In a few weeks, about the time final grades are posted at the community college, one of my students will invariably ask, “What do you think about me joining the military for a career?” The short answer is always the same: “No, no, no, no!” NO.
As someone who has seen both sides of the Navy and Marine Corps, enlisted and officer, for 36 years of active duty; and who will all too soon be buried in his dress blues, at the foot of his free government tombstone, resting beneath service ribbons ranging from the Good Conduct Medal, the Combat Action Ribbon, and the Legion of Merit, with the Navy and Marine Corps Parachutist insignia thrown in, I have some “moral capital,” and some skin in the game, which qualifies me to have an opinion. And that’s all this is – an opinion.
Don’t sign up, unless, like the iconic Mississippi blues singer, Robert Johnson, there’s a “hell hound” on your trail; or some judge gave you two choices, and boot camp is the best option; or perhaps your heart is so broken that there’s no hope of recovery and she’s never coming back, ever; or maybe you want to get on the other side of the world to escape your creditors (which won’t work, by the way); or you just simply, absolutely, positively, unequivocally have no place else to go. And then it’s still a bad idea.
I suppose that sounds a little fishy, coming as it does, live and in print, from someone who owes everything he has to the military; someone that his high school classmates voted “Least Likely to Succeed;” someone that a recruiter took a chance on because he scored well on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) qualifying test. Someone that the military picked up, cleaned up, smarted up, focused up, and sent on his way. But I have my reasons a student should stay in school.
While the United States military is rightly regarded as the best in the world, there’s “something rotten in Denmark” (Hamlet, Act 1, Scene 4). Our military is increasingly becoming a catch-basin for the poor, the marginalized, the under-privileged, the under-class, the left behind of America. The all-volunteer military population today is terribly skewed in terms of race, socio-economic status (SES), and geographic input. I watched it happen over the years.
Take race, for example. In 2018, racial and ethnic minorities made up 40% of active duty military personnel, trending up from 25% in 1990. In 2018, African Americans made up 17% of active duty personnel, considerable higher than their 13% percent share of the population. While there’s nothing wrong with this, and minorities are as patriotic as anyone else, it does reflect economic inequality and a lack of opportunity in the civilian world.
The military has come a long way since President Harry Truman integrated the armed forces on 26 July,1946. My complaint is not that minorities are over-represented in the armed forces; it is that such a dangerous lifestyle is too often the only option for the poor but ambitious young person.
Dying for your country should be an equal opportunity proposition.
I find it ironic that the Black drill instructor (DI) has become a stock character in recent movies about the military: “Major Payne,” “Private Benjamin,” “An Officer and a Gentleman,” “Renaissance Man,” etc. I had such a man as my DI when I went to boot camp at San Diego in 1959. He was a crusty, hard-driving, World War II-era First Class Boatswain’s Mate (E-6) who only exhibited his sense of humor on one occasion.
Early in our training, we were marching to the chow hall for breakfast one foggy February morning, and some recruit who had been in boot camp a few days longer than us began to razz us with the “You’ll be sorry!” jeer. A kid marching alongside me, from Vinita, Oklahoma, took exception to the insult, fell out of formation, socked the guy in the jaw, and stepped back into place, in perfect step.
The Boatswain (“Boats”) saw the whole thing but didn’t say a word. He just smiled.
My Oklahoma buddy and I had a symbiotic relationship in bootcamp. He wasn’t that good with the books but was great with the practical things.
We had to wash our clothes by hand, and then tie them on the clothesline, using a different sailor knot every day.
If Boats didn’t like your knot, he would cut your clothes down and stomp on them. I, on the other hand, won the academic award for the whole battalion; so, I would help my friend study and he would tie my knots. I remember that his wife left him about halfway through training.
We were all 17.
People were older in those days. I also remember mailing my academic award certificate to my mama in Mississippi before I shipped out. A couple years later, when I finally got home, I asked her where it was. She said that she remembered writing a grocery list on the back of it and then losing it at Myatt Brother’s Grocery in Purvis.
Another concern is that, geographically, Southern states consistently provide the highest proportion of recruits, compared to overall population, with the most coming from Georgia, Florida, Virginia, and South Carolina. “Southern” is the new military language. This is nothing new.
So many Union officers, from the South, resigned their commissions in order to fight for the Confederacy that in 1862, West Point had to graduate its senior class a year early in order to repopulate its officer corps.
Soon afterwards, in 1863, the U.S. first instituted a military conscription, a “draft,” or, as the French call it, a “levee en masse.”
If selected, a draftee could buy his way out of service, either by paying a $300 commutation fee or hiring a replacement.
