When I was eighteen, the U.S. Army promised I could “be all that you can be.” The Navy said “It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.” The Marines were all about “The few — the proud — the Marines.” And the Air Force promised “a great way of life.” I guess I wanted a great way of life, so I joined the Air Force.
Seriously, I never thought I’d serve for twenty years in uniform. My career was relatively easy in the sense that no one ever shot at me, nor did I ever have to take a life. I got an excellent education, met good people, went to interesting places, and got to teach a subject I loved for six years.
Recently, I learned that a member of my family is thinking of joining the military after high school. He hasn’t asked for my advice, but his interest in wearing the uniform made me think about the advice I’d give him if he did ask. What can you say to young men and women that can help them to make an informed decision — the best possible one for them?
It’s easy to be gung-ho about the military. It’s also easy, I think, to dismiss military service with extreme prejudice. The best advice is honest, balanced, and attuned to the person seeking it. In this spirit, what would I say to a young person contemplating enlisting in the military?
Let’s tackle the disadvantages first, the downside and drawbacks to military service, the aspects of military life that potential recruits rarely think about. Here are a few of them:
- You could die or be seriously wounded in the military. Think of PTSD, TBI (traumatic brain injury), and similar “hidden” wounds of war. America is incessantly at war, somewhere, and there’s always a chance you could die. But of course young people think they’re immortal and may even crave danger, so this reality rarely deters them.
- You may have to kill other people. Perhaps even innocent people, because war is extremely messy and chaotic. Such acts of violence against humanity may lead to moral injury that will haunt your conscience. Are you prepared to kill? Truly?
- You sacrifice personal autonomy and some of your rights when you join the military. You have to be willing to follow orders. You can’t just quit and walk away. The military insists on obedience and discipline. Are you prepared to do as you’re told?
- If you think you’re important, you’re not: and the military will remind you of this. You’re a pawn in a vast bureaucracy; you’re at the mercy of a system that is often capricious and treats you as a number. You’ll quickly learn the wisdom of acronyms like SNAFU (situation normal, all fucked up) and FUBAR (fucked up beyond all recognition). They may sound funny, until they come to describe your life and career in the military.
- You may wish to ask yourself when was the last “good” or necessary war that America has fought for the purpose of true national defense. You may discover that recent wars in Afghanistan, Iraq, and elsewhere were not “good” wars in service of your Oath of Office to the U.S. Constitution. If this gives you pause, if this troubles you, I suggest you don’t enlist.
- Take the time to read about veterans who are against war. Consider this letter written by Daniel Hale, who is currently serving prison time for his courageous stance against the murderously imprecise nature of drone warfare. Read about Pat Tillman, the NFL player who enlisted in the Army and who was killed by friendly fire, then used as a propaganda prop by the U.S. military. Don’t think something similar can’t happen to you.
I could mention other disadvantages, such as frequent moves, nonsensical jobs, bad bosses, etc., but many civilian jobs share these. Work isn’t easy; it’s why it’s called “work.”
Now, how about the advantages to military service. I know that some of my readers will challenge these, and rightly so, but here are a few “positive waves” about enlisting and taking the oath:
- Tradition. For some enlistees, it’s about family tradition. I wasn’t from a strong military family, but my father and his two brothers served in World War II; so did my mother’s brother; and, more recently, my older brother enlisted at the tail end of the Vietnam War and three brothers-in-law also served, one in Vietnam during that horrendous war.
- Opportunity. The military today is respected within our society, even venerated. Serving in the military may provide you with unique opportunities both during and after your service.
- Teamwork. In a selfish “you can have it all” society, the military reminds us of the importance of teamwork.
- Idealism. Taking the Oath of Office should mean something to you. If it doesn’t, don’t enlist.
- Purpose, discipline, responsibility, maturity. The military isn’t the only way to live a life of purpose, a disciplined life, a life of responsibility, a life centered on growth and maturation. But, for more than a few people, the military has provided a path forward, a sense of pride and clarity, though that can come at tremendous cost, as explained above.
- And, of course, the normal reasons people join: pay, benefits, an opportunity to travel, to start life over, perhaps to escape a bad situation, and so on.
Enlistment, in sum, is a personal decision that must be weighed carefully. What I would say is this: remember the words of Yoda the Jedi Master. “Wars not make one great.” If you’re thinking of enlisting with a hero complex in mind, don’t do it. You’re too immature and you’re misguided to boot. Military service should be about service; it’s also about sacrifice. And you must always remember you may have to make the “ultimate” sacrifice, which is a euphemism for getting killed.
As the Outlaw Josey Wales said: Dyin’ ain’t much of a living, boy.
You’re your own person: Do you what you think is right, and good luck.
This photo by Jonathan Ernst of Reuters shows the “Gold Star” tree at the White House. It’s a tribute to “the fallen” in recent wars. That expression, “the fallen,” is truly a lamentable euphemism. Of course, we should remember the dead, for which we have Memorial Day and “gardens of stone,” i.e. cemeteries. Should we also remember the dead as ornaments on a Christmas tree? I have my doubts here.