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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/21/19

Military Stereotypes

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Message Eric Dietrich-Berryman
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OpEd News offers points of view not usually taken by traditional media. Some of it sharp, some not altogether coherent but none that are dull or lack a vein of truth or alternate way of thinking that isn't - above all - interesting. My contributions and commentary make me a conservative in the estimate of most readers. Easy label, easily applied. And by their lights true, pretty much, though I see myself more as wobbling precariously like a drunk in middle road.

Jimmy Carter's funk when the U.S. embassy in Tehran was invaded and its staff taken hostage triggered an epiphany in a self-described, keen liberal Democrat. The next election, Reagan's second term, put me on the Republican lever. At the ballot box as I made my choice the thought occurred that lightning would strike and wither my hand.

As a graduate student in New Mexico I joined Reies Tiijerina's La Alianza Federal de Mercedes land grant-movement and wrote for its newspaper, El Grito del Norte. The cry of the North, named for Pancho Villa's Division del Norte. I found Reies to be a sympathetic, honest man bravely fighting an historic, uncorrected injustice. He took up the cry that private land once owned by Mexican citizens but taken by the United States after the Mexican War should be returned. That was the war for which Henry David Thoreau refused to pay his taxes, and the war Ulysses S. Grant declared as "one of the most unjust ever waged by a stronger against a weaker nation."

My Alianza colleagues were Chicana feminist Betita Martinez and Black Panther attorney Beverly Axelrod, Eldridge Cleaver's betrayed defender. Their correspondence formed the basis of his best-selling book, Soul on Ice. Compelling, dedicated people who I let drift out of sight when I left to teach literature in the Massachusetts university system.

What many readers see in my prose is an immigrant German who served as a soldier (actually, both soldier and sailor) in U.S. forces for over 30 years, and that must mean an automaton incapable of independent thought. An occupational descriptive of "Career Soldier" is self-cancelling for many people. Assumptions are made. Stereotypes trotted out. In truth, those who revert to labels are not alone. Henry Kissinger famously said, "Military men are just dumb, stupid animals to be used as pawns in foreign policy." Harry Truman's generals were mostly "dumb SOBs."

Accusations of being confined to a lead-lined conservative box that independence of thought, humanity, and political literacy cannot penetrate. Stir in the German-born detail in my case and the caricature becomes a complete riot.

Soldiers like any other profession come in infinite variety, ability, IQ and character. They are disciplined, not robotic. In contrast to much of confused civilian life, soldiers are goal-oriented men and women who freely conform to an hierarchical order and vow of obedience, like Benedictine monks. They like their country and are willing to risk their lives protecting it. George Orwell, who fought in the Spanish Civil War in a Marxist Unification Brigade and wounded by a sniper, reminded his readers that, "People sleep peaceably in their beds at night only because rough men stand ready to do violence on their behalf."

Two soldiers who challenge the presumptive mold of cardboard cutout are Patrick Leigh Fermor and Thomas Edward Lawrence. At the age of 18 Fermor walked the length of Europe from the Hook of Holland to Constantinople. With him was the Oxford Book of English Verse and Horace's Odes. He slept in sheds and barns and monasteries, sometimes even in mansions. In 1944 as a commando in British forces he led a raid on Crete that captured a German infantry division general, Heinrich Kreipe. Kreipe was no soulless martinet, either.

On the run through the night, their furious prisoner in tow, they stopped to rest at dawn. "When the sun rose on the first morning and lit up the snow on the summit of Mount Ida, the general gazed at the scene and quoted a verse of an Horatian ode." Fermor quoted the second stanza, the genera came in with the third and so on until all six stanzas were finished. A long silence followed. Then the general said, "Ach, Herr Major!" Years later Fermor wrote, "It was very strange, as though for a moment the war had ceased to exist. We had both drunk at the same fountain long before; and things were different between us for the rest of our time together."

At the age of 69, Fermor swam the Hellespont in memory of the poet Lord Byron who had also managed the feat.

Thomas Edward Lawrence, entered the history books as Lawrence of Arabia. Before World War I he was an archaeologist. As an army officer he was renowned for his liaison brilliance during the Sinai and Palestine Campaign, leading legions of mounted Arab cavalry in the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire. He ended the war in the rank of colonel and died with the Royal Air Force's enlisted rank of Aircraftsman and the pseudonym Shaw in a motor cycle accident. He was a spectacularly effective writer and poet, author of Seven Pillars of Wisdom. "All men dream: but not equally. Those who dream by night in the dusty recesses of their minds wake up in the day to find it was vanity, but the dreamers of the day are dangerous men, for they may act their dreams with open eyes, to make it possible."

