I once told another editorial writer that having been in the Army was the second most educational experience of my life. (The first was raising teenagers.) He asked why, and once more I was obliged to back up a hasty opinion. His question got me thinking, and remembering:
I was not a very good soldier. I should make that clear from the first. I lacked the natural instinct, and envied those who had it. At ROTC summer camp, I admired the way my buddy Willie Griffin could tuck a couple of pillows deep into his bunk just so, and pass any bed check while he headed out for a night on the town. Well, such a town as Lawton, Oklahoma, was in the 1950s.
Willie would saunter in just before dawn next morning ready to move, shoot and communicate - the three cardinal virtues of the artillery. After knowing Willie, I never again underestimated anybody out of VMI.
I also knew I could never get away with something like that - didn't have the instinct. I'd make some dumb mistake. To quote the officer who was delivering a critique of my single day as battery commander during summer camp: "That was Cadet Greenberg's fatal error."
It's a phrase that has stayed with me, recurring with depressing regularity ever since. Like when noticing the crucial flaw in an editorial only after it appears in the paper.
I still remember the day, about halfway through our gunnery course, when the light dawned. Eager to share my amazing discovery, I turned to the guy next to me and whispered, "Hey, do you realize this is all just trig?"
He just looked at me. It was the look you'd give a well-meaning idiot, or a small child who came running to inform you that two plus two is four.
My only hope in ROTC was to go by the book. The Army could teach a chimp to move, shoot and communicate - if the chimp would just do it step by step. Which is what I made up my mind to do. I knew it was the only way I'd make it through.
Result: I must have been the most annoying safety officer at Fort Sill, Oklahoma. I was certainly a general pain to my superiors, who knew their men and their guns, and were quite comfortable with a hairline flaw on the surface of a shell. ("Good enough for government work.")
But here was this green young lieutenant who'd ask them to put that in writing, sir, before he'd let them fire it out of the tube. Only then would they mutter some less than flattering exclamation and order the round put aside.
I'd passed by a horrendous accident my first week at Fort Sill, and the acrid air of disaster and impending courts-martial made a lasting impression. I might be annoying, I resolved, but I was going to be careful. And not just careful but Picky with a capital-P. Picayune. Punctilious. I never wanted to see anything like that again, let alone be responsible for it.
I never did get those orders in writing. Call it an early lesson in Plausible Deniability - a concept that came in handy when trying to understand Watergate, Iran-Contra, Travelgate, etc. People will give orders they'd never sign their names to.
Watching some of those televised press conferences at the Pentagon, an old-timer is struck by how much has changed since there was a draft. It wasn't just Afghanistan or Iraq that was an exotic locale for some in the press, but the U.S. military.
It was all new to these people, and it showed. One innocent asked why the Air Force couldn't drop leaflets before a target was bombed - to warn any civilians in the neighborhood. (Note to the enemy: DO NOT READ.)
Another wide-eyed reporter seemed surprised when he learned that Rangers trained with live ammunition! Did he think they fired blanks? Yeah, and our armor goes on maneuvers in cardboard tanks.
It wasn't the reporters' fault. They were from a different era, not one in which you were expected to go into the service much the way you were expected to go to school, get married and raise a family - in just that order. What may be lacking now is any first-hand experience of military life, with its endless ennui sporadically interrupted by the need to get everything done now - and then undone just as fast.
It helps to have been at the bottom of the chain of command instead of having to comment on the U.S. military as you would the doings of any other foreign corporation.
I hated every minute of my time in the Army. Even leaves were soured by the knowledge that they would end.
And yet the service leaves one with a certain perspective. You might even learn some things - not by studying the principles of military "science" but by having to live with them. For example: the chain of command, the importance of maneuver, the element of surprise, getting there fustest with the mostest, not sweating the small stuff, knowing your objective and when to say No Excuse, Sir . . . .
Some of those lessons, it has occurred to me since, might be useful in civilian life, too.