March 27, 2008

You're Talking To A Veteran, Asshole

Forty years ago today I was drafted into the United States Army. Back then the United States was at war in Vietnam. It was going on and on, the Vietnam War, and the solution of the people in charge of prosecuting the thing at the time was to reach down each week into the citizenry and scoop up larger and larger numbers of young men to swell the ranks of the armed forces to a size whose overwhelming force would destroy the enemy over there. The draft for the week of March 27 was the largest up to that point in the war, taking up over twenty thousand involuntary recruits in one fell swoop.

The great ladle of conscription caught me up. They sent me a letter, so I had a few weeks to mope around San Francisco before the day came and the lot of us were transported to the Oakland Induction Center, that fated day forty years past now when I began my required stint in the United States Army.

It was an inauspicious taking for the Army in my case. I gave a poor, grudging service overall, a judgment confirmed in a severe impromptu berating given me by a Lieutentant Colonel on my final day, the Fortieth Anniversary of which won't be celebrated for quite a few months now. I was crossing the yard with a handful of paperwork, sweet thoughts of impending release wafting though my otherwise empty cranium on that, my last day, than which one can get no shorter: finished with it! Done! I certainly didn't recognize the superiority of the officer approaching me from the building I was heading towards, at least in the strictly defined manner in which such recognition is executed in the military, which is to say, salute, no, admittedly I did not.

During the Lieutenant Colonel's tirade, which picked up from the affront of going unsaluted to touch on a variety of other issues immediately arising out of my slovenly appearance (which, standing directly before him I could do little to disguise), it suddenly dawned on me: he had me on that, you see. I knew about the salute. It wasn't like I hadn't ever wended my way through a parade ground whipping the extended hand up to the forehead and smartly returning it to my side. I knew about the thing, it just hadn't occurred to me in the event. All that training for nothing in the end.

It was my privilege to suddenly see what the Lieutenant Colonel was driving at: my presence in the military was an affront to the Army. All along the affront to me that began by being drafted in March of 1968 had been uppermost in my mind, but the Lieutenant Colonel's words convinced me that there were other values and other offenses to be taken into account in addition to my own, given the circumstances.

I didn't try to fend off his remarks with the observation that it was the Army's bad recruiting that had brought all this on in the first place, a blunder soon to be rectified by my departure, although I admit I did experience a yearning to express just such a view.

Nor did I gloat out loud that my own long held suspicions regarding the slovenliness of my clothing, which I had not removed in the past 36 hours, were merely confirmed by his words, although my tendency to preen is never far removed.

No. I simply drank in the objective truth of it. The Army and I had not got on well together. The war was lost eventually, and I must acknowledge my fractional responsibility for dragging it to that end. I did my part.

I'd spent my time in a back office at Ft. Lewis, Washington, immured there doing minor harm with a keypunch machine for all my twenty-one months of active duty. I rose to the unexalted rank of Sp4 in time and never left the KP roster of Headquarters and Headquarters Company in all my 21 months. I recognized it not only as a place of imprisonment and exile, North Fort Lewis, particularly when compared to all the the ferment and frolicking going on in the San Francisco of 1968 I'd been removed from, but also as a place dissociated in its way from the actual war in Vietnam itself, tucked in a readily overlooked niche in the Army's own vast stateside bureaucracy, in a null space removed from both the lively streets and the deathly jungles of that time.

In his peroration the Lieutenant Colonel enthusiastically recommended, in the form I recognized as a direct order, that I immediately go over to that barbershop right there and get a haircut and report right back to him for inspection. Much of the rest of his address has slipped my mind in the intervening years, howevermuch I was impressed at the time by his succinctly expressed acuity in summarizing my personal failings. He nailed it, really, when all is said and done.

Anyway, that was at the sorry end of my sorry stay in the Army, which began forty years ago today.

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