And, elsewhere:

"I loved you, so I drew these tides of
Men into my hands
And wrote my will across the
Sky and stars
To earn you freedom . . . "

Lawrence is buried in rural Dorset, near the bend in the road where he met his fate on a motorcycle. Nearby is the beautiful little parish church of St. Nicolas, dedicated to fallen soldiers. It is open 24/7. On the wall outside is a sign requesting visitors to, "Please close the gate lest a bird fly in and die of thirst."

 

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German-born (1940) immigrant (1958). US Army 1958-1964. Vietnam 1962-1963. USN 1969-1993. Hofstra University BA 1966; University of New Mexico MA (1968), PhD (1971). Fully retired. Married. Five children, three grandchildren. Resident in (more...)
 

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Eric Dietrich-Berryman

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Snap judgments that define an individual because of some predetermined set of characteristics due to profession, race, political party, what-you-will is the way of things nowadays. Sadly, so. "Once you label me you negate me," wrote the Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard. The case is especially apt when it comes dressed in a military uniform.

Submitted on Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019 at 2:51:07 PM

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Kenneth Lee

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For myself, at least, there is no 'snap judgement' involved in making an initial evaluation of a person who is or had been in the military. Military 'service', and to a lesser extent police and other 'enforcement' work, are unique in that they may require the taking of another person's life as an integral part of their employment contract. The 'service' member is obligated to be willing to commit murder of one stranger based on the orders of another stranger, in exchange for which they receive a salary (and benefits!). That is a HUGE distinction from other forms of employment (other than Mafia hitman or 'soldier of fortune'). The reasons (excuses) given by past, present and future 'service' members are legion in their absurdity:

1) "To defend my country and/or way of life"

Our country and 'way of life' have not been under ANY external threat in my 70 years

2) "To 'serve' my country"

Do you not understand you are only serving the oligarchs who own this country and, apparently, you?

3) "I can get a free college 'education'"

Wow, so you are willing to KILL for it?

4) "I can't find any other jobs"

See response to #3

5) " I want to support my 'brothers and sisters' who are 'over there' fighting for the rest of us"

Sorry, but stupidity doesn't have to be contagious. Try supporting them by helping them break the mental chains that have bound them to their masters through the military and their fabricated 'wars'.

6) " My family might need the free healthcare"

Perhaps you should tour a VA hospital before deciding. Do you really think the military cares about you when you are no longer useful to them?

7) "I'd rather enlist than get drafted"

You don't have to do either. In the 60's and 70's they wanted me BAD. I REFUSED. You can, too.

For someone to ascribe to any of the above, that to me signals a character issue that cannot be denied. Some have been able to realize the error of their ways after the fact and take steps to rectify earlier mistakes. It takes a person of strong moral fiber to acknowledge that they were wrong, instead of just suffering silently with their PTSD until it boils over into the lives of everyone around them. It is THOSE we should be supporting.

Submitted on Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019 at 6:54:36 PM

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Eric Dietrich-Berryman

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The good points in this litany are skewed to a pacifist-or-nothing stance. Seeped in a marinade of cynicism and naivete. Hard to get a fix on which is dominant. Yes, how wonderful if universal disarmament embraced humanity worldwide. Swords to plowshares everywhere. Not even the Swiss give up their weapons. One way or another, all nations are vulnerable. Large, rich nations especially. It has always been so, to our universal shame.


In my case, I was a 17-year old unaccompanied immigrant. The US Army was my ticket to 1) eat, 2) have a bed and roof, 3) maturity, 4) understanding America, 5) citizenship. I joined the US Navy because I love ships and the sea and it gave me a wonderful life. The GI Bill gave my an education, yes. How is that bad?

Submitted on Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019 at 8:15:52 PM

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Kenneth Lee

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For sake of discussion, I'll assume that prior to joining the U.S. military you had some degree of a sense of morality, right and wrong, etc. Hopefully, you also believed it was wrong to kill another human being. Yet, when you signed up in the Army you agreed to THEIR definition of morality in that you promised under oath to follow the "lawful" orders of any superior officer, even if that meant killing another being. You were, in fact, trained to do just that in the most efficient way possible.

In essence, you sold a portion of your morality for food, a place to live temporarily, your perception of maturity, becoming a 'naturalized citizen' and a college education. Obviously I can't speak for you, but for me that would be a VERY BAD DEAL. That is one reason why recruiters troll the schools now, even elementary schools, starting the indoctrination process as early as possible, so that the kids' inherent moral compasses can be turned to a direction more suitable to the military mindset while their minds are still malleable.

You may feel that I exhibit a naivete because of my clarity of thought, but that clarity has been reinforced and expanded upon through 70 years of 1st, 2nd and 3rd hand experiences with the U.S. gov. and its military and decades of observation of overt and covert acts of violence perpetrated on countries and groups that are no threat to the citizenry of the U.S. The only threats we (especially our military) respond to are those that might adversely affect the oligarchy and huge corporate interests that control us.

