I Love a Man in Uniform by Lily Burana
Posted by John Reed on
One of my West Point classmates told me he read a positive review of Lily Burana’s I Love a Man in Uniform. I immediately bought a copy and read it. My main interest is that I am a critic of the military and the military’s effect on family life in particular. I was never married when I was an Army officer, so I was glad to get the perspective of a woman who was and who is candid about it. Candidness is rare, especially among career military people.
Four books in one
My first reaction to Lily Burana’s book was that she was smart and funny and observant and irreverent and a good writer. Ultimately, I concluded it was sort of four rather different books in one. Her editors should have seen that and told her to pick one topic at a time. The four books are :
• Lily the neurotic psychologist therapy patient who cuts herself with razors
• Lily the lap dancer, peep show performer, local bar stripper, goth, face-pierced, rotten kid who still misses that life
• Lily the unconventional, childless, second wife of a straitlaced Army major in an even more straitlaced Army
• Lily the patriotic career officer wife
Instructive for prospective officers and spouses
My main interest in the book is to use it to buttress points I have made in my articles about the military. Prospective West Point cadets, prospective officers, and prospective officers’ spouses should read this book to get a better idea of what they are getting themselves into. On page 55, Lily says 95% of Army spouses are female and the majority work.
On page 54, Lily says,
I knew that marrying a soldier meant marrying the military as well—I’d have the government as a sort of hectoring, ever-present mother-in-law.
True. I have trouble understanding why anyone would proceed with the marriage after knowing that. I guess they do not know what it means to be married to the military. Also, it’s worse than she depicts. The soldier “son” of the military “mother-in-law” is a kept man and the mother-in-law holds the purse strings, as well as the promotion strings, assignment strings, post-quarters strings, and so on.
‘Follow you anywhere’
On page 60, she says,
...the lover’s breathless pledge of “I’ll follow you anywhere” was no longer some abstract romantic notion. It was now a way of life.
Yeah. To eliminate the abstractness, ask where your prospective husband is likely to be assigned and substitute those locations for the word “anywhere.” Before you accept his proposal, visit some of these places, like Fayetteville, NC; Killeen, TX; Sierra Vista, AZ; or the Pyeongtaek Train Station emergency evacuation point in Korea (in case the North Koreans invade South Korea again).
I will also point out that this lover’s breathless pledge is a one-way street in a military marriage. The wife will follow the husband anywhere. The husband will follow the wife nowhere.
In my marriage, my wife and I have financially backed each other up repeatedly. During my first year at Harvard, she worked. During her second year there, I worked. At times in our marriage, my sales of my business have dipped and she was the main breadwinner. At other times, her banking industry had trouble with constant mergers in the late 1980s so she came home and worked with me for a while. It has worked out amazingly evenly. In a military marriage, however, there is total selfishness on the part of the (probably) male active-duty serviceperson and his employer, the U.S. military. Your guy hangs out with his guys playing Army and you deal with it.
Lily likened watching the other, more experienced Army wives move into new quarters at a new assignment like watching carneys set up a carnival in a shopping center parking lot: very fast and well practiced.
To me, a career in the military sucks. No doubt, those who chose it will condemn that as merely my opinion, my taste. Unfortunately for them, it’s not. It’s objective fact and not very hard fact to prove to any fair observer. I would not waste my time trying to change the minds of committed career officers and their wives. Losing your ability to be objective about the advantages and disadvantages of a military career is one of the occupational hazards, indeed, requirements, of a military career. It is cult-like. I am not a deprogrammer. I am into “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure (or deprogramming).” I am trying to save young men and women from getting sucked into this life to begin with.
Separation from family
One bit of evidence regarding the fact that military life sucks is what are currently called “deployments” by military people. That is, they get sent to Iraq or Afghanistan. Those things were called “unaccompanied tours” when I was in the Army (1964-1972). Whatever you call it it means the military family member goes to a combat zone and his spouse and kids remain behind. Deployments nowadays apparently last a year to two years.
I say deployments suck. If you say they don’t, you need to have your sanity checked. From page 83:
Even the Army Family Readiness literature says that anger [between spouses] is an expected emotional consequence of deployment...
In I Love a Man in Uniform, Burana experiences and tells about her newlywed husband going off to Iraq. It was his second tour there; her first tour as his wife. I don’t think anyone would dispute my description of her account of it as proving that it sucks. In her book and others I have read that the wife has to take care of everything all by herself including all finances, children issues, housing issues, etc. That is not the deal you are supposed to get in a marriage.
Call before knocking
Experienced military wives never knock on the door of another wife’s quarters unannounced when her husband is deployed, because a knock on the door is how you are informed that your husband has been killed or seriously wounded. They call before they go to the house to avoid the scare of the unexpected knock.
I have read and heard there is much infidelity in military families especially when one member is deployed. Although the impulse to have infidelity appears to be equal between the genders, the spouse back is the states usually has more opportunities when the wars in question are in Muslim countries. A 2004 New York Times story said 20% of military marriages end in divorce within two years of one member being deployed.
Resentments grow between the husband and wife during the deployment. Often, the deployed spouse is greatly changed when he or she returns from the war. Often, instead of the return being a honeymoon, it is a trying, difficult reunion for reasons I do not understand. On page 66, Lily quotes an experienced Army wife as saying in a briefing for rookie wives,
Sex and intimacy can be strained when a soldier returns home. Let nature take its course.
??? I would have thought “nature taking its course” would be what one military couple said about the husband’s pending return from Vietnam.
He: You’d better be the nearest woman to me when I get off the plane.
Her: You’d better be the first guy off the plane.
I was dating girls when I returned from Vietnam where I did a combat tour as a bachelor. Sure seemed like a honeymoon to me. I was not changed by Vietnam in any way that was perceptible to me or anyone else. Nor were any of my friends. My mom told me I was born nine months to the day after my father returned home from World War II. Something is apparently different now for a whole lot of, maybe most, military married couples. I do not know why that would be but it apparently is a fact that any prospective officer or spouse should consider.
Screwing in burned-out light bulbs
Lily says an “earnest” young, but experienced, Army wife told a group of wives whose husbands were about to ship out to Iraq that,
...our job as women was to make sure our returning servicemen didn’t feel threatened by our wartime autonomy. She said she’d shored up her man’s confidence by screwing burned-out light bulbs into the household fixtures so he’d have something to repair when he got back.
YOU GOTTA BE KIDDING ME! I thought these guys were mighty “warriors.” They feel threatened by an autonomous wife?!
Apparently their wives, who know them better than anyone, see them as they really are: pathetic, unconfident ditzes who need to be boosted with phony “challenges” like making an Easter egg easy to find in your back yard for your three-year old. Unbelievable! Although I can see how it might happen. As I say elsewhere at this Web site, Army officers, even generals, have almost no real authority. They get saluted and called sir, but all decisions are made at the Pentagon. Pompous asses though most of them are, Army officers are really not much more than glorified clerks. The list of what an officer cannot do is far longer the list of what he can do: select subordinates, choose equipment, select a geographic path with regard to a mission, choose a strategy, etc. After a decade or more of that, you can see how even the former high school class president, football team captain, most likely to succeed guy might feel profoundly impotent.
I read my wife that passage about putting burned-out light bulbs in sockets for the husband to change. She was astonished. Ever since, whenever she finds a minor repair that needs to be done around our house, she bats her eyes and asks if her “big, strong husband” can fix it. I do fix it, but only after interrogating her as to whether she deliberately broke it to build up my self-esteem.
Being together also problematic
Not only do deployments suck, most non-deployments suck, too. Most college-educated Americans live in major metropolitan areas. They sort of need to in order to get a job matching their education. Most Army bases, on the other hand, are in rural, isolated small towns, mostly in the Southeastern part of the U.S. You get more of a feel for that from the book In a Time of War, which is about the West Point Class of 2002. It is extremely hard for a professional spouse of an officer to maintain even the flimsiest semblance of a professional career because of the isolation of the majority of military forts.
Lily Burana’s time in the military was unusual in that when her husband was not in Iraq, they were stationed briefly at Fort Meade, MD (3 miles from BWI Airport) and the rest of the time at West Point, NY (45 miles north of New York City). (Her husband was a career officer, but not a West Point graduate. That seemed to put her in a lower class among the wives at West Point.)
Nevertheless, when she and her husband lived on post in free quarters it was very uncomfortable for her. They finally figured out to live off post, which may have cost them out of pocket, but she liked it much better. It was almost totally normal. She still had to go back to post for various social functions and things like medical care and some shopping.
Never live on post
When I was in the Army, I NEVER, repeat NEVER, lived on post except in combat. I always got a “certificate of non-availability,” which enabled me to get extra pay that partly offset my housing cost, but I would have paid the whole amount out of my pocket if I had to. I NEVER would have lived on an Army base in a non-combat zone. I did live in the Bachelor Officers Quarters (BOQ) once for a month at Fort Campbell, KY when I was a cadet in July 1966. I also lived in BOQs for a day or two occasionally when I was hitching rides on military aircraft while on leave and for a couple of days at Fort Benning just before Ranger School. That was quite enough for me.
I will grant that it is possible some human beings exist who truly liked living on U.S. Army bases in the U.S., Korea, and Germany, but I shudder at the thought. About the closest I can come to describing it to you would be to suggest that when you were a kid you live at the public school you attended and your teachers and fellow students all lived on the same block or in the same apartment building with you. Or if you had to live in the same tight neighborhood with all the executives including your bosses and your colleagues from your current civilian job—and their authority over you applied to the way you lived after work hours and on weekends. OK, you got that picture? Now understand the Army is worse than that sounds. Lily said living on post is referred to by military officers and their wives as living in the fishbowl because your fellow officers and their wives can often see and even hear much of your off-duty life.
In my article “Should you go to, or stay at, West Point,” I noted that I scored high on a test that measured masochism among other traits. I said my fellow West Point cadets probably would do the same if they had taken that test. I think West Point attracts people with a masochistic streak.
