Wednesday, October 7, 2009

Rethinking my thinking about the military

For reasons that aren't germane to this post, I've been spending a lot of time with the military. I've met recruits and prospective recruits, NCOs and officers, listened to majors and generals. I've visited military facilities. And it's changing how I've always thought about the military.

In truth, I never thought much about our armed forces. Except for a few tangential relationships, I don't come from a military family. I came of age in the '70s, a time when the military was held in particularly low repute. The films that shaped my thinking -- like MASH, like Catch-22 -- portrayed the armed forces are blundering, inefficient, ineffective bureaucracies. It was the time of that tired joke that "military intelligence" was an oxymoron (was that George Carlin?)I was too young to understand Vietnam, but I picked up the general cynicism and sense of failure. No one I knew joined, and I gave little thought to those who did, save a dismissive sense that they had no alternatives and no ideas.

All that has changed. Getting inside and actually hearing and seeing the military has thoroughly changed my impressions -- of the institution, of the members. It's tricky to anthropomorphize an institution, but I will. I now think of the military as smart, focused and humane. I'm impressed by the people and their heads and heart: their intellect and broad-mindedness, their caring and their humanity. The kids who join know what they're doing, and even if they don't the process ensures that they do.

They're not perfect; no one is. The Pat Tillman story is tragic (all the more so for the administration's manipulation and politicization of the event). Abu Ghraib was a nightmare (though that too is shot through with administration decisions and deceit.) But it is a living, breathing learning organization that changes as needs change. And the people in it are filled with passion and purpose.

But my new appreciation is an impotent thing -- it accomplishes nothing. So I'm going to do something, and I was inspired yesterday by a woman I sat next to at a lunch. She told me about an adopt-a-soldier program that she got involved with a few months ago.

The program matches soldiers who've opted in with individuals who want to help -- via letters, emails, care packages. She is swept up by it, so much so that she carries photos of her soldier and his family. When I saw the photos I was moved to tears.

I love the idea; it lets me help by doing more than just write a check. I'll get Liv involved (she loves to shop, so shopping for care packages is right up her alley.) Nick will help, and he loves the idea. She's sending me the link later, so in the next few days I'll log on, sign up and jump in (which seems an interesting way to upend the old Timothy Leary "turn on, tune in, drop out" and particularly well-suited for this endeavor. I never connected to the '60's and its ethos anyway. More about that in another post.)

Go army.

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