The Military and Conformity — and Democracy

Officers’ Wives’ Club in 1967. In the mid-1980s, I belonged to a bowling league with my military unit in Colorado. Good times.

W.J. Astore

Few people will be surprised to learn that the U.S. military is about conformity. Uniformity. Heck, it’s one reason why we wear uniforms to begin with. To a certain extent, individuality is tolerated but only if it’s harmless and doesn’t interfere with unit cohesion or performance — and, not just performance but image.

I can’t count the number of times I heard about my Air Force “family” when I wore the uniform, with the message I had to go along to get along; we’re all family, so stop grumbling and enjoy your “family” time.

A heavy stress on conformity can be a particular burden to civilian spouses, however, who didn’t necessarily think they were enlisting when their partner signed up and donned a uniform. In the bad old days, wives of officers were especially burdened with expectations. If they didn’t join officers’ wives’ clubs and otherwise “support” their husbands, they might find themselves ostracized from the “family.” Their husbands might see their careers suffer as well, not exactly a dynamic that promotes family values and amity at home.

Those bad old days are not entirely over, notes Andrea Mazzarino at, and being the wife of a U.S. Naval officer, she should know. I urge you to read her article here at TomDispatch. Nowadays, pressure takes new forms, notably on social media, that crazy 24/7/365 world, with email, Instagram, and Facebook posts (among other social sites) being scrutinized incessantly for right-thinking and right behavior, as judged by the self-anointed keepers of conformity and uniformity.

Militaries, again you won’t be surprised to learn, are not known to embrace criticism and non-conformity, which is why they should be kept as small as possible within a democracy that is supposed to celebrate or at least tolerate critiques and eccentrics. But here’s the rub: The more America celebrates its military and feeds it with money. the more it reinforces anti-democratic forces and tendencies within our larger society. And that’s not a good thing in a country where money is speech, i.e. where the richest already rule. (Which is no surprise to military members, as we all know the Golden Rule: He who has the gold makes the rules.)

Here’s an excerpt from Mazzarino’s article. Believe me, she knows of what she speaks.

Eyes Are Always On You

Andrea Mazzarino

I know what it means to be watched all too carefully, a phenomenon that’s only grown worse in the war-on-terror years. I’m a strange combination, I suspect, being both a military spouse and an anti-war-on-terror activist. As I’ve discovered, the two sit uncomfortably in what still passes for one life. In this country in these years, having eyes on you has, sadly enough, become a common and widespread phenomenon. When it’s the government doing it, it’s called “surveillance.” When it’s your peers or those above you in the world of the military spouse, there’s no word for it at all.

Now, be patient with me while I start my little exploration of such an American state at the most personal level before moving on to the way in which we now live in ever more of a — yes — surveillance state.

A Navy Wife’s Perspective on Military Life, Post-9/11

“The military sounds like the mafia. Your husband’s rank determines how powerful you are.” That was a good friend’s response, a decade or so ago, when a more experienced Navy wife shamed me for revealing via text message that my husband’s nuclear submarine would soon return to port. Her spouse had been assigned to the same boat for a year longer than mine and she headed up the associated Family Readiness Group, or FRG.

Such FRGs, led by officers’ wives, are all-volunteer outfits that are supposed to support the families of the troops assigned to any boat. In a moment of thoughtless excitement, I had indeed texted another spouse, offering a hand in celebrating our husbands’ imminent return, the sort of party that, as the same woman had told me, “All wives help with to thank our guys for what they do for us. It’s key to command morale.”

She had described the signs other wives had been making under the direction of both the captain’s wife’s and hers, as well as the phone chain they had set up to let us know the moment the boat would arrive so that we could rush to the base to greet it. In response to my message, she’d replied in visibly angry form (that is, in all capital letters), “NEVER, EVER INDICATE IN ANY WAY OVER TEXT THAT THE BOAT WILL BE RETURNING SOON. YOU ARE ENDANGERING THEIR LIVES.” She added that I would be excluded from all boat activities if I ever again so much as hinted that such a return was imminent.

Alone in my apartment in a sparsely populated town near the local military base, my heart raced with the threat of further isolation. What would happen because of what I’d done?

And yes, I’d blundered, but not, as became apparent to me, in any way that truly mattered or actually endangered anything or anyone at all — nothing, in other words, that couldn’t have been dealt with in a kinder, less Orwellian fashion, given that this was a supposedly volunteer group.

It was my first little introduction to being watched and the pressure that goes with such surveillance in the world of the military spouse. Years later, when my husband was assigned to another submarine, an officer’s wife at the same naval base had burst into tears telling me about the surprise visit she’d just been paid by three women married to officers of higher rank on other boats stationed at that base.