Career Army wife status also apparently attracts masochistic women. First, there is the fact that Lily Burana spent some of her spare time cutting her legs with an X-Acto razor knife on multiple occasions. Wow! Then there is the general way they and she talk. I had heard it before when I was in the Army. Her book reminded me of how they think and talk about their lives. They remind me of the joke “How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb?” “Never mind. I’ll just sit in the dark.” Or, in light of the above anecdote, “Oh, that? I screwed that burned-out light bulb into that socket myself so my pathetic husband would feel needed, competent, and important when he changed it.”
There is a lot of “Woe is us” and “Nobody knows de troubles I see” whining among Army officers and their wives. Am I criticizing them for whining? No. Apparently there are chat groups on line where they do such whining and all threads end with one Army wife telling the whiners to suck it up and shut up.
I have some better advice. Get out of the Army, with your active-duty military spouse if possible and without him or her if necessary. Life is too short. People so inconsiderate as to subject you to that life do not deserve you. If, on the other hand, you choose to stay in the Army, then I, too, say, “Shut up. Suck it up. You made your cot (with its blankets so tight you can bounce a quarter off them). Now lie in it.”
I have a very big question for all the whiners and sobbers and cryers feeling sorry for themselves because they are separated from their spouse and family for combat tours and even long working hours in non-combat tours. “We went to war and America went to the mall.”
Whose fault is that? The whining is directed at the President, Congress, the chain of command, and the American public voters who do not give enough money and perks to the current and former active-duty personnel and their families. I don’t want to hear one word of it. Not one syllable.
It’s a freaking all-volunteer Army, folks! As Shakespeare had Cassius put it in Julius Caesar Part I, i 140-141
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our [bosses who wear] stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
If you are an Army officer’s wife, and you are angry at your general situation or some episodic crap you just had to deal with, blame no one but your husband—and yourself for marrying him then remaining with him after he declined to resign from the Army. Being on active duty in the Army is now voluntary. So is being married to someone who is on active duty in the military. You made your cot, and continue to remake it every day you stay in. So lie in it. And shut up about it. You chose it, remember? You are still choosing it. No one is doing any of this to you other than your active-duty spouse. Blame him or her—or blame no one.
I have seen a number of war movies where one of the subplots was the junior officer son who resents his career officer father for never being around when the kid was growing up. Often, the parents got divorced and the father and son were estranged then end up in the same unit or vicinity in the war. Very dramatic if you are a screen writer; very sad if you are the real-life father, wife, or son in question. Life is too short to do this to your kids or your spouse.
A recurring theme in the book is that all the patriotic selfless servant warriors and their patriotic selfless wives, “just want the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan to be over.” I don’t understand. Get out of the Army and it will be over for you. But you say, then someone else will have to go. No. They can do the same. During Vietnam, which was largely fought by draftees, anti-war protestors were fond of a sign that said,
What if they gave a war and no one came?
Here’s another one for you in our all-volunteer military era:
What if they gave a war and no one volunteered?
What if Mike Burana and all the other active-duty men and women left the military when their current commitment was up—and no one else volunteered to replace them because the current wars are not worth the price being paid for them? The wars would then have to be canceled for lack of interest on the part of those who are supposed to risk dying in them. Mike Burana and his fellows and their wives are enablers when it comes to dubious wars. If the American people are not willing to be drafted to fight in a war, then that war should not be waged. See my article on the need for a draft.
The Perfect Army Wife
Burana makes much of how much she hates the Perfect Army Wife and the women who seemed to be living up to that and pressuring her to do the same. She is at her most humorous when she writes about that sort of stuff. Not my area of expertise, but I strongly recommend that caring husbands and prospective Army wives read what Burana says about that pressure. This is part of the living-on-post stuff. Only when you live in an isolated Army base with your boss and your husband’s competitors for promotions does this nonsense oppress so much. I understand there is a civilian counterpart to this, but it is generally greatly muted compared to the still virulent Army version of it.
She tells of one Army wife who upon hearing Burana’s husband was a major made a point of telling her that hers was a colonel (outranks a major). She then asks when they got married and how many children they have. (Recently and none) According to Burana, the colonel’s wife seems displeased with every answer. The Colonel’s wife finally ends with, “So where did you meet your husband? In a bar?”
Not per se, but given her prior career as a stripper, etc., she could well have.
The petty pecking order among officers’ wives
Another officer wife whose husband graduated from West Point asked if Lily’s did. No. Lily said the wife pursed her lips in apparent displeasure. I surmise there is a sort of middle school cafeteria, in-crowd, status ladder among officers wives based on rank, source of commission, etc. Later in the book I learned that your status as an officer’s wife also consists of how many deployments you have suffered through, how many kids you have, how long you have been married, your husband’s patches and medals and other awards. Seems like the officer’s wives ought to wear a duplicate feminine style uniform so they don’t have to work all this into the conversation when they first meet someone.
They literally do have so-called West Point miniature rings for the wives. All West Pointers (but me) buy a class ring. Many get their fiancees a miniature version of it to be her engagement ring. I am not kidding. I did not get a ring because I do not like rings. I also never got a wedding ring. I am allowed to buy my West Point class ring at any time, which as one of the reasons I felt no pressure to do so back in the day.
The thought never occurred to me to get my wife a West Point miniature, which I am also authorized to do any time I want. (I just asked my wife what she would have thought of my getting her a West Point miniature engagement ring. She thought about it for a second and said, “Back then, I might have liked it.”) The one she wears has a unique, simple, but elegant design. I like it better and she does now. The West Point miniature looks like it sounds. The phrase used at West Point to describe the male ring is “a crass mass of brass and glass.” That’s accurate. The miniature is about half the size of the “crass mass.” Reminds me of a high school graduation ring. I also did not buy a class ring at my graduate school, Harvard Business. But my wife, who was in the class behind me, did. It resembles a West Point miniature. But I do not recall seeing her wear it lately. Maybe just for reunions.
Lily later figured out that the woman who asked if she met her husband in a bar would have never asked such a question if their husband’s ranks had been reversed, that is, if Lily’s husband had outranked the other woman’s. Lily continued,
She relished her place, and wanted to remind me of mine.
That woman’s a piece of crap. They taught us at West Point that a superior never thinks of his rank and a subordinate never forgets it. I think that’s a little obsequious but it captures the proper superior attitude toward rank. Unfortunately, not all superiors in the Army behave in accordance with that admonition.
What kind of men allow their wives to be treated in this way? Not my kind.
True to the title of her book, Lily seemed to have fallen in love with her future husband at first sight. He was in uniform. I always thought Army uniforms were the least attractive of the various services. Who wears green suits? Our gray West Point cadet uniforms looked attractive, but not Army officer ones.
She loves the Dress Blues. I liked that uniform, too. She also loves the camouflage combat uniform. I think that makes the soldiers look like a bunch of camouflage-colored garbage bags—shapeless. I suspect that uniform was adopted to hide the obesity of today’s military. Our equivalent in the states was not attractive, but at least it fit like a mechanic’s shirt and pants.
Surprisingly to me, Lily says women in general are attracted romantically to men wearing Army uniforms. I have heard that, not the least in Lily’s title. But I do not recall experiencing it. I thought the navy officer’s dress uniform—double-breasted navy blue suit—was attractive, as were our cadet uniforms. But I never thought any other uniform was attractive.
I was in the Army during the Vietnam war. The anti-war feeling then was far greater than now. Demonstrators were shot dead in the U.S. 58,000 military died, not the 6,000 of Iraq/Afghanistan. Plus, the anti-war feeling then also led to an anti-all-military feeling that is not present in the 21st century. My sense of wearing a military uniform back then was that it marked us as undesirables to the college-educated women. The only time I wore a uniform on a date as an officer rather than as a cadet, was at a college graduation dance in Manhattan. While I was there, in my dress blues that Lily is so fond of, an aristocratic man pretended to mistake me for a bellhop to mock the uniform and my being in the military.
When Lily and Mike got back together after their separation, she said she felt like “I’m with the rock star” walking hand-in-hand with him in uniform near her NJ apartment. It was the combat camouflage uniform. When I was in the Army, we not allowed to wear that off base except to drive to and from off-post quarters. The only exception was we could stop to drop off or pick up dry cleaning and laundry. If you paraded around town or rode on public transportation in that uniform, you would get in trouble if you got caught. I never heard of any officer of my generation walking around civilian streets holding hands with a woman even in a class A uniform (Army suit and tie). It was allowed but what was the point? When you’re off base, you get rid of the Army work clothes. Do police or firemen walk around holding hands with their girlfriends in their uniforms? Or pro athletes?
My best friend and roommate then, later my best man, and I devised a System for meeting women when we were at West Point and in the Army. It was extraordinarily successful. (You can read all the details in my book Succeeding.) I met my wife of 34 years that way. Through our System, we met an extraordinary number of women while we were officers in the Army. None, not one, ever asked me to wear any uniform on any date, including formal affairs where the dress blues would have been relatively justified (tux rental avoidance). None ever asked to go to any of the many military dances or parties. My experience may be out of date because of Vietnam, but based on that experience, I would say that Lily is incorrectly transferring her own unique attraction to Army uniforms to other women.
In other words, if you are a guy considering going into the military, don’t count on anyone other than Lily Burana being attracted to a U.S. Army uniform.
Lily calls West Point the “fancy Army” and “military Mayberry.” As a cadet, I would also say it was the fancy Army—lots of parades and we we rarely wore fatigues. We were almost always in the equivalent of a jacket and tie during the academic year. Cadets now wear fatigues a lot, which I think is a bad idea. West Point is special and people want to be students there because it is special. The cadet uniforms are special. Army camouflage combat uniforms are ordinary within the military and on TV in civilian houses.
