FINISHING SCHOOL-learning the order of things
The peasant, or mechanic, imbibed the useful prejudice that he was advanced to the more dignified profession of arms, in which his rank and reputation would depend on his own valor; and that, although the prowess of a private soldier must often escape the notice of fame, his own behaviour might sometimes confer glory or disgrace on the company, the legion, or even the army, to whose honours he was associated. On his first entrance into the service, an oath was administered to him with every circumstance of solemnity. He promised never to desert his standard, to submit his own will to the commands of his leaders, and to sacrifice his life for the safety of the emperor and the empire. Edward Gibbon, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
THIS ORDER OF THINGS has been passed down from ancient legions, and no single man regardless of rank or station, –lest to thwart a crime against humanity– should contravene the will of the command under which he serves.
Until the end of the Cold War the service provided a haven for kids that had no career goals or for reasons of being socially or economically disadvantaged needed an equalizer to compete in our great system of free enterprise. I suppose these young men and women were the distant successors of the Roman Legion’s peasants or mechanics. My indoctrination was no different from the millions that came before me and the millions that would follow. Boot camp changes habits. This life altering adventure left me with more than a few lessons that in the long run were worth the weeks of humiliation and psychological transition, from little boyhood to big boyhood, a large step for any young man.
The newly recruited enlisted man is the lowest man in the a hierarchy that extends from the Presidency of the United States through a complex network of generals, colonels, majors, lieutenants, warrant officers, non commissioned officers, airman first class, second class and basic— the last position reserved for me. October 27, 1959 I stood registered, AF11370827, a number that defined one as having existed— like a social security number, only the serial number assigned as a member of the armed services stands for more than filling out a piece paper declaring your readiness to work. Unlike the Roman tradition of tattooing a character on the soldier’s arm, the government stamps a number into your mind and then into two small metal tags that you wear around your neck, two of them so that if you become a fatality, one can be inserted into your mouth, and the other sent to your next of kin; something like a certified letter, where identification and death are linked and established with certainty in the enduring form of a small stainless steel plate.
And so you begin the new life with a closely cropped haircut and a set of dog tags. The early days of boot camp bring out all the rebellion, fear and anxiety that young men can exhaust through puke, sweat and crying. It has got to come out, otherwise, the man qua soldier will not fit into the military order of things, an order designed and perfected over the history of societies. You learn to take orders, to say “yes sir”, to salute, when, who, for how long, under what circumstances, to understand the Uniform Code of Military Justice, for what you can stand charged and if convicted ostracized, cashiered or hung–, as warranted.
To repeat the admonition: This order of things has been passed down from ancient legions, and no single man regardless of rank or station, –lest to thwart a crime against humanity– should contravene the will of the command under which he serves.