I started to write this as a response to one of the comments on Eric’s 2012 Veteran’s Day article. But as I recalled and (in some cases) relived what happened to me in basic training, tech school and at my “permanent” station, it became obvious after a couple of paragraphs it was fast turning into an essay. So let me give y’all a little insight into the humiliation, assimilation and indoctrination that passed for the training of a new USAF recruit in the late 70’s; at least from this veteran’s perspective.
When we first arrived at Lackland AFB, we were all in “civvies” and the more “senior” new recruits, who had already received their fatigues, were encouraged to disparage us as “rainbows” (due to our multi-colored clothing). It didn’t take long at all and you wanted those “greens” pretty badly yourself so you wouldn’t stand out. There were of course comments made about the guys with long hair, so you wanted that buzz cut on the one hand; but on the other it was still humiliating. Being a good little compliant (i.e. Prussian school model trained) drone and wanting to please my new owners, I had most of my hair cut off before boarding the bus to go on my new adventure. That was a mistake; being Mr. Buzz-cut standing in a line up of primarily long haired rock-n-rollers gets you “special treatment” by the staff, let me tell you. I’d stolen part of their thunder right from the git-go and that didn’t go unnoticed or unpunished.
When you got your new uniforms, you had no name, Air Force tag or other insignia on your shirts or jackets. You were a “slick sleeve”, and at that point nameless, which helped make you ready for assimilation into the hive. There was a lot of yelling by the Training Instructors (T.I.; the USAF equivalent to D.I.). No one could do anything well enough not to get yelled at. Sometimes it was right up in your face which made you want to blend into the “squadron” that much more and not be an individual (safety in numbers). Having come up in a moderately authoritarian household with an, at times, bellicose dad, the yelling didn’t really faze me. They could see that. They tried it even harder and more often on me.
The T.I.’s would pull stunts like making you go through all your uniforms to prepare for inspection. You were expected to get every bit of lint, each ‘inspected by’ tag out of all the pockets and trim off all loose threads; it was the attention to detail thing. I tend toward fastidiousness and perfectionism; I made damned sure there was nothing in my uniform pockets at least four times. They “found” 3 balls of lint and 2 ‘inspected by’ tags in those same pockets. Hmmm. Then the in your face yelling by a cute little blond bitch of a Staff Sergeant started. I knew she’d planted the goods, but I had to stand there and take her yelling at me right off the tip of my nose. It wears on you. You start to question yourself. Could I have missed those? No way in hell. I still remember it like it was yesterday and that was 36 years ago! It was a set up so you’d doubt yourself and not openly challenge authority. After six short weeks of this kind of mind control you are no longer you.
In basic training we were taught from the start to follow orders and obey the rules and regulations. We were explicitly told not to follow unlawful orders. Then we were taught, with a wink and a nod, how to do things more easily by breaking the rules. For instance, we were given poor quality liquid floor wax and expected to have the floors (hard vinyl tile) buffed out to a near mirror shine. What we were issued didn’t work and wouldn’t pass inspection. Our T.I. told us that Johnson’s Paste Wax would work very well, but was flammable, so it was a violation of regulations to use it (even though it was for sale at the Base Exchange). Needless to say we bought it, used it and passed inspection. We had just been taught to follow “suggestions” by our superiors that weren’t even orders and to violate the rules for expediency’s sake, right out of gate. The atrocities at Abu Graib and Gitmo were most likely based on this same type of under-the-table encouragement by their superiors. The officers and senior NCO’s who encouraged this bad behavior were immediately and plausibly able to deny culpability and place all the blame on the actors.
We were told it was our responsibility to report unlawful acts by our peers and superiors; that there would be no reprisal. It didn’t take me long to figure out that was pretty much b.s. My NCO superiors, “lifers”, were some of the worst offenders; lying, stealing govt. property, screwing off, assigning “shit jobs” to those of us they didn’t like, covering for each other and cheating on their own wives and often with the wives of their fellow service members. I’m not saying it was all of them, but there were enough of them doing this that it made it impossible to ignore and at times I ran afoul of them because of what they were doing. When some of us were sent TDY (temporary duty to another base, often a foreign country), the saying was “What goes TDY, stays TDY.” So if one of your buddies screwed around on his wife, you were expected to ignore it and cover for him. If you saw him taking government property or maybe stashing some dope in an aircraft service panel, same deal, look the other way and keep your mouth shut.
I saw way too much institutionalized corruption and the actors didn’t take kindly to whistle blowers. It didn’t matter how wrong what was going on was; if it was exposed it made everyone up the chain of command look bad. No career minded NCO or officer wants black marks on their record. I can’t speak to the doings of the Commissioned Officers as much, because I didn’t “rub shoulders” with them very often. But I was involved in a couple of incidents that convinced me that some “career officers” would throw their grandmother under the bus to make grade.
These observations along with the preferential treatment certain service members received due to their demographics and or gender led me to bail out after a four year hitch. I’ve spent years questioning what they did to my head and why, during my enlistment and particularly basic training. I don’t like the conclusions I’ve drawn. Now when I hear about “our” heroic men in uniform off fighting for “our” freedom, I have to suppress the gag reflex. Modern military men,U.S.included, are no different than any other group of military men down through the ages; their behavior can be just as petty, ruthless, depraved and disgusting as any Roman soldier, Hun or Pict. Especially when no one’s looking and they think they can get away with it. What the “Union” soldiers did to the Shenandoah Valley, a large swath ofGeorgiaand later, to implement the final solution to “the Indian problem,” are all cases in point. These same U.S. forces just have more powerful weapons, more advanced field equipment and a better PSYOPS / propaganda machine now; human nature itself is immutable so human behavior hasn’t improved one iota.
Tinsley Grey Sammons recently pointed out that an all volunteer force is made up primarily of people who want to be there versus a draft based military where most people don’t. Some young men that I’ve talked with over the last decade enlisted so they could, and I quote, “kill rag-heads.” I guess deer hunting wasn’t enough for them anymore. Others (like some cops I’ve met over the years) are apparently social misfits that can’t, or at least don’t believe they can, do anything else. At least with the draft, there were indeed a lot of recalcitrant “civilians in uniform” that just wanted to get home; not win medals and get promotions by killing other people. This is merely one of myriad reasons these United States were only supposed to have citizens’ militias (based on the Swiss model) under the control of the individual state governors and appropriations for an army were prohibited (by the Constitution) for any longer than 2 years. Standing armies tempt armchair war-hawks into engaging in expeditionary imperialism. The United Statesgovernment has had a standing army at their disposal for as long as any of us here can remember. You have to be deaf and dumb as well as blind not to see the state of affairs that we are in now because of that.