I would not call being a cadet “military Mayberry.” It was more like StalagLuft 13, the fictional German prison camp for allied flyers made famous by the TV sitcom Hogan’s Heroes. But from what I’ve heard, the officers living at West Point could well describe that situation as Mayberry. It’s an isolated small town with a generally anachronistic way of life.
Lily was once thrown out of the West Point fitness center for wearing a tank top (“over a black industrial-strength job bra” she adds). The women at the fitness center where I work out in an affluent suburb has plenty of women dressed like that or in more revealing tops. As far as I know there is no dress code, but I suspect if you went too nutty or risque, someone would speak to you.
Lily said, “The soul of the place was palpable.” I agree. It’s a special place. I am a little surprised that the wife of an officer who did not go to West Point would figure that out so quickly.
The role model for all Army wives: Eddie Haskell
On page 121, Lily also said she felt like the many written instructions she got as to how she was to behave as a military officer’s wife meant she had to behave like the “Eddie Haskell” character in Leave it to Beaver. Wikipedia describes him as the “archetype insincere sycophant.” Sycophant is a word I often use when describing what being an Army officer is really all about. Etiquette was extreme with zillions of thank-you gifts and thank-you notes including for the thank-you gifts.
She depicts an officer’s wife as consisting mainly of what I call OVUM. That is, activities that are Officially Voluntary but Unofficially Mandatory, like making cakes for bake sales, social functions, and miscellaneous volunteering to work in causes organized by the wives of your husband’s superiors. See my Web article on OVUM.
Lily sounds like she tried to play the assigned role but I would say she did so sporadically. For example, telling him she wanted a divorce then moving out temporarily was probably not in the wife’s instruction book.
Lily says it’s considered good form to offer a walking cadet a ride. Really!? Never heard of such a thing when I was a cadet, even if it was pouring rain of sleeting sideways. Never.
Lily says West Point is an irony-free zone.
The weirdest thing about West Point to her was that no one ever discussed the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can explain that. It’s like the fact that the Hawaiian language has no word for weather. It never changes. The additional reason within the Army officer corps is that it is a political organization run at the top by 536 politicians (President and Congress). You are not allowed to deviate from the party line when you are a political operative. We discussed it a little when I was a cadet, but mostly with regard to our assignment, not much about the wisdom or morality of it. We cared about the morality, but felt we were too ignorant of the details of the high-level thinking to second-guess it.
Lily’s account of their courtship had a sweet, Love Story quality to it. Not syrupy, but the sort of romantic kidding around engaged in by fictional Harvard students Jennifer Cavileri and Oliver Barrett IV in that movie. But again, I was put off by the teenage level immaturity of it all. I was not that smooth as a teenager or a cadet. But by the time I was 25 I was well over what Lily describes going on between her and Mike. Among other things, he was big on the opening doors and helping the lady with her coat. Oookay, but that seems a bit contrived and anachronistic these days. The notion that women need such help seems very 1950s. This is 2009.
Burana lives in constant fear that her imperfections, “don’t try this at home” background and ongoing dramas will hurt her husband’s career. Although she did not worry enough to refrain from writing the book.
Will it hurt her husband’s career? Well, he got promoted from major to lieutenant colonel during the time covered by the book. But I would be surprised if he ever gets another promotion. Lieutenant colonel is the final default rank for a career Army officer who did not do well. I think it’s impossible to stay in for 20 years as an officer and not be a lieutenant colonel. They have an up-or-out policy and you would be too overdue for lieutenant colonel at 20 years. I would be astonished if Lieutenant Colonel Burana ever gets promoted to Colonel Burana. Why? His wife. She is not politically correct in what is an extremely political organization, and that’s not the half of it. I expect they will let him get to 20 so he can retire with benefits, but I think his wife’s writing and actions will, indeed, prevent any more promotions. She’s not their kind.
In fact, many a career officer’s career has probably been ended by a wife who was trying her best to be the Perfect Army Wife and still did not manage to impress all her husband’s bosses all the time. Burana made only sporadic efforts in that direction and engaged in great amounts of “imperfect” behavior before and during her husband’s career.
‘Had not done the time’
For one thing, she sensed resentment that she was a second wife—and one with no kids. It meant she had not “done the time.” It is telling that that phrase comes from convict slang. Interesting that Army wives use prison metaphors to describe their “how dare you say our life sucks” lives. It meant that she never had to be a lieutenant’s or a captain’s wife, putting up with making cakes for every bake sale the major’s wife demanded and other indignities.
There even seems to be a required personality and demeanor for career Army officers wives. If yours are different, your husband’s career, and you, will suffer for it.
There are taboo topics, most notably whether our current wars ought to be fought.
Plebe level of maturity
When my classmates and I entered West Point, most of us had never been in the military and our fathers were not career military. When it’s all new to you, and you are 17 as I was, or 18 as most of us were, things military are quite fascinating: the uniforms, language, customs, rank, and so on. However, we got over that by our sophomore year at West Point. Oddly, although they are apparently in their 30s and have been in the military for years, neither Lily nor her husband Mike seem to have gotten over their “plebe” year fascination with military stuff.
That creeped me out about her a little and about him a lot. After 10 or 15 years he still finds military jargon so fascinating and teaches it to his wife!? I think the only military jargon my wife knows is PDA which stands for Public Display of Affection, an activity that was prohibited at West Point whether you were a cadet or an officer, single or married. For example, it was strictly forbidden for a cadet to hold hands with a “young lady” in public view.
Lily Burana teaches her readers all sorts of military terminology and slang, some of it crude, and official acronyms and abbreviations. Even the women I dated when I was a cadet and officer never knew that stuff. After I graduated from West Point, I do not believe any woman I ever dated ever saw me in uniform except for one who asked me to be her date at her college graduation dance in New York City. I wore my Dress Blues instead of renting a tux. I NEVER took a woman I was dating onto an Army base. I do not recall ever showing any such woman photos of me in uniform although my wife eventually saw some. Uniforms, military bases, and other military stuff were a big part of Mike’s courtship of Lily. Very creepy to me. A 30-year old acting like an 18-year old. I guess it partly explains why he is still in in spite of all the hardships. He’s an overgrown kid still playing Army.
Have you ever killed anyone?
At one point in their courtship, Lily asked Mike if he had ever killed anyone in combat.
He got very angry and said, “I have friends in the Army I’ve known for fifteen years, and we don’t even ask each other that question.”
Ooookay. I guess I never asked anyone that question nor did I ever get asked it by a fellow soldier. When I coached high school football my players asked. I told them I had never fired my weapon in Vietnam because I never saw the enemy.
If one of my classmates ever asked me that I would have said, “No. You?”
I have read a number of books and articles where a combat veteran told the details of killing an enemy soldier. I have also seen vets interviewed on TV tell about killing enemy soldiers. There is no taboo on talking about it. Nor is there any great desire to talk about it among those who had to do it.
Why did we not ask? No particular reason. We were active-duty West Point graduates who had done a tour in Vietnam in a war. In that war, you would ask what unit a guy was in and where they were stationed in country. That pretty much told you how “hot” their tour was and you interpolated the details.
Funeral-type topic of conversation
When I visited one of my former cadet roommates after the war, I asked him how he got his two purple hearts. He told me matter of factly without hesitation. His wife, who was sitting with us, commented it was the first time she ever heard the story. There is nothing mysterious about it. Those who were in firefights will tell you about them if you ask, but they do not volunteer it in my experience. Why? Are they being modest? Partly, I guess, but probably more because people often died in the events in question, both friendly and enemy. The death of a guy you knew or an enemy you didn’t is a sobering experience. My roommate was wounded by a burst of gunfire that killed the guy next to him. So you do not run to babble excitedly about it to your friends just as you would not do that after attending your first funeral.
Mike was in the infantry for his first tour in Iraq; military intelligence for the second. The infantry can be quite hot combat-wise. Military intelligence seems more like paper, aerial photo, and map work to me. So I do not know what he was involved in during his first tour.
But I must relate a moment from my tour in Vietnam. We were changing the reel of a movie at Plantation Post near Long Binh. I jokingly said to the assembled officers, “Gentlemen, you may wonder as we sit here watching these free, first-run movies in this air-conditioned mess hall how you might answer the question, ‘What did you do during the war, daddy?’ from some future child of yours. I suggest that you just look off into the distance and say, ‘I don’t want to talk about it’.’”
Lily’s reaction to Mike’s reaction was,
It was then that I felt the full gravity of his profession. This was a real warrior with real principles.
I also watched movies out in the open air at night at forward bases like Bunard and Fire Base Wade where the only thing between us and the enemy in the jungle was a roll of concertina (barbed razor) wire and a berm. If Lily’s book had been a movie that we were watching, even at one of those front-line bases, we would have laughed out loud at that line.
Not a profession
First, contrary to what career military incessantly claim, it is not a profession. Professions are law, medicine, architecture, NFL football, and so on. You have to get an advanced degree and know a whole lot of stuff about the subject. Many Army officers, including Mike, have advanced degrees, but they are almost all in subjects unrelated to the military like math or English literature or mechanics of fluids, apparently history in his case. The career of a military officer looks like that of a temp with a nomadic, eclectic variety of desk jobs, occasional combat-zone tours, Army-run schools of dubious value, exchange tours with foreign armies or other U.S. branches, recruiting posts, etc.
A professional is a specialist. Army officers (other than the true professionals like JAG and MDs) are required to be jack-of-all-trades dilettantes. Army officers do not master the profession of killing enemy soldiers, they merely dabble in it and talk about it and dress the part for about 95% of their decades-long careers. On his second tour in Iraq, husband Mike was a military intelligence, not infantry, officer assigned to a reserve unit. Full-time Army officers are dabblers, not professionals. Reservist are part-time dabblers. They dabble at dabbling.
