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Is the U.S. military’s ‘work hard play hard’ ethos valid?

Posted by John Reed on

Copyright John T. Reed

U.S. military personnel are big on the notion that they work hard and are therefore entitled to play hard. Is that valid. Nah. It’s generally a bunch of self-destructive bull.

Does the U.S. military really work hard?

Sometimes. When?

  • in combat
  • in training that is physical like basic training, SEAL training, Ranger training
  • in performing teams like the Blue Angels, Old Guard, Marine Corps Band

What about the rest of the military? Are you kidding? It’s a government job. Someone once asked, “How many people work for the government?” The answer he got was about half of them. I think that was optimistic.

The Army is big on being there first thing in the morning every Monday. Why? I have no idea. I almost got court martialed once for not appreciating the Monday morning ethos.

A girl I was dating in DC had Monday off and invited me to come for the long weekend, that is, Saturday through Monday. Three-day passes were so common and routine that you didn’t really need to do much to get one at Fort Bragg in 1969. Generally, they were Friday through Sunday. But I figured three days is three days.

I asked my battalion training officer, “Do we have anything scheduled for Monday, sir?” “No,” he said. “Why?” I told him about the long weekend in DC.

When I got back Tuesday morning, they demanded to know where I had been the previous day. I told them about my DC trip. They said I had to report to the commanding general of the division and that they were going to court martial me for being AWOL! I suspect that would have made me the first West Point graduate in the history of the world to get court martialed for being AWOL. After I explained what happened, the battalion commander called the Division Commander, and they decided to drop the matter.

Fort Monmouth parking availability

Now let me tell you about Fort Monmouth. In the late sixties and early seventies, the U.S. Army Signal School was there. The officer’s classroom building was about four stories tall and overlooked the parking lot. On Monday mornings, you could not find a parking space in that lot unless you got there real early.

But I noticed a telling pattern as the week went on. There were lots of spaces available at lunch time. As the week went on, that situation expanded from noon to one initially to noon on by Friday. Also, it was easy to get a parking space there late Monday afternoon. Each day, the time at which it became easy to get a parking space got earlier and earlier until Friday it was all afternoon. Monday was the only day it was hard to get a parking space first thing in the morning.

I thought about suggesting to the local news media that they photograph and label with day-of-the-week and time the parking lot from the fourth floor of the officer’s classroom building to show the scandalous sloth of the U.S. Army officer corps. But I never did.

I imagine you could get the same pattern of photos of parking space availability at the Pentagon parking lot or any other office-type setting in the U.S. military.

Golf courses

Virtually every U.S. military base in the world has a golf course—two actually—one for the officers and one for the NCOs. (Go to Google maps and use their satellite capability then type in any military base from West Point to Fort Benning to wherever, then zoom in and you will find both the officer’s and NCO golf courses.) That right there should tell you volumes about whether the U.S. military works hard.

If there be any doubt, go to a U.S. military base during business hours on a week day. Go to the golf course. Either the NCO or officer’s club course will do. Take a video or still camera. It need not have any film or tape. Point it at the golfers. I predict that they will turn away so you cannot see their faces. They will flee as they see you coming. The course will be full when you arrive. It will empty if they think you are photographing them. MPs will arrive to escort you off the base and tell you not to come back.

All day Wednesdays off

When I was a company commander at Fort Monmouth, our battalion commander suddenly announced that all officers should henceforth take all Wednesdays off to work out. I was already running five miles every day and playing evenings on a YMCA volleyball team that competed around the New York City area. Besides, what kind of work-out program uses only Wednesdays? My current work-out program in 2008 is exercise bicycle every other day and weight-lifting every other day. When I coached high school football, we did a similar week-long-except-for-Sundays work-out program.

I believe the battalion commander’s program would be the doctors’ take-all-Wednesdays-off-to-play-golf-all-day work-out program. Indeed, the battalion commander loved golf and he would play golf all day Wednesdays during business hours. I was too busy as company commander to do that. Plus I always thought golf was too much time for too little exercise.

Lee Trevino and Tiger Woods

The Wikipedia write-up on pro golfer Lee Trevino said of him, “At seventeen, Trevino joined the United States Marine Corps and served four years. Over the last eighteen months in the service, a great deal of his time was spent playing golf with Marine Corps officers.”

That’s those Marines “working hard” so they can later justify playing hard.

Tiger Woods famously learned how to play golf from his father. What did his father do for a living? He was a carer U.S. Army officer.

I could go on, but if you talk to anyone who was in the military, they can tell you their own stories about long lunches, golf during business hours, “gentlemen’s courses,” and taking afternoons off in the “we work hard therefore we are entitled to play hard” U.S. military.

The notion that the U.S. military always works hard a a colossal joke. Some careerist officers work hard every day because they are trying to impress their boss and get a top efficiency report. But the rest of the people in the military take scandalous amounts of time off and waste scandalous amounts of time when they are there. That does not apply to the show business parts of the military, namely, instructors and students in basic training or some macho “elite” school, or units that perform for the public like the Air Force Thunderbirds.

What does ‘play hard’ mean?

The second part of the “work hard play hard” ethos is that since military people work so hard (LOL) they are entitled to play hard. What exactly does it mean to play hard?

It means to get high and/or get laid.

That is, binge drink alcohol or use illegal drugs and have sex with any willing female human. In some cases that hit the media, unwilling females are used as “play hard” toys. That’s called rape. Along with pillaging, it is an old military tradition.

The current Army recruiting slogan is, “You made him strong. We’ll make him Army strong.” Perhaps more accurate would be, “You got him drunk. We’ll get him Army drunk.”