Sitting across from her in their designer dresses, they insisted she wasn’t doing enough to raise raffle money to pay for a military child’s future education. Am I really responsible for sending another kid to college? That was her desperate question to me. Unable to keep a job, given her husband’s multiple reassignments, she had struggled simply to save enough for the education of her own children. And mind you, she was already providing weekly free childcare to fellow spouses unable to locate affordable services in that town, while counseling some wives who had become suicidal during their husbands’ long deployments.

I could, of course, multiply such examples, but you get the idea. In the war-on-terror-era military, eyes are always on you.

Married to the Military (or the Terror Within)

On paper, the American military strives to “recognize the support and sacrifice” of the 2.6 million spouses and children of active-duty troops. And there are indeed gestures in the right direction — from partnerships with employers who have committed to hiring military spouses to short-term-crisis mental-health support.


7 thoughts on “The Military and Conformity — and Democracy

  1. In my active duty experience (Air Force) I never had this sort of experience, at least not exactly. Part of the reason was that I never lived on a large base so my wife and I were isolated from “real” Air Force “family” life. This probably was a good thing because my wife although supportive of me and my career was luke warm to the idea of being a military wife: she worked throughout my active duty years as a nurse even though we had two children while I was on active duty.

    Nevertheless my wife and I did experience some “rank pulling” by some wives of officers senior to me. During that first assignment at the small radar control facility, we were assigned a lot of newly minted second lieutenants. Those were the days of the Vietnam War and there were a LOT of second lieutenants running around the Air Force in general. Some of the young wives experienced some snobbery and bullying by those more senior wives who were married to “lifers”. Perhaps those women felt empowered or at least entitled to look down on those younger, “short term” Air Force wives.

    I was the “senior” second lieutenant (that’s a joke!) having signed in to the duty station a few months before the influx hit our station. I heard a lot of the comments my brother junior officers made about how this or that comment was made to the young wife. It was becoming a morale issue for our little, remote Air Force Station. One day all officers all received a written notice from the Commander that there was to be an “Officers’ Wives’ Call” in the base theater on the next Friday morning. ALL officers’ wives were to attend and it was to be considered mandatory (!) unless specific excuse was approved by the colonel commanding.

    My wife worked the day shift as charge nurse in a nursing home about thirty miles from base. She asked me if she really had to go and I said that I had never heard of an “officer’s wives’ call” but since it came from the Commander’s desk, I told her she really did need to go. The results were very interesting.

    After the meeting my wife told me what had happened. In the small base theater the wives all gathered and sat in the seats as though an audience. The small stage was lighted but empty. After everyone was seated, the Colonel’s wife came in from the wings of the stage, not from the audience. My wife said there was an immediate hush that fell over the gathered group. Then the Colonels wife spoke.

    She talked about the “Air Force Family” concept and what it meant to be stationed remotely in such a small group. She described how important that everyone showed respect and care for everyone else of any rank on the base. Then she went on saying that she had heard of instances, whether intentional or accidental, where some of the younger women…wives of junior officers…had felt hurt and slighted because they had felt other women had implied that they had superior standing and rank due to their tenure as an Air Force wife, or perhaps because of their husband’s rank.

    Then my wife said that the Colonel’s wife seemed to change her posture a bit…she was standing. My wife said she seemed to become somewhat taller or something. Then the Colonel’s wife said: “It is really important for all of us wives to know that none of us has any rank, that we do not wear our husband’s rank, ever. We wives need to always be equal and support each other as equals. It is important to remember that. Now, that being said, if it does become necessary for a wife to have some rank on this base, then that wife will be me.”

    Then she thanked everyone for coming and adjourned the meeting. It had taken all of ten minutes, my wife said. My wife also said she was some impressed!

    To my knowledge the incidents of rank pulling by wives ended abruptly.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Great story. Thanks for sharing.

      My wife was once approached by another officer’s wife who let it slip her husband was a captain. I guess my wife was supposed to be impressed, except I was a major at the time, which my wife casually mentioned. The captain’s wife quickly shifted her behavior and became deferential.

      My wife shook her head in disbelief as she told me this story later.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Well maybe I should duck before I write my most often quoted Dylan line that I love to repeat to my wonderful wife …..
    “There ain’t no limit
    To the amount of trouble
    Women bring!”
    I very much enjoyed the points of understanding Andrea’s “different” perspective has provided. I have enjoyed her work at The Costs of War report. She’s not shy and that’s impressive to say the least.


  3. What a cute photo, I’m so sorry short hair has lost popularity with women in the military or out.

    Maybe someone can explain something to me I have difficulty understanding and though a bit off topic, I believe there may be some here who could address my query as many of you have the military experience that I do not.

    My impression is that many Americans who treasure the military are often the same people who rant against government, don’t want to be told by any authority what to do, etc. Am I alone in finding this strikingly contradictory?

    Liked by 1 person

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