‘Cup of coffee’
Professional baseball players in the minor leagues are often asked if they ever made it to the Majors. A common answer is, “I had a cup of coffee in September of _____ with the [team name].” It means they got called up to the Major Leagues for several days or weeks at the end of the season when rosters are expanded slightly by rule. The vast majority of Army officers have never been in firefights (U.S. and enemy forces shooting at each other for a few minutes or longer). And almost all of the few that have been in firefights had a “cup of coffee” combat-wise. A “cup of coffee” does not a “professional” make.
If the Army ran an NFL team, a player would only play for a couple of seasons—separated by several years. He would spend the rest of his career selling hot dogs for a couple of years, working at a desk job at NFL headquarters for a couple of years, getting a graduate degree in kinesiology or business, a couple of years of coaching linebackers, couple of years in the team public relations office, a year working for an NBA team in the front office, and so on. To call such a person a “professional football player” would be stretching it.
Professional versus amateur
Then there is the distinction between a professional and an amateur. Army officers get paid to be in the Army. But they do not get paid for killing enemy. It is an extremely rare event and most career military never killed a single enemy. Even those who did it probably have spent less than one hour doing so in their whole career on average. It’s hard to get very good or professional at something you do once in a lifetime. If Army officers were paid solely by bounties on dead enemy fighters, they would starve to death (and/or become the true “professionals” they generally falsely claim to be).
As to the warrior name, see my article on whether career Army people are the selfless servant warriors they like to call themselves in recent years.
I would also point out to Lily that her husband, the “selfless servant warrior,” was, in fact, a desk jockey throughout her book and her relationship with him. When she met him, he taught history at West Point. (One of my former cadet roommates was the dean of West Point then. I did not discuss Burana with him.) When they first married, he was a desk jockey at Fort Meade, MD. Then he was a combat desk jockey in a reserve MI unit in Iraq. (Indeed, on page 118, she says he was ashamed of his second tour job where he described himself as a “REMF.” The first three letters stand for Rear Echelon Mother. In Vietnam they were called RAMFs where the A stood for Area. He refused to wear his second tour combat patch on his right shoulder and wore his first-tour patch—the First Infantry Division instead all the time. He was authorized to wear either or alternate wearing one on one uniform and the other on a second uniform. You wear your current unit patch on the left shoulder. If you were never in combat, you wear no patch on the right shoulder.)
Then he went back to West Point to be a deck jockey on the Superintendent’s staff (top commander at West Point). As a Military Intelligence lieutenant colonel, he is extremely unlikely to be anything other than a desk jockey for the rest of his career. At best, he had some war-movie-type experiences during his first tour in Iraq as an infantry officer. So maybe he is a former “warrior.” But that sort of self description is maudlin, melodramatic self-aggrandizement, not to mention an outlandish, childish exaggeration coming out of the mouth of a current and future career desk jockey.
Maybe the answer is no
Mike may have real principles, but refusing to talk about killing enemy soldiers is not one of them. If it is sincere and not some melodramatic trick to make himself seem like a “professional warrior with real principles,” it is nothing but his personal taste. At worst, it could be that his answer to the question would be, “No, I was never in a firefight” and that he is simply embarrassed about his lack of firefight experience perhaps in the context of his having played up his action-hero image previously.
There is one substantial reason to believe that: army officers generally are not supposed to fire their weapons even in a firefight with the enemy. In my first training firefight at West Point when I was a plebe (freshman), I was charging up a hill at the “aggressors” leading my squad. Like the others, I blasted away at the enemy with my rifle (firing blanks). When the “battle” was over, the officer observing criticized me for firing my rifle. “You’re the squad leader, Mister, not a rifleman. Your job was to direct the squad. You should have been coordinating one fire team laying down a base of fire at the enemy while the other advanced toward the enemy. Instead, we had a leaderless squad of 10 guys all running up a hill shooting.”
In firefights, platoon leaders and company commanders direct their squads and platoons in firing at and maneuvering against the enemy to capture the objective. They also call for supporting fire from mortars, artillery, and/or aircraft. And they monitor the health and supply levels of the men and call for medevacs and ammunition and water and food resupply as needed. A platoon leader or company commander would only fire his weapon in an unusual situation like the one in the true story We Were Soldiers Once, and Young which was also the movie We Were Soldiers. In that movie, the battalion commander, a lieutenant colonel, was doing the stuff I just said he would be doing when an enemy soldier suddenly charged him from 20 feet or so away. The battalion commander shot him dead, the only shot he fired in the multi-day heavy fighting in that actual Battle of the Ia Drang Valley.
Furthermore, in Iraq, the enemy usually attacks by suicide bomber or cell phone IED. There is no one to shoot at when the attacks happens because it’s over as soon as it starts and either the enemy killed himself or the Americans have no idea where the enemy is. It’s not a firefight. It bears most resemblance to an injury car accident. About all the “warriors” can do is administer first aid and call for an ambulance. Not really a military activity—more Emergency Medical Technician in nature.
So there is a very good chance that Mike Burana never shot an enemy because such actions were below his pay grade and/or because hardly anyone ever gets to shoot at the enemy in Iraq. If that is the case, I would think a simple “No” in answer to his wife’s question would suffice. If the answer is no, what was all the drama about?
Embarrassed about lack of combat experience
I worked on my class’s 40th reunion memory book and I was surprised that a number of my West Point classmates were embarrassed about not having been in a firefight in Vietnam. Those who had been told the others they were foolish to feel embarrassed. It was just the fortunes of war. I was never in a firefight there, but I could have been had the the enemy chosen to attack because I had to travel all around as a communications guy including to forward areas. My attitude about it was that I had done far more than most guys my age in 1969 and 1970 to put myself in places where firefights were possible. I was lucky and grateful that I did not get into any per se. I never felt bad about it. Like they say: fortunes of war. C’est la guerre.
Actions versus words
On page 62 of her book, Lily says, before he shipped out to Iraq for his second tour there, she
found him sitting on the side of the bed, shoulders slumped. “I don’t want to see any more dead people,” he moaned.
Apparently he does, because he stayed in the Army after the first tour instead of getting out. Actions speak louder than words. Saying one thing and doing another is hypocrisy. Also, I thought military officers were supposed to be decisive, hard-charging guys. Major Mike Burana sounds like some agonizingly indecisive teenage Hamlet.
Pearl Buck quote
At the beginning of Chapter 6, Burana has this quote:
The bitterest creature under heaven is the wife who discovers that her husband’s bravery is only bravado, that his strength is only a uniform, that his power is but a gun in the hands of a fool.
Pearl S. Buck
I am not sure what Pearl Buck meant by that. She is the Pulitzer and Nobel prize-winning author of many novels most prominently The Good Earth. She grew up in China, the setting of the Good Earth. If any readers can enlighten me as to the context and meaning of the above quote I would appreciate it. I got no help from Googling it. One reader said it’s from To My Daughters, With Love published in 1967 but he did not know the context or meaning of it.
I do not think Lily is referring to Mike when she quotes Buck. She seems quite enamored of his whole military image. There is a lot of bravado in the Army. Bravado means “blustery pretended courage.” But I must say there is plenty of bravery, too. A soldier who has never been in battle is encouraged from day one in the Army to exhibit bravado. But when the shooting hits the fan, most react according to their training and fight back bravely. It is a self-fulfilling prophesy. Veterans usually say that in interviews, that you fall back on your training which creates artificial instincts that are pretty close to correct for the situation. After the Battle of Iwo Jima, Admiral Nimitz observed that in that battle,
Uncommon valor was a common virtue.
We have courageous military people
But I think it could be applied to most of every war the U.S. has ever fought. With occasional exceptions like some of the transport pilots who dropped the paratroopers on D-Day or American units in the early days of the Korean war, America can be proud of the bravery of its military personnel. I think the salient sign of bravery is a phrase General Westmoreland used as the theme of a speech he made to us during my senior year at West Point. He had been head of the war in Vietnam and was Chief of Staff of the Army at the time of the speech. The phrase was,
March to the sound of the guns
It means to walk toward the gunfire. He meant for us to volunteer for Vietnam. I resented his giving such advice. It was our life, not his. But I guess it had an effect because I subsequently volunteered for Vietnam and went there. I could have chosen Germany or Korea instead, although most of my classmates who did got to Vietnam a year later anyway.
The fact is, American soldiers do march to the sound of the guns. They have since the nation’s birth. Furthermore, when you think about it, few other nations have soldiers who do that. I knew a Chinese World War II veteran. He said they complained that RAF meant “run away fast” because that’s what the British did at the outset of World War II where he was in China. (The British generally have fought bravely in their many wars.) He was also with the American Volunteer Group (AVG) of pilots who fought against the Japanese around the time the British were leaving—and prior to America entering the war after Pearl Harbor. The Chinese, noting the contrast between the RAF and AVG response to the Japanese attacks in China, said the letters AVG meant “Americans Very Good.” Nations with armies that often have fought bravely include Britain, America, Germany, Russia, Canada, Australia, Japan. Countries that have surrendered in large numbers include Iraqis, World War II Italian Army soldiers (not Italian-Americans in the U.S. Army).
My take on bravado versus bravery in the U.S. military is that there is much bravado among rookies, indeed, it is required by the sergeants and officers training them. But it generally metamorphoses into true bravery in combat when the occasion arises.
I do agree that current and former U.S. military personnel often imply, by their uniforms, medals, words, and what they leave unsaid, that they saw far more combat than they actually saw. Most U.S. military career people in the 20th and 21st centuries probably were never in a firefight. Today’s active-duty military typically have experienced IEDs from one distance or another, in Iraq and/or Afghanistan, just as most of us Vietnam veterans experienced enemy rocket attacks against our bases. But an IED attack is something that happens to you and is over as soon as it starts. There is no opportunity to exhibit either bravery or cowardice.
