I joined the US Navy in May of 1993, the day after my 19th birthday. I was honorably discharged in April of 1999 just before I turned 25. I am from a family with multiple generations of military service, and truth be told, I have mixed feelings about this time of my life. I’m not one that puffs out his chest and says “I’m proud of my service” and I’m also not one that feels like it was a waste of time or that I was an ‘assassin for the state’. I am a bit uncomfortable when people feel the need to thank me for my service, as if anything I did was worth thanks so many years later.
I joined the military for a variety of reasons. My career prospects were slim, and I saw it as a way to learn to do something other than farm work. I wanted to go to college, and they offered me money. As I said before, multiple generations of my family had done the same, and I felt like defending one’s country was an honorable thing to do. I suspect that scores of people that have been in the military or are currently in the military have joined for similar reasons. In fact, the military is counting on those motivations to fill its quotas.
But there are some things they don’t tell you, at least not up front. Some of these things are certainties and some of them are possibilities. For someone to avoid addressing the possibilities on the grounds that they, after all, might not happen to them individually is intellectually dishonest. A person considering military service at this point in time needs all the facts. So let me throw in my two cents worth and raise some issues that you may or may not have to deal with if you choose to go down this road.
You will most certainly spend an inordinate amount of time away from your loved ones. I was single at the time, but 80 hour work weeks were not uncommon. While stationed on a ship, we would spend all week out to sea in preparation for our six-month deployments. Think about this. Think about where you work now, and think about your co-workers. Imagine living with those people for months on end with no break. I have stood on too many piers and watched too many men wave bye to pregnant wives or infant children who will be toddlers before they see them again. I understand the view that says that such sacrifices are an unfortunate but necessary evil in order to ensure freedom, and believe it or not, I am sympathetic to that view. Where I part company with that view will be addressed as we continue on.
You will increase your divorce rate exponentially. It’s a fact, and one I witnessed over and over as young marriages or even established marriages were put under the strain of repeated deployments and long hours away from home. The military divorce rate runs somewhere between 20-30% ahead of the civilian rate, and from personal experience I have been there when guys I knew got those ‘dear John’ letters that seemed an inevitable part of military life. I have seen strong, proud men weep under those conditions. This could happen to you, and you need to be aware of the possibility.
You will have college money, but no time to spend it. As somebody once told us ‘the Navy hired you to work, not to go to college’. There is a vast body of G.I. Bill money that goes unused even though the benefits extend for years after you get out. It’s simply hard to work more than 40 hours a week and attend class. But on the off chance that you are one of the lucky ones who somehow get the chance to attend college while in the military, are you aware that you could have done the same thing without joining up? Are you aware that hundreds of millions of dollars in civilian scholarship money goes unclaimed every year because nobody applies for it? There are whole websites dedicated to bridging that gap. Out of all the reason why someone would join up, the college money angle is the one that falls easiest under scrutiny. You have other options.
You will be surrounded by coarse people, and that will eventually rub off on you. The Bible says “evil communications corrupt good manners” and while I was a member of the US Navy, I met some really great people. I also met absolute dirtbags, perverts, guys that were supposed to be in jail, etc. If you come out of a good home, be prepared to learn how to swear and be regularly exposed to pornography. Keep that in mind next time Sean Hannity says that the military consist of ‘the best and brightest’. How much time did he serve, after all?
You will be the enforcement arm of whatever the foreign policy is of the moment. This really drives a lot of my other points. Our foreign policy is a muddled mess of backroom deals and rackets, and has been for God only knows how long. The simple fact is that we currently pay dictator A to be our friend and oppose dictator B. The industry (and it is an industry) has to have a bad guy to stay in business. After a while it becomes necessary for dictator A to stop being the Good Guy and become the Bad Guy. When that happens, and it always does, you or people like you will be dispatched to go deal with this latest bad guy. You will be dispatched at the cost to your family, and your good manners, and possibly your life. When dictator A, who is promoted as the next Hitler, is dealt with, another dictator who probably used to be on the US payroll will be found to be the new Villain. Think of it as professional wrestling, except with real bullets and real death.
You will have no rights. I have no doubts as to your noble intentions. After all, you probably didn’t join up because you have a great love for the United Nations. You probably legitimately love America. You are probably considering the military for a host of honorable reasons, but as one of my sea-daddys told me “We’re not in that business anymore.” But the things your civilian counterpart can do with great ease will be forbidden to you because you are property, not a person. You will be sent places you do not want to go to do things that you are pretty certain do not need to be done. You will have no ability to protest or refuse. You will not necessarily do what is right, but rather what you are ordered to do by a bunch of faceless chicken hawks in Washington who will never have to kiss their wife goodbye on a pier anywhere and who will never stand a midwatch. Those are the people who will decide your fate, not you. You signed that right away.
You will swear to defend the constitution, then be dispatched to violate it. The wording of the enlistment oath is interesting, and rarely examined. The oath I took was “I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God. “ Now it’s the second half that ought to be of concern to you. It is entirely possible, in fact, almost certain, that you will be ordered by the President to go places where the Constitution will not send you, and be ordered to do things that the Constitution forbids you to do, like invade and occupy Iraq ( or Libya, or Afghanistan, or Syria, or Iran) without a declaration of war. So when it happens, do you obey the first half, or the second half?
Most of what you do will have nothing to do with keeping anyone free. My 60 to 70 hour weeks consisted of pointless drills, and meetings and cleaning and busywork all done in preparation for deployments in which literally days would be spent fending off boredom. The drills held out at sea were, I suspect, yet another way to keep us enlisted types from getting too much sleep or complaining too loud. We held elaborate wargames in which our ship fended off a variety of threats even though the actual lifespan of one of our ships in combat is under 10 minutes. All of this as we crossed the big blue pond to the Middle East. Once there, we proceeded to do circles in the Arabian Gulf in order to protect ‘freedom’. In reality we were enforcing UN resolutions that were a threat to American sovereignty. Al l of this at taxpayer expense.
You may be ordered to kill a stranger who has done nothing to you personally and probably isn’t a threat to your country in any way. On the other side of the imaginary lines that we call borders is a guy just like you who joined up with his countries military for reasons possibly quite similar to yours. And in his government, a bunch of faceless bureaucrats have dispatched him to kill you when all he really wants to do is go home to his wife. Then there’s you, for the promise of college money and ideas of service, you have obligated yourself as a bondservant to Obama or whoever comes in after him, and your job is to kill this poor fellow. The both of you are jostled around the battlefield like chess pieces while the power hungry bureaucrats sit back safely at their headquarters. This is the reality of war, and as our foreign policy becomes more and more muddled, and the lines of war become fuzzier and fuzzier, you have to entertain the very real notion of what you may be asked, actually ordered, to do. What sort of person will you be on the other side?
There are, in my acquaintance, a number of very dedicated individuals who stay in the military for a variety of quite noble reasons, and I don’t want them to feel I am slighting them or their profession in anyway. One of my last mentors in the Navy finished his 20 plus years very discouraged, and told me in a moment of confidence that he had rationalized his multiple re-enlistments by telling himself that his presence there would help save the lives of his men if things very went bad. I, as one of those men, think he was probably right. He was a leader in the true sense of the word, and was very dedicated to his men even at the expense of the mission. But even he saw that the civilian leadership didn’t think that way, and that’s who was calling the shots for us, not brave noble men, but bean counters in expensive suits half a world away.
These are all things that you need to know, and these are all things that your recruiter will not tell you.