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Life Arts    H4'ed 8/21/19

Military Stereotypes

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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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