Reflecting on Military Service
Vaughn Davis Bornet is Emeritus Professor of History and Social Science at Southern Oregon University. Among his books are "The Presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson" in the American Presidency Series (1983), "Welfare in America" (1960), and other books on Herbert Hoover, social welfare, radicalism, and unions. His autobiography is "An Independent Scholar in Twentieth-Century America" (Bornet Books, 1995).
I shall depart here from reflecting on my scholarly life, for this is the time, in between Memorial Day and the anniversary of D-Day, where my thoughts go back to my military service. I was on active duty for the four-and-a-half years of World War II, and spent an additional eighteen-and-a-half years in the Naval Reserve. There's bound to be conjecture in my views, and some readers may hold very different opinions.
But military service had its effect on me, that’s for sure.
For one thing, I think it knocked a certain self-centeredness out of me. I had to think about the other guy whether I wanted to or not. His actions could affect me, I soon came to realize. He was, so to speak, holding the ladder for me; or, if so inclined, he could be throwing a wild pitch at me from a short distance. To a kid accustomed to living the lonely life of a graduate student, one likely to virtually ignore other solitary, even isolated, classmates, life in the military was a new and somewhat unnerving experience.
By the luck of the draw, I began Navy life in 1941 in the Office of Naval Intelligence, where for three months we were all in civilian clothes! This tended to level the field of military rank in an abnormal way (to say the very least). I was a yeoman, first class to be sure, with two graduate years of university behind me. A prideful ensign from the Ivy League wanted in the worst way to lord it over one and all (including me), but I was dressed as well as he was, and he would have to work at it to establish his government-given authority over this enlisted man. (He found ways.)
High on the list of new learning experiences was the idea of unquestioning obedience, rendered in a hurry. This was foreign to my civilian life, where orders were few and those given carried an assumption that if circumstances were not as assumed by the orderer, why, that sudden demand might well be postponed or even cancelled. In civilian life one would not be blamed for backing down; indeed, ordinary commonsense would just be triumphant. Not so in the military. Obedience seemed to outweigh rational result -- at the bottom where I was, anyway. Orders seldom got revoked.
There was a new vocabulary, one virtually cherished by old timers in the Service. Restrooms were the "head." There was the "overhead," above, and the "bulkhead" to the side --in the Navy, anyway. Using the new words in their correct context helped mightily in adaptation and acclimating. Working under Annapolis graduates for a few months, I learned that inferiors “invited” one’s attention, while “superiors” ordered, demanded, or expected it. Ever since, I have acted accordingly.
I was taught after commissioning that in the officers’ wardroom one chose subjects for conversation with care and discrimination, so that some subjects were supposed to be off limits, among them religion, sex, and partisan politics. Navy personnel very gradually learn that there are few things valued like unity and civility.
It was something of a surprise to learn that somewhat obscure and relatively unimportant matters could rise to real significance within the military. It did seem to make a difference how one looked, acted, behaved, and performed. The speed (or lack of it) with which one did his job could be much more important than one would suppose. Tasks ordered from all over the place could be somehow linked together. All very much needed to be sequential and inevitably executed to make the whole operate smoothly.
Navy education in various schools all over the country was taken very seriously. When learning to assemble or disassemble bombs, load machine guns, or operate delicate instruments, the sailor was supposed to learn accurately, completely, and permanently what was being taught. I remember being told that the aspiration at Navy schools (I believe, oddly enough, in Tennessee) was for new words to be repeated some thirty times in order to become permanent parts of one’s being. (That was certainly not what supposed acts of memory like “Here is my phone number; do try to remember it” had conveyed back in civilian life.)
The military is a place where one can make friends that will last a lifetime. I know this to be a fact, although changes in my own duties and assignments prevented me from the full companionship benefits that military life is capable of conferring on those who are lonely and far from home. The movies have worked overtime to emphasize the role of friendship when in uniform as not only lifelong but capable of inducing remarkable self-sacrifice in times of danger. Is their portrait not accurate?
Akin to the friendships is the role of military service in cementing and altering the roles of the closest family members and relatives in the full life of one who is far from home for extended periods. Letters to and from one’s parents and siblings may very well bring the discovery that these supposedly close family members were really unknown quantities before being sharpened by that long absence from home. Wartime letters may dare to give advice on intimate matters; bald criticism may be advanced “for your own good.” There is offering of opinions which sometimes raise and other times lower the stature of both sender and receiver. What was once entirely private may be discussed candidly with buddies.
There can be so much more. Postponed manhood or womanhood in their many forms; venturing to engage in sex with virtual strangers with consequences seldom predictable. There may be misconduct far from friends who lent stability but are sadly absent. Emotions vibrate with the horrible death of one’s fellows, suddenly and inexplicably. Life, long taken for granted, turns out to have another side, one in which pure chance plays an unholy role. There is indeed an enemy; for now, he hates us!
One more matter cries for mention: those who train with and serve the war waging branches of our services may well find that they have a new posture on sacrifice of one’s life for a cause, on getting killed to guarantee life for others, and even on fighting to the death as “part of the job.” These are not in the mindset of civilians, to be sure. Such sacrificial willingness may be uncommon in some parts of the military and generally present in others, coming and going, here today but missing tomorrow. This writer has no familiarity with this dramatic characteristic, luckily, but it exists (or has existed) for many on wartime duty beyond any doubt.
I am going to minimize here the role of accidental or purposeful death during one’s term of military service, for all readers know or can readily surmise that losing one’s life in combat or during routine maneuvers changes everything, and not for the better. High hopes get dashed in an instant; the future for oneself and those loved ones will never be the same. All else that has characterized the military life is dashed and discarded for the youngster in uniform and his relatives, friends, and acquaintances. Much that has just been said of death and dying is nearly equally valid in the cases of the terribly wounded. Lifetime in a wheelchair or blinded, for example, calls for changes in lifestyle and relationships that are all too familiar to the wounded, who expected a happier outcome from the passage of time.
Finally, as in my case, a lifelong partner can be met and with good fortune attached to one for a long lifetime. My own wartime marriage has lasted 68 years as of this writing. We crossed the United States by train in wartime so the bride could meet my parents, over 3,000 miles distant. The naval air station that had become my lonely home turned out to house deep in its huge pool of female employees the right girl for Lieutenant Bornet, AVS, USNR!
I guess, in the end, my point is that being in the military, in our country at least, can and almost has to be a life changer. That which is familiar will almost inevitably become distant with the passage of time on active duty. Meanwhile, that which is wholly new in vocabulary, conduct, beliefs, appearance, and desires (to name only a few), will infiltrate the soldier or sailor -- and become a permanent part of him -- whether he wills it or not.
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