I’ve got your six
Lily was also fascinated with the concept of “I’ve got your six.” That is pilot talk for six o’clock meaning your rear. First, we did not say that in Vietnam. We said something less jargonish like, “I’ll take the rear.” Having someone watch each of the four directions in enemy territory was common sense and standard procedure. She says,
When I heard the meaning behind ”I’ve got your six,” my eyes started to tear up, because it represented a spot of tenderness under all that masculine armor. Also, it emphasized the tremendous loyalty among troops, which I was coming to realize, had a depth beyond my comprehension.
OK. I’ll buy all that. I find the “your six” phraseology a bit melodramatic, but not enough to complain about. It also might be misunderstood by a rookie who would understand the word “rear.”
After soldiers have seen someone get wounded or killed, even just an enemy dead body, they sober up about the action-hero, war-movie crap and they are thereafter genuinely, primarily, and profoundly concerned about the safety of their fellows. If Lily had any children, I think she would have comprehended it just fine. When my wife had our first child and I was in the delivery room I felt like I was helping a badly wounded soldier in battle. I did not do that in combat, but we had very realistic combat first-aid training including gruesome battle wounds. Also, commanders feel extra responsibility for injuries to their men because they have made pertinent decisions leading up to the injuries. One’s maternal and paternal instincts to protect your children capture that feeling quite well.
I was not much aware of this when I was in the military briefly (four years after West Point), but apparently non-military people stereotype those who are in the military or married to military. To a large extent, the military deserve it.
The military is a very narrow approach to life and I think those who stay for a career do fit a certain personality type and do have more limited ambitions than non-military. They also associate primarily with other military. Military life is so regimented that many normal variations among people within it are prohibited almost by definition. However, I at least as much as others am aware that under each uniform beats the heart of an individual. That is more true of wives, who only are subject to about 20% as much regimentation. Certainly Lily Burana, former stripper, lap dancer, peep show performer, is not your usual Army colonel’s wife.
She also resented civilians assuming she was pro-war. She is not. Or that her husband had a personal gun in the house. He does not. But I have to defend the civilians a little. Those are not unreasonable expectations considering Lily’s husband is spending at least 20 years in the Army and has been to Iraq twice and calls himself a “warrior.”
Here is an item I added to my discussion of U.S. Army paratroopers after reading Burana’s book.
Pounding wings into bare chests
Years ago, I saw a video that showed Soviet paratroop school NCOs putting the metal airborne wings on the bare chest of recent graduates and pounding them into their chests with the heels of their hands. The wings have two pointed 1/4-inch long spikes on the back. They are supposed to go through the fabric of the uniform and go into two squeeze-and-release catches like some earrings women wear with pierced ears.
The Soviet video was gross and stupid and gratuitously brutal. The Soviet Army announced the practice had been banned as soon as the video was seen around the world.
Then, in 2009, I read this on page 102 of I Love a Man in Uniform by Lily Burana about her husband U.S. Army major Mike Burana:
...his airborne wings were pounded into his chest at Fort Benning. “Want your blood wings, soldier?” the training company commander asked. Mike shouted, “Hooah, sir!” and the instructor smashed the heel of his palm into the wings so that they pierced the skin just above Mike’s heart.
You gotta be shitting me! Idiot grade school dropouts in the Soviet Army do this, embarrass their country by doing so, and get the practice banned by the grown-ups who ran the Soviet Union. Then the U.S. Army officer corps sees that video and says, “Hey, that’s really cool! We should do that, too.”
No such thing was done in any U.S. military unit when I was in. It sounds like a very bad idea from a health standpoint. The two spikes on the back of the wings are 1/4 inch long. Punching a trainee is something that the Marines used to do routinely. They were ordered to stop. It is assault and battery, a felony. Now we’re back to doing it inspired by some of the dumbest guys in a brutal Communist dictatorship.
What does it prove—other than the elementary school immaturity of the trainers at Airborne School and the lack of adult supervision by the Army brass?
I surmise that Burana was favorably impressed that her husband went through this experience. There’s no accounting for taste.
Does he also eat nails or broken glass?
Burana also was impressed that husband Mike knew to chew match heads so mosquitoes don’t bite you because of the sulfur in your bloodstream. Uh huh. Back in the dark ages, we Vietnam soldiers used mosquito repellent and mosquito nets. You can see a bottle of mosquito repellent in the helmet band of soldiers in the movie Platoon. I also took my malaria pill every day as directed by our superiors. Most other soldiers and officers did not because they heard it upset your stomach. (It did not if you took it on a full stomach as directed.)
Once, I was a patient in a quonset hut hospital ward in Vietnam. A doctor stood at the door and asked the entire room if any of us did NOT have malaria (malaria infection comes from mosquito bites). I raised my hand. No one else did. “What are you here for?” “Fever of unknown origin, sir.” Then he asked if any of us took our malaria pills every day since we got to Vietnam. Again, I was the only one to raise my hand. The doctor did a shoulder shrug and displayed the palms of his hands in a Q.E.D. gesture and strode away shaking his head at the stupidity of the vast majority of U.S. military personnel.
Now, in the 21st century, medical geniuses like Lt Col. Mike Burana have come up with a better solution: chewing match heads. I Googled that and found the following in a discussion group on the Internet:
I was so hoping that this was a joke but it seems that you are serious. Phosphorous (used to make matches) is a poison! Just because you can't see or feel any effects doesn't mean there isn't damage on the inside. Here's some info describing the plight of the 'match girls' who worked in London in the 1800s:
"Annie Besant also discovered that the health of the women had been severely affected by the phosphorous that they used to make the matches. This caused yellowing of the skin and hair loss and phossy jaw, a form of bone cancer. The whole side of the face turned green and then black, discharging foul-smelling pus and finally death. Although phosphorous was banned in Sweden and the USA, the British government had refused to follow their example, arguing that it would be a restraint of free trade. "
These women were only making the matches, not chewing them. Moral of the story: never chew on match heads under any circumstances!
Memo to Ltc. Burana: You are too dumb to be a spec. 4, let alone a lieutenant colonel. Wise up before your men get hurt by your astonishing corner-tavern ignorance.
Memo to Mrs. Burana: Use substances composed of chemicals as directed by the manufacturer and/or your physician. Do not ingest substances not approved by the FDA for oral consumption. Do not rely on U.S. Army infantry or military intelligence [sic] officers for medical advice. Put your husband in some sort of adult day care before he injures himself.
Lily is a professional writer. I Love a Man in Uniform is not her first book. She also wrote articles for periodicals. I am also a professional writer. One of the things that happens to professional writers, although apparently not to Lily, is you tend to be layman casual about checking facts when you start. But your tens of thousands of readers always include experts in the field. And when you get a fact wrong, they tell you. Ouch! So you learn rather quickly to check stuff before you write it more than a layman would shooting the bull with a friend. Lily should have checked out the match-chewing stuff. So should her editors. I am not impressed with the professionalism of either Lily or her editors (Weinstein Books, NYC) on that score.
Then there is Lieutenant Colonel Mike. The guy is in his 30s, was a history teacher at West Point and he still hasn’t learned how to do his homework before he writes something or lets his wife write it on his behalf. My wife proofreads a lot of my stuff. In view of the fact that he is a career bureaucrat in the federal government, the colonel sure as hell should have proof read this book before it went to press. When he saw the match-chewing passage, he should have said, “You know what, Lily, let me ask one of the doctors at the base hospital about that before you put in in the book.”
Lily is impressed with the “gravity of his professionalism.” I am having trouble finding any evidence of the existence of his professionalism. I see no indication in her book that Mike is anything but a federal bureaucrat hack who talks a good game and dresses the part, but who really has no discernible skill or experience at any job that lasted more than a year or two.
Burana was also really impressed by husband Mike telling her,
how to scare away coyotes nosing around your tent by making a coyote shaker out of a handful of pennies in an empty soda can sealed with duct tape.
Actually, we used that in Vietnam. Coyotes were not the problem. The enemy was. We put stones, not pennies, into the cans. We did not carry pennies in Vietnam. They would make noise in your pocket, perhaps when you were sneaking around near the enemy. Also, we did not encounter a lot of penny gumball machines in the jungle. We jumped up and down before patrols to detect any such noisemakers on our person. Standard ranger handbook stuff.
Copper and aluminum are dissimilar metals. When dissimilar metals touch for a prolonged period, especially in the presence of moisture, like months or years lying in a can in monsoonish in Vietnam, galvanic corrosion occurs. Copper and aluminum are a combination that does suffer galvanic corrosion. Over time, the pennies would likely corrode and thereby fuse with the aluminum, destroying their noisemaker role.
In Vietnam, the cans were hung from the coils of concertina wire around our camps. We did not use any duct tape because there was no need and it would mute the noise the cans made if they were jarred. Unfortunately, the enemy sappers were quite knowledgeable and skilled so they would typically cut down the cans without jostling them as they came through the wire excruciatingly slowly and carefully. They were naked to avoid catching clothing on the razor wire. I kid you not.
We have coyotes where I currently live. They are no bother except to the occasional small pet or farm animal and rarely to a small child. I am no expert, but I think it would be almost certain that the coyote would detect the wire on which the can were suspended, and the human smell on it. He would not recognize the purpose of the wire or can, but he would refrain from touching it just as a general principle because of the human odor and unnatural nature of a wire and can. In Vietnam, our scout dogs could hear trip wires from the slight vibration they made in the breeze. They would steer soldiers away from the trip wires which were connected to live grenade pins, bouncing Betty, and other types of mines.
Ltc. Burana seems to be a prodigious collector of Army old wives tales. Apparently, he found that they attract the chicks.
Soldiers are so hot
Lily’s next sentence after telling about the airborne wings stabbing, match chewing, and pennies in the soda can is,
You know what else is hot about soldiers?
I roll my eyes.
She goes on.
There’s something deeply stirring about a man responding to the call of duty, and in hearing war stories delivered with a strong dose of modesty.