The headline on the 3/13/07 San Francisco Chronicle is “Military drinking woes grow.” It quotes an article by Lieutenant General Franklin Hagenbeck, the current superintendent of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.

Hagenbeck says rising rates of binge drinking and heavy drug use in the military are seriously affecting military readiness. Not only are soldiers and Marines committing the crimes of drunkenness and illegal drug dealing, possession, and use, they are also, while under the influence, committing additional crimes, including murder, rape, armed robbery, and assault. Approximately 40% of convictions for such crimes by U.S. soldiers and Marines involved drunkenness or drug use according to records obtained by the New York Times through the Freedom of Information Act. According to Hagenbeck, more than half the soldiers discharged for bad conduct had been in trouble for alcohol or drug abuse during the year before they were discharged.

In contrast, alcohol and drug use by sailors and airmen have declined steadily since 1980. That’s because the leaders of those services are more responsible and have higher quality personnel than the Army and Marines.

According to a survey of Army personnel, more than 25% admitted they regularly binge drink and five percent admitted they use illegal drugs regularly. The Army also admits to increased use of chewing tobacco by its soldiers and that more than 20% are overweight. One cause appears to be the current Army practice of granting “moral waivers” to over 8,000 recruits a year because they are convicted criminals. The incidence of drunkenness and drug use is higher among criminals. See my article on the need for a draft and my book review of We Were One for details on those problems.

Soldiers and Marines drink and use tobacco because they think that’s what tough guys do and they want to be seen as tough guys. In fact, the toughest guys on the planet are world class athletes. Some of them drink alcohol, most notably Bode Miller. But he failed so miserably at the 2006 winter Olympics, winning zilch after being talked about as possibly winning five gold medals, that he was not much of an advertisement for drunken competing. Virtually no world class athletes use tobacco. The successful ones who use alcohol are careful not to use it excessively or close to competition.

Every second you use tobacco makes you weaker and less healthy. The same is true of every second you use alcohol excessively. Plus, even a single excessive use of alcohol can result in loss or ruination of your life as a result of a drunk-driving accident, contraction of a fatal sexually-transmitted disease, unwanted pregnancy, wife beating, job loss, and so forth.

The problem is exacerbated by the fact that career NCO and officers who have drug or alcohol problems are afraid that seeking help would hurt their careers, so they do not.

The “work hard play hard” ethos that is proudly proclaimed by military leaders is irresponsible, infantile, self-destructive and, at times, suicidal. The Pentagon needs to put the word out that that phrase and that behavior pattern are out, then back it up with appropriate action.

I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions.


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  • Anyone who doubts that Jack’s description of normal military behavior is true is living in a dream world. The US Army’s mission is to win our wars. The mindset of its members/employees is the polar opposite. To win a war, you must learn and practice war-winning techniques on a daily basis until you have mastered same and are better equipped/trained than your opponents. Most US military member, however, actually SCOFF at those of us who espouse warfighting/winning skills. I am speaking about officers and Senior NCOs who cannot pass PT tests. Who have never fired a weapon since Basic Training and, when tasked to go to the firing range ONCE PER YEAR, make up an excuse NOT TO GO, NOT fire their weapons (which, to the most casual and ignorant of observers, is one of the MINIMUM skills necessary to defeat an enemy) and then FALSIFY their records so that they APPEAR to be “experts” or “sharpshooters” in their personnel jackets. Officers who are in command of Tank Companies and Battalions and who FAIL TO QUALIFY in Level 1 and Level 2 gunneries. Who turn their personal weapons over to their subordinates and tell them to “disassemble and clean these” because they DON’T REMEMBER HOW TO DO IT THEMSELVES. Who fall out of PT runs because they haven’t actually worked out in 3-6 months. These same folks LAUGH at soldiers who climb mountains, swim, hike, and purchase and train with personal firearms on the weekends at their OWN EXPENSE, labeling them as “psychos.” They sleep in their offices, skip meetings to play golf, take time off and not account for it on leave forms, and brag incessantly about their “warrior” statuses despite the fact that they haven’t actually practiced what they learned in Basic Training or ROTC 10-20 years ago. Their “after-hours” fun includes drinking to the point of blackout, doing drugs, sleeping with prostitutes (NCOs) or their compatriots’ and/or subordinates’ wives (officers), raping/sexually assaulting the females in their units, and spending their money ad nauseam on “playthings” which leave them broke and eating for free in the mess halls until the next pay period.

    This is akin to a doctor working at a hospital and making a 20-30 – year career of getting paid to find ways to NOT do surgeries. Or an investment banker who never monitors the market regarding the hedge fund under his control and keeps his job despite realizing investment losses year-after-year.

    What is even more alarming is that this type of ridiculousness has been occurring at taxpayer expense as far back as the War of 1812. If you don’t believe me, do a bit of research into accounts written by GI Joe during the Civil War, the Mexican-American War, or the Indian Wars. Better yet, read “From Here to Eternity” or catch the movie on Netflix. You will see what I have described above from my experiences between 1990 and 1999 transpiring in 1941. Drinking, gambling, shirking of responsibilities, abuse, visiting of prostitutes, sleeping with seniors’/subordinates’ spouses, etc.

    “Work hard, play hard” is a joke from word #1. Nobody in the Army “works.” They don’t manage income and they don’t have to turn a profit. They are not held accountable for what they do or do not accomplish. Winning wars is somewhere close to last place on their list of priorities. Their foremost concern is career preservation until retirement so that they can enjoy lifelong federally-subsidized benefits. How they get there is immaterial. If this purported “work” where they do and/or produce ABSOLUTELY NOTHING is so “stressful” that they feel they “deserve” to engage in trailer-park-like behavior in an effort to “unwind,” they are truly NOT the folks we need defending our freedom.

    Jeff on

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