Posted by: patrick | June 10, 2008

being in the military, revisited

I found this old post in my hard drive today. I don’t know if it’s on the net anywhere, so I decided to repost it, along with some commentary. Most of it is still a good reflection of what I believe. Enjoy.

Being in the Military: June 5, 2005

My students, co-workers, and friends often ask me why I’m in the military: why I joined, why I stay in even when I bitch about it, why I do it even when my personal politics often conflict with our current defense policy. My political beliefs confound my Marine comrades, who wonder why a “liberal” would join a largely conservative institution. (I prefer the term “leftist” personally–it sounds more violent and aggressive-sounding than “liberal.”) It’s about time I asked myself these questions again, and about time that I answer them.

Note: I’ve come to terms with the liberal label, and I realize now my politics are much more complicated than the labels “conservative” or “liberal.” Reading up on economics and finance has brought me closer to center on many issues related to business and the economy, but socially I’m definitely to the left. Foreign affairs is a complicated mess that I won’t deal with quite yet.

At the time I joined, I wasn’t in the best personal state. This time was February 2003–my dad passed away just a year before, I had been back in San Francisco for half a year after being fired from a research job in Washington D.C., and I was underemployed and at a loss on what to pursue next career-wise. I had come to the belief that I need to experience life to the fullest extent possible before my time was up, since my dad died before reaching the age of 54. I had never experienced real military service–I had JROTC in high school and had earned a college ROTC scholarship, but my college years had pushed the military path aside. Now, in 2003, the lack of rewarding work and that desire to experience something radically different was pushing me toward enlisting.

Some background: I grew up being a military junkie. I read, watched, listened, and thought about anything and everything military- and war-related. History, tactics, specifications, nomenclature, etc….it was all fascinating to me. Even fantasy and science-fiction conflicts grabbed my interest. My favorite period of history was World War II–the first two books I recall reading (or just picture-looking) about WWII were in first grade. Then, any other period of history I would study would specifically focus on that culture’s military history: the Romans, feudal Japan, the Aztecs, and so on. No wonder one of my friends called me a “warmonger.” I took it as an insult at the time, but he was probably right. My consciousness of the mayhem, suffering, and death caused by war and conflict did not take hold until I matured a bit. Battles were seen by my pre-teen self as honorable, glorious events where real men earned respect, praise, and glory.

In any case, I wasn’t clueless about what I would be getting into as a new recruit. I read books, checked websites, and talked to friends in the Marine Corps (the branch I eventually joined). All that was left was taking the plunge and going. Once I was hustled on that bus at San Diego Airport with my head between my legs, I knew I was committed. (Yellow footprints, anyone?)

Now I’m in, I’ve fulfilled 2 years and 3 months of my 6 year contract as a Marine Corps reservist, and a possible activation still looms. A few Marines in my unit will be headed over to Iraq and Kuwait by August. So why am I still in? Why do I personally disagree with this occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan but still faithfully perform my service until my time is up?

Note: I’m at 5+ years completed, and I’m currently in Iraq, still serving faithfully.

My students often ask me: “Can you quit? Can you leave?” The short answer is no. I signed a contract for my service, and I must honor it. Any breach of that contract is punishable by law. Not showing up for military training is called many things: AWOL (Absent Without Leave), UA (Unauthorized Absence), or if it’s really bad, they call it desertion. All of these will result in punishment under the Uniform Code of Military Justice (the UCMJ). Now, there are possibilities that one can be separated or discharged from the service in a less negative manner, but they require major paperwork and/or pressing circumstances: conscientious objector, work related-injury, economic hardship, and a few others. I’m not quite there in the C.O. category…yet.

Note: I’m still not in the C.O. category, and barring a real shift in American foreign policy to the worse, I probably won’t be.