The real shame is that the U.S. in particular has become the bully of the world. Since the late 19th century we were known for 'gunboat diplomacy', i.e., getting what we want from other nations through violence. Now, the only thing different is that drones and F-35s have replaced gunboats. This country had the opportunity to set a high benchmark for the rest of the world, and instead we have only shown what the lowest benchmark actually looks like. Being any part of a military institution that represents this country would certainly not be MY choice for a career move.

Submitted on Wednesday, Aug 21, 2019 at 9:59:07 PM

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Thanks, Kenneth. Hadn't actually finished with my earlier response but got called away to dinner by the Sainted Mother, my wife.

17-year olds are hormones on a collision course, mostly. And always hungry. I'm at 80, but beginning April 16, 1945 when I stood beside my Wehrmacht nurse mother, backs against the wall, hands glued to our heads in the Harz village of Elend (literally, misery), I have wanted to come to America. Helluva of a way to get inspiration. As I matured it became clear to me that those GIs had liberated me, too. In time, I grew up in the England of the 1940s/1950s where doing your "bit" in uniform was normal, accepted custom. You were molded by contrasting influences. The views you hold did not spring full-blown from the head of Zeus. All in all, we are the products of our parents and the culture in which we incubate.

Most soldiers kill nothing except time. For every infantryman, artilleryman, tank trooper there must be a couple dozen doing signals, logistics, pushing paper, directing traffic, mowing grass and washing pots and pans. Generalizations are dicey things, but I'd say that most of us knew that we might be expected to die. Killing the "enemy" was not an issue. Who is the enemy? Anyone your elected leaders say. As dysfunctional as our government is, it is better than anyone else's equivalent on the planet. Monaco, excepted maybe.

My stint included a tour in Vietnam where my job was helicopter door gunner, 22 years old. I trusted the Kennedy Administration that sent me. I continue to have faith in the basic decency of our elected leadership, histrionics notwithstanding.

Submitted on Thursday, Aug 22, 2019 at 1:13:06 AM

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An accusation of "murder" is a libel. The Continental Army did not "murder" redcoats in the Revolution. US Marines did not murder Imperial Japanese soldiers in the invasion of Iwo Jima. The Wehrmacht was not "murdered" by US forces in the liberation of Europe. I murdered no one in Vietnam. I shot at people who were shooting at me. Murder was done when the Royal Air Force specifically targeted civilians in the bombing campaign. The bombing of Dresden was murder. My Lai was murder.

Submitted on Thursday, Aug 22, 2019 at 4:21:48 AM

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Using Viet Nam as an example, did they attack the U.S. in some way that I'm not familiar with? Were the Vietnamese who were shooting at you attacking you or defending their homeland from the invaders? Did a country that was forcefully split in two by Western powers (for their own purposes) have any right to try to re-unify without foreign military interference? Same question of course applies to Korea. If a person invades another country and actively tries to kill the inhabitants who are attempting to defend said country, could he or she not be considered a murderer, or are they 'just doing their job'? On a slight tangent, I'm very interested in why you, at a young age, had such a desire to come to the U.S., one of the countries that participated in significant atrocities and massacres against your home country Germany and assumed the role of conqueror and supreme controller of German destiny post-war.

Submitted on Thursday, Aug 22, 2019 at 5:20:45 AM

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Kenneth, at our age we should be asleep. Knock-on effects of a failing heart makes me in insomniac. It's become an odd sort of life. Max Hastings put me in his "Vietnam: An Epic Tragedy 1945-1975" because he picked on what I had written about getting along so well with my VN counterparts in the early advisory phase, 1962-1963. His book concludes that both sides were scoundrels and neither of them deserved to win. No argument from me. It was a bitter civil war that we took over and then abandoned. Korea was abandoned, too. Few will argue that North Korea is a human benefit.

As for Americans, they were a species like no other I was familiar with. There's an easy, welcoming grace to them. On introduction, they did not click their heels and bow, as I had been taught to do. Americans put their feet on the table, ate wth a fork. Americans did not care that I was German. Through films I came to see a land of unimaginable beauty and opportunity. Like having my nose squashed against a glass window display of riches and being told I could pick out and have anything I wanted. Europe doesn't make such offers. I yearned to come here and a month after my 17th birthday, 17 being the minimum legal age for unaccompanied immigration, I was pounding on the US Embassy door, clueless of what I would do when I arrived, but certain I couldn't fail. And so it was.

Submitted on Thursday, Aug 22, 2019 at 7:14:26 AM

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