overboard. I can still see his surprised face, with those very wide open eyes staring at me. I don’t know if it was surprise at how quickly things had happened or relief in realizing that he wasn’t in the ocean.

Sadly, there were some people during my four years on the Coral Sea who did die at sea – some by choice, some by accident - all as a result of being there.

There was a fat, sweaty chief, actually more that just one, but this one in particular in OI Division, Operational Intelligence Division, who was for awhile insistent that we use the proper naval terminology for things. There are no floors, walls or ceilings on a ship, these were decks, bulkheads and overheads. I and many others just ignored him. I’m surprised at how quickly I can still fall into using some of those shipboard terms – deck. overboard, port, starboard, fore and aft. I even have a recurring dream, for the past 30 plus years, of finding myself back in the Navy, looking for a white hat or bellbottomed dungarees. When I got out of the Navy, I gave away almost all the uniforms I had, or disdainfully threw the rest away. I needed to discard the symbols of a way of living and thinking I was leaving behind me; but, I’m still looking for the abyss to catch up with me.

“Whoever battles with monsters had better see that it does not turn him into a monster. And if you gaze long into the abyss the abyss will gaze back into you.”

Friedrich Nietzsche

I wrote this last summer but never posted it on a now abandoned weblog. I though I would dedicate and post this to Ann before she leaves for Europe.

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