OK. But I must note the guy volunteered to be in the Army. All U.S. citizens have a duty to defend their country. My dad and uncles were drafted in World War II and answered that call of duty. When they were allowed to leave they Army, they instantly did. That was all duty. When you volunteer for it, and stay in longer than required by an education or other temporary indentured servitude commitment, it is at best a mixture of duty and personal taste as to how to spend your life. A guy being in the Army is less stirring duty-wise when it is his lifestyle choice.
Indeed, given the danger and separation from family, I would think a psychiatric evaluation is in order to ascertain whether the individual in question is motivated by sane, rational, mature, honest reasons. I think a lot of the people in the military are trying to prove their manhood and such. Most men are able to do that in normal adult life by getting a job, marrying, raising kids, and so forth. We also get some of that out of our systems by playing sports. I must admit I did much the same as Ltc. Mike—but when I was 17, not 33 or whatever he is. By the time I was 20, I was locked in for seven more years to pay back my West Point education. I got out as soon as I could after I realized I had made a mistake.
Almost all real combat veterans deliver war stories, if at all, with modesty. You can see many of them interviewed on TV on the History or Military channels. They all say they were just doing their job, that the guys who didn’t come back were the heroes, and so on. I cannot tell what Mike Burana did or did not do during his first tour in Iraq as an infantry platoon leader. His wife makes no mention of any bravery medals. Seems like he sure would have “modestly” told her about them given all the other military info he feel compelled to share. Perhaps he is like the man of whom Winston Churchill once said,
He is a modest man, but then he has much to be modest about.
Soldiers hate war
Lily quotes her husband as saying “no one hates war more than a soldier.” That’s an ancient line. It is logical, but I am not sure that it is true. In the movie Patton, the eponymous general admits to loving war. A day or two after World War II ended, John McCain’s big shot admiral grandfather complained he was lost with nothing to do. He dropped dead several days later. Promotions speed way up during wars. Officers can get their “combat” career ticket punched and get medals that help get promotions (or so they think) in wars.
I think the correct statement is that no one hates war more than a draftee soldier or a volunteer soldier who cannot wait to get out of the military after one tour in combat. With regard to the Mike Burana’s of the world, I say their actions speak louder than their words. If you do two tours in Iraq in an all-volunteer Army, your actions say you don’t hate war, don’t hate being separated from your wife. On the contrary. Indeed, I expect he will end up on a third tour in Iraq or Afghanistan in the near future. If that’s hating war, what does loving war look like? Could he have spent any more time in combat zones than he has? If not, I am unable to see any actions on his part that suggest he hates war.
Many loved being in Vietnam
In Vietnam, some enlisted men loved being there. So did some officers. They would extend repeatedly. If they were forced home, they would immediately try to get back as fast as possible. The enlisted men preferred the relative lack of chicken shit in Vietnam. They also liked the cheap whores and drugs. The career officers who extended thought they were earning career points. Some generals stayed there continuously for years.
The 6/15/09 Newsweek has a story on page 36 called “Love is a battlefield—For some soldiers, there’s no place like combat.” It starts with these two paragraphs.
Staff Sgt. Shaun McBride would rather be in a war zone than at home. He likes the adrenaline, he says, “even the fear someone can shoot you.” He hates the petty responsibilities of home life, the bills and the family issues.
He’s clocked 43 months in Afghanistan and Iraq. His first wife of three years sent him divorce papers while he was fighting Taliban militants—she wanted to marry a friend of his.
For the record, I preferred being in the forward areas in Vietnam because it got me away from the goddamned lifers. Yes, it put me closer to the enemy who wanted to kill or capture me, but for reasons I cannot explain, I preferred them to my superiors. For one thing, the enemy was honest about what they were trying to do. Second point: I did sort of like the adrenaline the couple times I thought I might get shot. Actually, “like” is not the right word. It makes you feel very super aware of your surroundings—the polar opposite of daydreaming or vegging out. It is not enjoyable so much as intense and exciting. I did not have a family went I was in Vietnam, but I did have bills, which I damned well paid. Do the husbands in combat tell their wives that the husband cannot pay the bills? That’s bull! I paid mine from Vietnam. Who the hell else was going to pay them? I think the stay-home spouse ought to pay the ad hoc bills that she incurred like buying an appliance or getting repairs done. The husband lacks all the facts. But they have mail and Internet and all that in most places in Iraq and Afghanistan.
My point in relating the Newsweek story is that actions speak louder than words. If your husband is in Iraq or Afghanistan, at bottom, it is because he wants to be there. Unless he is finishing an indentured-servitude commitment as a result of having some school paid for, he can resign thereby ending deployments. If he could have resigned and did not, he wants to be in Iraq or Afghanistan as evidenced by the fact that he is there and did not have to be.
I think many over there genuinely hated people dying and getting wounded. But you bond with your buddies and feel guilty about leaving them there. Of course, you bonded with your wife, too. Pick one to be loyal to.
Not as bad as it sounds
Generally, I think guys in war, as opposed to firefights per se, thought it wasn’t so bad. Sort of like a Boy Scout camp with worse than average living conditions. We had movies, TV, good food, some entertainment like Bob Hope, camaraderie. You may think I’m talking about rear area. No. We had movies and good food at Bunard. I remember watching the movie Bullitt outdoors at night projected against a bed sheet. We were sitting in an open-air walk-in, not drive-in, theater with logs for seats. I was sure the enemy was watching the movie with us from the surrounding hills. We were at the bottom of a bowl-shaped depression in the mountains (because we needed an airstrip and you cannot build those on the militarily superior high ground).
A lot of civilian men go hunting, fishing, and camping with their male buddies. Most of war feels like that. Months of boredom punctuated by occasional moments of excitement. I remember seeing the stars very well at Bunard because it was out in the middle of nowhere in the jungle. It was beautiful at night. The enemy was nearby. One guy on a patrol out of Bunard got shot dead by them. The bullet went through his canteen. Some guys in our camp spotted them moving in the hills around us the day we arrived. But they never attacked us while my men and I were there.
It was stinking hot, dusty, boring, scary, but we had plenty of conversation and cold drinks. At bigger camps we had air-conditioned mess halls, a swimming pool made out of some sort of black rubber at one, name entertainers came to visit us although I never saw one myself. We played ping pong endlessly at one camp I was in. Volleyball at two. All of this was in Vietnam during the war. They did similar things in World War II in combat zones with officers clubs in goofy little shacks, baseball diamonds on the aprons of airfields, etc.
A 21st century West Point grad serving in Iraq said she knew junior officers who golf regularly at Victory Base Complex and have cell phones. Her more remote base has an indoor swimming pool, Pizza Hut, Burger King, and Subway. I thought such chains should have had stores in Vietnam, but they never did. I think they did not want to be associated with the extremely unpopular war. We just had PXs, clubs, and mess halls run by the military. She also knows officers who frequently eat at authentic local international restaurants and have tanning salons and daily barbecues at their outdoor pool. I do not begrudge any such comforts as long as they are not deterring getting the mission accomplished. But do not try to tell me how hard it is in combat unless you want me to start asking questions like, “How far were you from the nearest swimming pool for U.S. personnel?”
I suspect a lot of wives, including Lily Burana, would be surprised at the most-of-the-time lifestyle of soldiers in Iraq or Afghanistan. GIs have always been ingenious at making the best of a bad situation. In the movie and musical South Pacific, the sailors put on a stage show with guys wearing hula skirts and coconut bras. We did lots of stuff like that to try to pass the time and enjoy ourselves a little. I’ll bet if Lily had visited her “warrior” husband in Iraq she would have said that it was not near as bad as she thought. Hot and lousy living quarters, yes. Occasional enemy attacks, yes. But plenty of cold drinks, good food, movies, videos, video games, camaraderie, and probably much air-conditioning indoors.
Rank on the spectrum
I have depicted Mike Burana as not the brightest bulb on the tree. You might be curious as to where he ranks on the spectrum of career Army officers. I am a West Point graduate. He is not, but he was a teacher at West Point. It is ostensibly harder to became a teacher at West Point that it is to become a graduate of West Point. So it would appear that the Army figures he outranks me and most West Point graduates in terms of brain power.
Many West Point graduates are invited back to West Point to teach. Was I? No. You had to do very well in an academic subject as a cadet to be brought back to teach it. I did extremely well in Russian. You also have to do extremely well in your first four or five years in the Amy to be invited back to West Point to teach. I did well in my first year, which was all schools. But when I started being in units, I was almost always at odds with my superiors over one thing or another. So I would never have been invited back to West Point to teach as a result of that.
Also, I would have refused. It’s a two-step process. Step one, they would have sent me to get a masters degree in Russian. Step two, I would have done probably a three-year tour at West Point teaching Russian to cadets. I would have refused on the grounds that for every year you spend in grad school, you have to stay in the Army for two more years. I would have incurred an additional four-year obligation, on top of the five-year obligation you get coming out of West Point. I wanted out of the Army ASAP. I would not have agreed to anything that required me to stay four extra hours let alone four extra years.
Furthermore, in addition to being a teacher at West Point, they liked him so much he was brought back to be on the Supe’s staff. That’s extremely unusual and means he really ranks high in the West Point spectrum. Does this mean I have adjusted my opinion of him upward? No. The fact that he was apparently West Point’s kinda guy has caused me to lower my opinion of the people who run West Point. I suspect he is super at the one skill that is really the most important in the Army: kissing ass. Read my article “The 30-year, marathon, single-elimination suck-up tournament or How America chooses its generals.”
The book gives examples of the immaturity of many career military officers. One was a West Point graduate officer at West Point who felt compelled to give you his entire resume in his how-do-you-do introduction. She also characterized him as “more hooah than you-ah.” Great line. And she said he lacked an “inside voice” delivering all conversation as if it were the Sermon on the Mount. In the civilian world, you encounter a lot of colleagues who would tell you to knock that off. In the military, it can get worse over time because your subordinates in the military never dare to criticize you and you instinctively turn all such behavior off in the presence of your superiors so they don’t know about it.