I don’t even know if I’m that unsatisfied to leave. I do complain about my training weekends: the boredom, the conflicts with personal events and parties, the late dismissal times, the long drives through traffic to Stockton, and so on. Yet in every unit, in every group of Marines that I’ve been assigned to, there’s this shared “camaraderie of misery”, as I call it. Because you’re suffering together with other Marines, the bullshit you deal with becomes slightly more bearable. Plus, you gain the right to talk about it later as a “war story,” often when you’re bored at another Marine training weekend, waiting for more bullshit to happen.

I also get the opportunity to develop my leadership skills. Granted, most drill weekends I’d rather hang back and stay out of sight, since nails that stick up get hammered down…. Yet I see that if you want to get promoted faster, it helps to get recognized, and to do that, you need to stand up, take some initiative, and start being a leader. As a teacher, I have to lead–I plan the curriculum, I manage the classroom, and so on. Doing tasks as a Marine should be baby stuff. If you’re not giving orders, you’re going to end up taking them.

Note: I’m no longer a teacher, but the observations still apply wherever I go for my next career.

Yet I am a critic of the United States’ current foreign and military policies (tactfully, I don’t share many of my views during my drill weekend…you could call it cowardice, but I call it survival). I’ve read too much Chalmers Johnson, Kevin Phillips, and Mother Jones magazine; and listened to too much NPR, Pacifica Radio, and BBC News to have much faith or trust in the current administration. Nor do I trust that the Democratic opposition will do much to change our current path toward greater hegemony over the world. Rome was once a great empire, then it fell. So was the British Empire. We in the U.S. don’t want to believe that we have an empire or have imperial ambitions or aspirations, but to many others in the world, the facts are patently clear. 

Note: I’m waiting to see if our next president will continue the status quo or do something drastically different and new in foreign policy.

Our military, in partnership with friendly nations or otherwise, is all over the globe, on every continent, in places where Americans least suspect (or unable to locate on a map, for that matter). Our economic power is exercised through the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, and our multinational corporations. And our cultural power is evident in our media, our superstars, and in McDonalds, among other icons. Any person with basic experience playing a strategy game such as Civilization can tell you that our presence in the Middle East is predicated on oil (in general, the control of energy sources). This is decades-old policy for the United States. With the rising price of oil, the oil sands of Alberta, Canada are now being eyed by U.S. companies and the administration, and recent Chinese advances toward Canadian oil are possible threats to our control of energy. 

So now I may end up doing more than merely defending the United States from all enemies, foreign or domestic; I am a legionnaire in America’s imperialistic ambitions. I am offended by this state of affairs, more so because I know that a century ago, the United States was involved in a insurgency war against my ancestors in the Philippines. This conflict, the Philippine-American War, followed the Spanish-American War, and it started a legacy of American intervention including colonialism and neo-colonialism, in Filipino affairs, which continues to this day. Am I a tool, a cog, in the military machine? I guess I am….

Yet we should realize that policy is advanced by the civilian leadership in the Pentagon and the White House. Politicians make the wars; we end up fighting them. That’s the state of affairs in history, especially the United States. Fortunately the military does not run the government here (although the future leaves anything possible). Not to say that military leaders have an influence on possible conflicts also, but I can reasonably say that many service members (especially reservists) aren’t particularly looking forward to fighting another war far away from home and family. If we don’t want to be at a drill weekend for 2 days, would we want to be in the middle of the desert or the jungle for 9-18 months?

Note: Looks like this tour is only 6 months long–more on that later.

And in the end, if I just got up and quit, I would let down my fellow Marines. We are a dysfunctional family, the U.S. Marine Corps. The politics becomes less relevant when you’re just wanting to finish the job as soon as possible with your fellow mates. 

What will happen the next few years? Will I get activated? Possibly. Would I go? I wouldn’t want to, but I would go, and I would give it all my effort. Would I re-enlist or take the officer path? I really don’t know. I just live life as it happens, and I enjoy the ride.

Note: I still don’t know.


  1. the story is good


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