For many poor workers, this was blatant evidence that the conflict was a “rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight,” an observation that’s relevant today, in my opinion.
The 1863 draft law wasn’t well received, leading to the infamous New York City draft riots of the same year in which 119 people were killed.
A popular song, a parody of the religious hymn, “We are Coming, Father Abraham,” made the rounds:
We are coming, ancient Abraham, several hundred strong,
We hadn’t no 300 dollars, and so we come along.
We hadn’t no rich parents to pony up the tin,
So, we went unto the provost, and there were mustered in.
Even if reinstituted today, the draft would not fare very well. Recent Pentagon data shows that 75% of those ages 17 to 24 don’t qualify for military service because they are physically unfit, have a criminal record, or didn’t graduate from high school. Even worse, one-fourth of volunteers who attempt to join the military fail the ASVAB, and a study in 2018 found that more than 17 million young adults would be disqualified for various health reasons.
But the more things change, the more they are the same: when I went through parachute school at Fort Benning, Georgia, in 1970, about one-fourth of the wannabe commandos in my class washed out because they couldn’t do the minimum six over-handed pullups.
Today’s all volunteer military is increasingly drawing its ranks from a relatively small pool of Americans with historic family connections to military service.
The majority of those who serve today come from families with fathers or siblings in the military.
For example, in my family, my father and every one of my uncles served except one who was a religious conscientious objector and subsequently ostracized by all of our relatives.
Polls show that the majority of military personnel are conservative and hard right politically. It’s an insular world, often alienated from society at large.
Today’s wars are authorized by a Congress whose members have the lowest rate of military service in history, and our nation has been led by three successive Commanders-in-Chief who never served a day on active duty. Less than one-half of 1% of the U. S. population is in the armed forces today, compared with 2.7 million men conscripted from every segment of the population during the Vietnam War.
The draft, which was abolished in 1973, had a great leavening effect, ensuring, more or less, that a representative segment of the population was in uniform.
If you saw the Neil Simon play or movie, “Biloxi Blues,” an account of his basic training in that Mississippi city, you will remember the eclectic makeup of his barracks-mates – all fellow draftees.
Now, we are, perhaps, in danger of developing a warrior class; a Roman legionnaire mentality; a fighting caste; a throwback to the classic difference in philosophical worldview between Athens and Sparta.
If you score high enough on the ASVAB to get a good school and a good job in the military, you are smart enough to attend or stay in college.
Military schools only teach you what they want you to know; most skills are not transferrable to the “outside,” or even understood by civilians.
My son is a good example. When he graduated from William Carey, he promptly enlisted in the Army Airborne, spending five years in the 504th Parachute Infantry Regiment, out of Fort Bragg, North Carolina. His recruiter here in Hattiesburg initially signed him up to work in chemical warfare. Not thinking that had much future outside the military, I talked him into asking for a military occupation code (MOS) that he could use when he got discharged. He got it – 11 Charlie (mortars). Anyone need anything blown up? Luckily, he majored in physical education/ biology and teaches at Oak Grove High School.
I guess my main reason for wanting military-minded students to stay in school is because one generally has to be a college graduate to become an officer. That’s the way to go; for the higher pay, if nothing else. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with serving in the enlisted ranks. Been there; done that. My son was a corporal and turned down several opportunities to attend Officer Candidate School (OCS). Personally, I spent the first six years of my Navy life as an enlisted man, working for morons. Then I went to OCS and became one myself. If one does get commissioned, they should avoid the “hauteur” that often comes with wearing gold braid and which addles the brain.
I know that many individuals never have or had the opportunity to attend college. I know that some students don’t belong in college and are just taking up space.
I also know that innumerable self-made men and women achieve success without attending college; however, the numbers don’t lie: a recent study by Georgetown University found that, on average, college graduates earn $1 million more over their lifetime than high school graduates.
These days, too, you are seeing more and more enlisted personnel with college degrees, so that’s something to think about.
Thanks to the Navy, I’m “coast to coast,” with MA degrees from the University of Rhode Island, the University of Oklahoma, New Mexico State University, and San Diego State University, all earned during periods of shore duty over the years.
Today, it’s not like it was after the Vietnam War; opinion polls show that the military is the most trusted institution in America.
You also sometimes hear people saying that a person doesn’t need a college degree.
If my Uncle Sam hadn’t sent me to college, I’d still be standing on a corner in Winslow, Arizona, waiting for something good to happen in my life.
The brass ring doesn’t come around that often; you need to catch it when you can.
Light a candle for me.
Hattiesburg’s Benny Hornsby, a native of Lumberton, is a retired Navy captain. Send him a note via email at: firstname.lastname@example.org and read previous columns online at bennyhornsby.com