The Army has lots of guys in their 40s and 50s often behaving like high school football players—probably because they hang around with a lot of young enlisted men and lieutenants who although in their early twenties are less mature than their civilian age peers because of the play-Army nature of their day-to-day work.
Don’t read chapter 9 ‘The Whore on the Receiving Line’
Do not read this chapter. I am dead serious. It is about Lily taking her husband to a sleazy strip bar in Newburgh, NY, a town up the river from West Point. It is so gross, icky, creepy that it is the memory equivalent of a bad taste that is hard to get out of your mouth. It also serves no purpose of mine. It does not give any insights or evidence about Army career life. Lily seems to not only have been a stripper but she misses that life or is nostalgic for it. She also has some sort of inferiority complex about it and a need to give details of it to the public for catharsis or something like that. Anyway, it sounds like a personal problem of hers that not only has nothing to do with my purposes of helping readers get a more accurate fix on what it’s like to make a career of the Army, it also serves no purpose of Lily’s for three of the books in this four-books-in-one book.
Lily says on page 221 that her husband had a flashback—on the drive home from a couples therapy session where he had discussed injuries and deaths he had seen in Kuwait (“Highway of Death”—you saw it, too, on TV). By flashback, she meant he suddenly started talking and behaving as if he thought he were back in time back in Kuwait. He was awake the entire time, not waking up from a nightmare.
I have never experienced anything remotely resembling that. Nor have any of my Vietnam vet friends told me that they ever experienced any such thing. Nor have I ever seen or heard of any such thing stemming from a nonmilitary trauma.
What do I make of it in Lily’s book? I’m not sure. Between the two of them, Mike and Lily sure do produce a lot of Hollywood-style drama.
‘Our marriage would be lost to the martial rhythm of the military.’
This is a line on page 265. She is talking about the fact that while she and her husband were separated and trying to restore their marriage, he came due for reassignment. That typically would take him to another continent or at least to another state far from her separate apartment in northern New Jersey.
That sad sentence applies not just to Lily’s marriage. It applies literally to tens of millions of romantic relationships, potential romantic relationships, and marriages in all services and all ranks. If they reflect back on the various relationships they had, I suspect most people who were in the military can remember relationships that were killed by their military obligation. I know I can. The problems are:
• being forced to be at an isolated, rural Army base a long drive from where your romantic interest is
• being transferred to another continent or another state where only air travel and long distance phone calls can connect you with your romantic interest
The usual bumps and quarrels
All romantic relationships have bumps and quarrels. When you live at the same vicinity and can get together face-to-face for lunch or in the evening, you can work out the problem if the problem is workoutable. But when you are too far apart for as many face-to-face meetings as you need, the relationship ends. It ends not because it was destined to end. It ends because the military creates huge handicaps to dealing successfully with normal, common relationship challenges. If you had not been in the military, the relationship would have had a much higher probability of surviving long-term. The problem was not you or her. Rather, it was you and her being kept apart physically by the military’s many restrictions and odd locations and frequent moving.
There is also the issue of competition for your romantic interest. The more desirable she is, the more competition you have for her affection. The harder it is for the two of you to get together, and the easier it is for your competition to get together with her, the greater the probability that the two of your will break up. Again, not because it was not meant to be. Rather, because the two of you had too little opportunity to get to know each other compared to the amount of time she had to get to know other guys who were physically more convenient. You chose to “marry” the military foolishly not considering the implications of that for your marriage and family. And you paid the price. If you’re like most, you will suffer multiple romantic tragedies of unknown proportions because of the military preventing you from managing promising relationships adequately.
Military romances tend to be desperate, rushed, with emphasis on “quality time.” But the fact is, with both romance and parenting, “quality time” is bullshit. Quantity time is really what matters in both realms.
Lily and Mike were lucky
In the event, Lily and Mike got back together because his boss got transferred and they asked him to take over his boss’s job. In other words, the military randomly coughed up a lucky break for them. Had he been transferred as normal, her statement about the marriage being lost to the martial rhythms of the military would almost certainly have come true.
I was favorably surprised and impressed to read that Mike’s military colleagues and many of the other wives were supportive when Lily and Mike got back together. But I must say I am not convinced that the separation will not adversely affect his career. Lily seems to express suspicions about such things throughout the book and I think she is right to do so. As she says again and again in different words, the Army officer corps is a really tight-assed organization. Marrying and separating from and getting back together with a neurotic former stripper is not the text book family situation.
Military career or successful family—pick one
Lesson learned: The military is very hard on romantic relationships. Since the romantic relationship between you and your wife is the most important thing in your life, you need to think two or three times before you go down the military road. A number of young people have told me I place too much emphasis on marriage and such—that those things take care of themselves—that you just go about your life including being a career military person and the marriage and family just happen without any conscious thought.
The hell they do. Find a mature, successful person you respect—say, someone over 50—and ask them about what I said about relationships and what you think is wrong with it. I predict they will tell you I am correct and you are wrong. On 9/11, a bunch of airplane passengers figured out that they were about to die. None of them used their cell phone to make a final call to their stock broker or their Pentagon assignment officer. They all called their spouse or significant other or parents or some other person they loved. I understand that people who are about to die ask themselves three questions: Whom did I love? Who loved me? And what difference did my life make? Conspicuous by its absence in that list are commanding officers, promotions, career, and all that.
The other aspect of young people failing to heed my warnings about taking care to avoid anti-family, anti-romance situations and career path is they think getting married to the right person is easy. The hell it is! Most people don’t succeed at it. They end up never marrying or getting divorced. Mike Burana seems like a nice, easy-going guy who tried extremely hard to be a good husband—not counting subjecting his spouses to being officer’s wives. But Lily was his second wife—and they were separated for a time during the course of the book which only covers about five years. Marrying the right person is not easy and neither is staying married even if you manage to pick the right person. You and your marriage and family do not need all the handicaps the military dumps on you.
Is it impossible to have a military career and a good family life? No. There are many happy military families. Might some individual military career officers had even happier family lives if they had never been in the military? Probably. Do some civilians have unsuccessful family lives? Of course. Do some civilian careers strain marriages? Absolutely. But the military is generally a greater problem in this area than civilian careers because of the isolation and constant moving around the planet.
‘I did, however, knot up inside when I thought about returning to West Point.’
The above quote is Lily talking on page 278 about not having much anxiety about moving into Mike’s off-post house, but feeling physically uncomfortable about going onto the nearby post itself. I wrote about that in my article Should you go to, or stay at, West Point? I felt similar tightening about West Point whenever I approached it—from as far away as the NY-NJ border. That was true from plebe year until about my 20th reunion. In that article, I quote some other West Point grads who said similar things. One said he threw up every time he had to return to West Point from leave. I was surprised to learn that even West Point wives get similar feelings about the place. On page 311, she says when she got back to her off-post house one day, she,
felt like she hadn’t really relaxed since 2003, when we first moved to West Point.
In spite of Lily’s knotting up inside, she and Mike talked of settling in the West Point area after he retired. Jeez! I just spent a week there in conjunction with my 40th reunion and was appalled at how tiny and devoid of civilization the adjacent town, Highland Falls, was. There was no laundry for example, only a laundromat. The supermarket didn’t open until 10 AM! Ours here in California never closes and there are several cleaners in the same shopping intersection that launder shirts.
Lily said it was not just the fishbowl problem that made her knot up. It was also the funerals. Cadets graduate, go to Iraq or Afghanistan, and many come back to West Point for burial after being killed in those wars. The military Academy has a nice ceremony down pat. I participated in one as a senior for a cadet who had been in my company before he got killed in Vietnam. When I got the funeral duty, I was pissed about loving several hours of my precious weekend. I had not been friends with the guy in question. But in the event, I could see how important it was to the family and felt good about having helped in that little way. Lily’s on-post house was near the cemetery and she repeatedly heard the sound of taps being played at the funerals. And the rifles being fire three times to salute the deceased. Too sad. She closed the windows and turned the radio up real loud to drown it out because it was so depressing.
Lily and I share one thing. We hate soldiers dying without sufficient reason. My class went to Vietnam where 58,000 including 20 of my classmates died—for no good reason in retrospect. I suspect the same thing will happen in Iraq and Afghanistan. The book The Gamble about the Surge seemed to promise it. All those funerals Lily could hear, complete with eulogies about defending freedom and all that will turn out to be nothing by George W. Bush underestimating the difficulty of occupying Iraq and Barack Obama leaving 50,000 in Iraq and surging in Afghanistan to prevent the Republicans from saying he was soft on terrorism. West Point graduates lately do not die for freedom or liberty for all. Just re-election for one. Lily’s really pissed about it. So am I.
Like most people in or married to military careers, she has worked out a rationalization. I don’t buy it. Maybe she doesn’t either. But maintaining sanity in the military requires these self-deceptions I suppose. On page 309 she says,
For every crooked soldier, there are hundreds of thousands who are honorable; for every hurtful military tactic and policy, there are scores more than help. For every politician who would exploit the troops, there are plenty who only care to see our military used for good.
I wish it were so. Lack of integrity is the norm and is enforced as uniformly as the haircuts regs. Oh, it’s not officially admitted, but see my article Is military integrity a contradiction in terms? I do not know what she means by hurtful policies, but her statement about the politicians is total bullshit. Generals get to be generals by sucking up to their superiors better than the other suck-ups. Politicians get to elected by lying better than the other candidates. The sort of good people Lily depicts as being the majority of politicians are, in fact in the majority who would not go near politics with a hundred-foot pole. Nor would they come with a mile of getting elected if they suffered temporary insanity and ran. Politicians are sociopaths who see body bags and everything else solely in terms of whether it will help them get re-elected or hurt their chances.
The Army is the wife
On page 349,
There’s a saying about being married to a soldier: “The Army is the wife, you’re the mistress.”
