Thursday, May 16, 2013

A review of my time in Army Basic Combat Training (1968); I don't want to go "Back to the Bay"; the draft can still come back

As I’ve noted here before, I’m planning to issue a “formal” commercial version of my “Do Ask Do Tell III” booklet (Books, Oct. 1, 2011).  I’m seriously considering adding to it, as an appendix, the original “Chapter 4” of my fiction manuscript, titled “The Proles”, which I wrote by hand in 1969 while in the Army at Fort Eustis,  That chapter gives the excruciating details of my experience in Basic Combat Training at Fort Jackson, SC, from February 1968 through May 1968.
Yes, you can tell from the elapsed months, I did get recycled.  One of the lowest points in my life occurred on Sunday, March 31, 1968, when on KP in Special Training Company, when the cook made me scrub out the grease pit with a tooth brush.  That evening, LBJ would announce that he would not run for re-election that year.  And LBJ had escalated the war in Vietnam, leading to 50000 GI deaths and 500,000 troops “over there” about the time I was in.
In my 1997-2000 “Do Ask Do Tell: A Gay Conservative Lashes Back” I did “summarize” my experience Basic.  (Author Peter Tauber had done the same with his 1973 book “The Sunshine Soldiers”, and I spoke to him once by phone around that year.)  The book make the language a little more polite and tended ti stress the political and social significance of the Vietnam era military draft in policy terms.  It mentioned a few things worth noting again.  One is that the Army did check with NIH twice about my security clearances, resulting in some bizarre communication where the Army seemed to be passing the buck on my suitability to civilian “professionals” in an area where the military usually wants its own judgment (as we remember from the 1993 debate on gays in the military).  Another is a general observation that the military draft was seen as an essential prong of national security, the way pawns are indispensable in a chess game.  Nuclear confrontation was less likely if the US could deploy sufficient troops on the ground anywhere.  It reminds me of a certain approach to chess, as in the “Queen Pawn” openings where the pawns are advanced in front of the major pieces before the pieces come into contact.  (Chapter 2 of the book also discusses my plot for “The Proles”, which the reader can check online or in the book itself; I’ll come back to that another time.)
But the fifty typewritten pages about Basic from my 1969 original (of “The Proles”) communicates a much more disturbing concept.  The text is excruciating, as it details my difficulties in adapting to what was demanded of me in military life.  There could be serious consequences for me, for the rest of my life, if I eventually did not do so.  I could become a burden on others in the unit.  There is particular attention to the idea that, if I finished Basic successfully in reasonable time, that I  would be “sheltered away” in a safe position (like a King in a chess game after castling)  whereas others, with less education but more street smarts, became the cannon fodder in Vietnam.  There was even the spectacle of my Direct Commission application, while I was in Special Training, and the bizarre interview I had with a board of officers at the end of Basic, just a few weeks after an equally bizarre conversation with a “mental hygiene professional”.  It’s the stuff of independent film today.
There really wasn’t much sexual tension  -- homosexuality itself was not a direct issue  in such a regimented world – but the lack of social skills was. This was more like Asperger’s Syndrome in the military, or even mild autism.
The “DADT I” book also relates my time in graduate school before I entered the Army.  In fact, to “redeem myself”, I took the draft physical three times (in 1964, 1966, and 1967), going from 4-F to 1-Y to 1-A.  By 1966, in fact, the draft physical had stopped “asking” about sexual orientation – a little known fact, but logical in a world with a military draft.  When in graduate school, I was also an assistant instructor, with the “power” to give exams and grades (in that dreaded algebra).  I recall grading finals on a bus (out to see a grad school friend in Colorado) and turning the grades in (about half the grades were D’s and F’s) the day I would catch a plane home from graduate school, about the enter the Army very shortly.  I was passing judgment on others, in a way that I would soon be subjected to myself.  That transition was ironic and curious.  Some will say that I “abuse” the power and was an a-hole.  Perhaps I had comeuppance due.
After Basic, there was the stint in the Pentagon, and the mysterious transfer to Fort Eustis.  In Chapter 5 of “The Proles” I relate history saying that the “sheltered MOS” (“01 E20” for those who remember_ were phased out, and some “sheltered” people with more time left were sent to AIT and Vietnam combat after all.
The Selective Service System still exists (link)  and young adult males are still required to register.

Sometimes, since 9/11, there have been political calls to resume the draft, out of fairness and shared sacrifice.  Charles Moskos took that position after 9.11, even as he backed away from his original support of “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” which he had helped author in 1993. I actually talked to Selective Service and got documents from them when working on the first book in 1996. 

But the real value of the “Basic Training” chapter is to pose a certain moral question.  That is, what behavior and performance is expected of someone when an outside force compels him to serve the needs of others, in a manner outside of his normal skillset and function in a “free market” world?  One could use the word “cowardice” regarding my issues in Basic at times, even though that word is no longer used that way today in polite company.
This was no small issue.  The rifle range did damage my hearing, at least on the right ear (the “coaching side” on the Rifle Range), resulting in some sacrifice for someone who had intended that music would be a big part of his life. 

There’s another angle.  I was totally helpless for about six weeks, and then after about two weeks in Special Training Co0mpany I suddenly got better, but not because of unusual coercion from the cadre.  I just did.  I passed the PCPT on the fourth try with a score in the mid 300’s, and later made sharpshooter on the Rifle Range.  It was possible for me to perform physically, more or less in accordance of my not-chosen biological gender, if pushed hard enough.  As a moral matter, should I have been?  The problem is that if I didn’t step up, others would sacrifice in my place.  That kind of tension can generate wars.

I have to account for the fact that I am rather clumsy with a lot of mechanical, practical things.  I have a lot on my plate doing what I do, so I have to remain focused, and not make “changes” that could break things.  (That sounds like “moves” in an IT workplace.)  The brain has finite capacity, though it can gradually increase.

I suppose I have a moral duty to find out why I was “behind”, since it could lead to more sacrifice form others.  In my world, as I grew up, “disability” was perceived through a “moral lens”, and I tended to reflect that value as I judged others in turn (as I already had in grad school as a math teacher).  Based on modern neuroscience, it sounds like some of the issue might have been premature “pruning” of brain circuits, cutting off distractions so I could focus on what I would be good at.  This may be a residual of some sort of epigenetic  autism.

One could apply this sort of analysis to any situation, where someone has to function under someone else’s authority, survive, and yet not jeopardize others.  One could even imagine this analogy with the Holocaust.
And I think we are “judged” by how we step up to these individually tailored (maybe not so random) challenges, that seem to vary among generations but have a tendency to be forgotten and then to come back. Even so, I remember my own questions about the public morality of the Vietnam war later, and getting a letter from my own church that we had to "trust our leaders".  We know where that went. As a general matter, people can share moral culpability for what their countries do, too.  
I can relate the experience to today’s calls about service and volunteerism.  I don’t like being “conscripted” into serving someone else’s agenda, and I cringe when I see calls to pledge “hours” as well as money to “other people’s causes”.  Service seems more valid when it is related to one’s own special skills, and when the recipients have some specific connection to how one has already lived one’s life. In these circumstances, I don’t get too concerned  about judging the “worthiness” of others.
Yet, the ability to find satisfaction from connection to others, without their having to be judged the way I think I have been sometimes, still remains an issue for me.  

I am left with another impression, though, of what happens if we don’t take care of our infrastructure (May 13 posting).  It comes right out of the Army, the military mind.  “The whole world will go Back to the Bay”.

Wikipedia attribution link (p.d.) for modern picture of BCT at Fort Jackson (second image).  

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