The military and me

Note:  This article was originally published in our local newspaper in April, 2012, under a different title.  

USAR capMaggie, daughter Alexis, and I made the move from Berkeley to the smalltown environs of Wallace, Idaho in 1997.  One of the lesser changes associated with the move concerned headgear. Baseball caps with one or another insignia were and remain de rigueur here. Among those honoring past military service, “Vietnam Vet” and “U.S. Marine Corps” insignia appear to be the most common.  A couple of months ago I figured what-the-hell and bought my own military cap, special ordered from the web. Its insignia reads, “U.S. Army Reserve.”  I served in the Reserve from 1966-1972, in the thick of the Vietnam war years. My service comprised the usual four-and-half months of basic training, one weekend of drill per month, and two weeks of summer camp per year.  My “MOS” (“military occupational specialty”) was 70-A-10, clerk typist.  I served the full enlistment term, first in a military police cadre unit and next in a field hospital unit. Neither unit was mobilized during the war.

I wear my new cap around town now with both a sense of pride and a measure of irony. Like many in my generation – and, incidentally, most out of Berkeley — I fiercely opposed the Vietnam war.  Yet I couldn’t bring myself to accept the anti-war, “Hell no, I won’t go!” sensibility either.  I realized that as long as the draft continued to meet its monthly induction quotas somebody else was going to take my place in the Army if I didn’t serve. This fact gnawed away at my conscience.

Meantime, I also became aware of Gandhi’s philosophy of non-violent political action, chiefly via Joan V. Bondurant’s book, The Conquest of Violence.  Gandhi believed that one had to take upon oneself some of the suffering and inconvenience of one’s historical moment in order to lodge a credible moral claim for reform.  I agonized long and hard over what I should do respecting the draft and the war.  In the end, I decided I had to serve, but (a) by making the least possible contribution to the war’s actual prosecution and (b) by offering some sort of anti-war effort within the context of my military service.      

At Fort Ord, 1966

At Fort Ord, 1966

My father had a friend at work who was an Army Reserve officer.  This provided a path into that branch of the service, which branch was already becoming difficult to join by 1966. (Incidentally, my father always viewed my Reserve enlistment as simply a safer way to wend my way through the war period. He barely registered the moral reasoning behind my course of action, and for years thereafter I vaguely resented his tone-deafness in this regard.  He doubtless viewed my Reserve enlistment through the lens of his own brave contribution to the war effort during World War II.)

I came up with a two-pronged in-service protest plan: I would serve honorably but (a) I would also refuse military pay (after all, I regarded the war as evil and my service as essentially involuntary – why then accept pay?) and (b) I would refuse any increase in rank (in the abstract, promotions implied greater organizational and command responsibility; I rejected both). My persistence in these commitments however proved imperfect. With respect to pay, I soon began accepting pay and then donating it to anti-war causes instead. Joan Baez’s Institute for the Study of Non-violence, nearby Fort Ord in Carmel, was one of the early recipients. By the early 1970s, however, a new baby and other responsibilities caused me to bank my Reserve check for my young family’s needs. I wasn’t entirely successful avoiding rank either.  It happened that the promotion from Private Trainee (E-1) to Private (E-2) was automatic with the completion of training and couldn’t be declined. I was a little more successful with respect to rank insignia. When I enlisted in the Reserve, a private (E-2) wore no rank insignia on the uniform’s sleeve. That soon changed. A single chevron — formerly the insignia for a Private First Class – soon became the rank insignia for Privates. I declined to sew it on my sleeve.  My superiors didn’t object or, maybe, never noticed. My chevronless sleeve sometimes gave rise to ironic consequences. A couple of times I was mistaken for a “slick-sleeve” officer and saluted by enlisted passers-by as I walked on base. I returned their salute, but not without a suppressed smile.

My two-pronged protest movement drew some attention within my basic training platoon but not the kind I’d expected. Some in my platoon made the assumption that I was wealthy and didn’t need my Army pay. A couple of fellow trainees approached me privately, relating their difficult financial situations at home and suggesting I contribute my pay to their families. One sergeant took me aside to remark that he secretly admired my position – though he wasn’t inclined to follow suit and sacrifice his own E-5 rank or pay.  Truth be told, I never imagined that my specially crafted protest would catch on in the Army. I’d done what I’d done to resolve my own moral dilemma, not launch a movement. Yet, it’s pretty safe to say that, as protest movements go, mine was about as unsuccessful as any could ever be.

All of which brings me back to the new cap I wear around town these days.  I expect that some Vietnam-era vets still see an Army Reserve cap as not much different from a cap adorned with the well-known ’60s peace symbol.  Many regular military folk in the late ’60s and early ’70s saw Reserve and National Guard service as only a step up from draft dodging. That amuses me now, partly for its unfairness. After all, it was no picnic going off to basic training and to all those weekend drills and summer camps for a half-dozen years. Had I been called-up, moreover, I’d have gone with my unit to wherever it was sent. Vice presidential candidate Dan Quayle was criticized for serving in the Indiana Army National Guard during the Vietnam war. However, an ex-brother-in-law once commented that — among our urban, middle class cohort, at least — military service of any kind, even in the Guard or Reserves, was, well, commendably rare. Obviously, it all depended on one’s vantage point. Still, I never saw combat and, moreover, my Reserve service doesn’t even qualify me for the status of military veteran.

More recently, Reserve and Guard forces have borne much of the burden of the ten-year war in Iraq and Afghanistan. According to one source, 28 percent of the 2.3 million U.S. military who’ve seen duty in these theaters were drawn from National Guard or Reserve forces. That fact, in turn, lends my new cap a certain cache of military credibility, however unearned in my particular case. Of course there’s no way my new cap can convey the story of my Gandhi-inspired protest during my service. Yet, I am now proud of my service – partly precisely because I so strongly objected to the war and so much didn’t want to serve. Indeed, it’s one of the things I’m proudest of in my life. Even more striking, perhaps, is that I now even rue the day the draft was ended. An America that sends a volunteer military force abroad and, in turn, enjoys a business-as-usual state of well-being at home — and over a 10-year-long conflict — isn’t one I’m at all happy about. Small town America bears a disproportionate share of maintaining our U.S. military. Whatever ironies and meanings may be invested in my new cap, a disrespect for this aspect of small town life and culture isn’t one of them. Like I said, I wear my cap proudly around town, ironies and all.

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