That’s totally accurate. The wonder is why the wives put up with it. They sure as hell would not put up with it if the Army was a woman. Indeed, a wife would not force her husband to go to Iraq and away from his mistress for 15 months. The Army thinks nothing of it.
On page 312, she says
...sometimes, no matter how much I love my soldier, I hate the military. Maybe that makes no sense if you haven’t been there.
I’ve been there. The part that makes no sense to me is the military career guys and their wives voluntarily missing out on so many of the things that life has to offer—and suffering so terribly unnecessarily. My best guess is that the officers are somehow addicted to the “hanging around with the guys” part of it, and callously inconsiderate of the wives and families who suffer through their parts of it. I also know that many of the men stay in because they lack the self-confidence to compete in the civilian world.
I think it’s a cult. It reminds me of a phrase then senator Hillary Clinton improperly directed at General Petraeus. Being career military and convincing yourself it’s the best thing for your family
requires a willing suspension of disbelief
Career military officers and their wives are well-practiced at and extremely adept at that self-delusion.
The guys in the white hats
The salient feature of Lily’s depiction of her marriage to Mike is Mike’s 1950s cowboy hero self image and her falling for that. It is a wider current phenomenon I have observed and complained about often in my Web articles about the military.
In the 1950s, there were a number of cowboy movie and TV heroes. They included the Lone Ranger, Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Hopalong Cassidy, and the Cisco Kid. They were ridiculously virtuous. Most wore white hats and captured bad guys who wore black hats. They were handsome and perfect. Each wore a distinct costume. They were extremely self-confident and competent at their craft of bringing criminals to justice. They never killed anyone. Instead they shot the guns out of the bad guys’ hands without drawing blood in quick-draw contests. The heroes could always draw faster than the bad guys.
When I was an Army officer from 1968 to 1972, our self depiction was that we were in the Army at a difficult time doing our duty. The career guys were trying to convince the public they knew what they were doing, but the public just laughed at them. “Military intelligence is a contradiction in terms” and all that.
Ollie North started it
Then, in the 1980s, came a career military guy who depicted himself as a 1950s white hat cowboy hero: Marine Lieutenant Colonel Oliver North. Because it served their political purposes at the time, the Republican party expended enormous efforts claiming he was a virtuous war hero. The Republican Reagan supporters chose to believe it for much the same reason.
North himself said he lived his life as if he were the hero of a B movie. Western was the main genre of B movie. North’s original celebrity persona involved pained proclamations by him of his devotion to truth, justice, and the American way. I found him to be absurdly maudlin and melodramatic. A newsmagazine put him on their cover with the words “Duty, Honor, Country” across the bottom of the photo. That was especially galling because Duty Honor Country is the motto of my alma mater: West Point. Ollie North graduated from the U.S. Naval Academy, our arch rival, the same day as I did (although he entered Annapolis two years before I did). Furthermore, North became famous for his violations of the law including lying to Congress in conjunction with the Iran-Contra Scandal. The Washington Post wrote a story titled “Ollie North And Our Hunger For A Hero; A Fading Camelot Seeks Shining Knights and Mythic Salvation” on 7/19/87.
Was Oliver North really a war hero? I wouldn’t know. He got a silver star and a purple heart in Vietnam. I know he admitted lying to Congress. I would have thought that would disqualify him from his occupation since: journalist.
North has since toned down his melodramatic self-depictions—slightly. He has also cranked up his melodramatic depictions of all U.S. military personnel and makes an apparently lucrative career from it. Helping make my point, one of his TV programs is called “War Stories.” The most prominent current example of maudlin, melodramatic self-depictionists is now Terri Irwin, the American widow of “Crocodile Hunter” Steve Irwin, who was no slouch at that shtick himself. Although Mike Burana seems to be a worthy, if less prominent, competitor for top autohagiographer and his wife Lily seems to be his Ollie North reciting Burana’s war stories to the public.
The entire U.S. military apparently watched North get away with this and decided to adopt it as their own public-relations strategy and group-think self-esteem program. This ploy also coincided with the guilt the American people feel for the way they treated us Vietnam vets for about 30 years during and after that war. Back then, vets were spit at, told by the military not to wear their uniforms off base, and called “baby killers.” Now they get “support the troops” ribbon magnets, parade around airports in combat uniforms, men buy them drinks, and “Thank you for your service.” Many celebrities now ostentatiously call all current and former military “heroes.”
Selfless servant warriors
Generally, this is a bunch of bullshit. I heard the self-aggrandizing phrase “selfless servant warrior” once too many times and wrote an article about what a crock it was. Terri Irwin refers to her late husband as a “wildlife warrior.” In that article, I also criticized the use of the word “soldier.” Lily is big on the warrior and soldier words, no doubt having been taught that by husband Mike. She also throws selfless servant out there a bit. Mike Burana and the rest of them are in the Army. They are Army officers. To say that Burana is a “soldier” however, is theatrical.
This parallels the propensity of athletes to brag about their accomplishments by celebrating childishly and engaging in various forms of look-at-me chest beating on the field after a sack or touchdown. In the 1960s and before, a player who made a tackle or scored a touchdown exhibited no unusual behavior afterward. Old school pitched Nolan Ryan one mocked a celebrating younger opposing pitcher by imitating his celebration after he struck out a batter end an inning.
World War II vets did not, and do not, beat their chests about what they did in the military. And when it comes to defeating a worthy opponent, they did infinitely more than more recent vets. They did not then, and do not now, refer to themselves as “selfless servants” or “warriors” or “soldiers.” They just quietly did their jobs and went home. When asked now, that is all they will tell you. The “Greatest Generation” did not beat their chest or pat themselves on the back with these melodramatic self-descriptions. For the most part, neither did their children, my Baby Boomer generation. It is unbecoming and immature and probably is turning off prospective military personnel who are mature and secure and comfortable in their own non-action-hero skin and truly modest (unlike the Mike Buranas and John McCains of the world who are modest one minute and playing their military service for all it’s worth the next).
I am a writer. So is Lily Burana. So she knows as well as I do that words are delicate, precise tools. When American talk unselfconsciously about a person who is on active duty in the military they says he’s “in the Army” or “he’s an Army sergeant” or similar words. The word “soldier” as used by the public refers to toy soldiers or statues of soldiers. It is a song lyric as in Where have all the soldiers gone or a Coming home soldier (sung by the always maudlin Bobby Vinton) or Soldier Boy. These songs are very melodramatic.
The truth is the military is a grotesquely inept Kafkaesque bureaucracy. The quality of the enlisted men as a group is quite low with more than its share of convicted criminals and people who are there because it was the best, or only, job they could get. The quality of the officer corps is relatively high at the lieutenant and captain level, but declines thereafter as many, if not most, good people get out, leaving the careerists and those who figure they could not do as well financially or status-wise in the more competitive civilian world.
They are much attracted to the womb-to-tomb benefits, extremely generous retirement pay and benefits, and the lack of any need to ever make any their own decisions. “Civil” servant comes far closer to describing them than “selfless” servant. Career military people for the most part are the Future Federal Pensioners Association of America. Most tolerate lousy treatment by their employer to get that magic 20-year point where they can retire with half pay and full, free medical care. Rare is the “soldier” who rejected attractive alternatives to be in the Army. Former NFL player Pat Tillman is the only one most people can name.
Military officers would have you believe they are first and foremost combat leaders of men. In fact, they probably are platoon leaders (40 guys) for a matter of months or a year or so and maybe company commanders (120 guys) for six months or a year. And they probably do at least half of their platoon and company commanding outside of combat zones, i.e., in Germany, Korea, or the U.S.
That’s it as far as leading men in concerned for the majority of Army officers. A few get to command battalions (500 guys) and bigger units, but most never do.
So what do they do the rest of their 20 to 35-year career? They are bureaucrats, like Mike Burana throughout Lily’s book. With occasional breaks to be students or teach military personnel, they push papers. A war movie about Burana’s second tour might have him screaming into his field telephone, “We need more paper clips NOW Godddamit!”
Hit and run
And as far as combat is concerned, those who go to Iraq and Afghanistan generally experience IED or mortar attacks. Some get in actual firefights. But it’s not like World War II or Korea where front line units slug it out month after month with large numbers of men dying every day.
Almost all enemy actions against the U.S. military since the Korean war have been of the hit-and-run variety or the use of mines or suicide bombers. With mines and suicide bombers, there is no fight, just a momentary sucker punch thrown by a guy who disappears one way or another as soon as he throws it.
Much of the current use of U.S. military personnel is as local police or police swat teams. They live among the citizens they are trying to protect. The patrol in vehicles or on foot.
Draining a lot of self-esteem and admiration out of a few hours of combat
But the total cumulative time when a career military guy is hearing shots fired in anger or enemy ordnance exploding is probably measured in minutes or hours, not even days, in a career that lasts at least 7,300 days. Leading men in combat is their self-image and how they depict themselves to the public, but it is a very rare moment in their careers when they actually do that. The reality of career military officers is that they are obsequious bureaucrats notwithstanding their propensity to beat their chests about what a bunch of macho men they are. I am surprised that Lily Burana, who demonstrates great ability to see and call out the reality behind much bullshit, is blind to it when it comes to her husband, the “selfless-servant warrior soldier.”
Give the military credit for the good they actually do. But stop pretending that everyone who ever put on a U.S. military uniform is a hero. Stop pretending that the U.S. military is anything but SNAFU and in need of enormous across-the-board reform. The military’s recent habit of shameless autohagiography, aided and abetted by the nation-of-draft-dodgers’ guilt-motivated refusal to criticize the military, or even stop overpraising them, is making an unacceptably dangerous situation even worse.
I appreciate informed, well-thought-out constructive criticism and suggestions. If there are any errors or omissions in my facts or logic, please tell me about them. If you are correct, I will fix the item in question. If you wish, I will give you credit. Where appropriate, I will apologize for the error. To date, I have been surprised at how few such corrections I have had to make.
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