Sunday, May 27, 2007

I Was Young Once Too

Funny the things you find out there.
I came across this on the blog of a man I served with, way back then. Ben Hanson, Canadian immigrant, naturalized U.S. citizen, veteran, patriot, and still, apparently, with a camera permanently affixed to his shooting eye. For some reason Ben deleted the comment I left on the post. I was kidding, Ben. I hope this doesn't have to do with my status as a wild-eyed peacenik.

This photo was taken in the mid-eighties, during the annual massive "Team Spirit" joint exercise with U.S. and South Korean troops in Pohang, South Korea. Pohang at the time was a giant steel mill and port garrisoned by a military base, with attendant town attached.
Pohang is in the southeast of the peninsula, on the Korean Strait that separates Korea and Japan; in the winter it is cold and bleak, with only a few bare trees (however, my travels were severely limited, from base to bath to brothel and back, mostly), buffeted by harsh winds. The air quality in Pohang was poor; Koreans bicycled about wearing dust masks. The people are as tough as the environment, but unfailingly polite. Long tents were set up in the street where the Koreans would stop in to drink their version of sake. The street market was a gruesome spectacle in its own right. Fights were common. This is where I saw a gang of prostitutes beating a man senseless on the street. All the best stories, however, are best left for another venue.

We set up a tent city in a Godforsaken corner of the military base there, where the ground is thick and sticky mud when it rains, and unforgiving hard-packed dirt continually feeding a fine dust into the bracing winter wind the rest of the time. No running water or heat, long hours punctuated by twelve hour stretches of "Cinderella liberty", meaning one had to be back on base by midnight. We would catch a shuttle into town, get a hot bath, and join the sea of camouflage assailing the city. The smell of kimchi, fermented cabbage, was everywhere. Seasonal industries selling tourist souvenirs, such as the gaudy mink blankets called futons, alcohol, and comfort, sprang up to capture the restless G.I. wages.

The Koreans had been chafing at the presence of American troops for a while by then. The president at the time, Chun Doo-hwan, was effectively a dictator who seized power in a coup in 1979; when we were there opposition street demonstrations were going on in Seoul, always riotous. There was a sense that the country was on the verge of radical change; a student movement was beginning to assert itself. Chun wouldn't last much longer, ousted in '88 (and eventually pardoned for the Gwangju massacre of street demonstrators in 1980).

A friend, Mark Lazicki (a laconic upstate New Yorker), and I were collared on the street by a group of female Korean students who bought us lunch and grilled us about life in the states. They despised Chun, who they referred to as "the Pig", with a sort of cautious sense of indulgence. About this time Ferdinand Marcos' reign in the Philippines was nearing its end as well (the last time I was there plain-clothes military and police were loitering about on corners with M-16s; rumors of disappearances were rife). These were the first postwar changes in the Far East that have yet to run their course, and only will when we finally give the place back.

We, here in the States, have an insurmountable inability to understand the humiliation felt by a people hosting foreign troops on their soil. It's no use insisting that we're needed, or that they should be appreciative. Imagine foreign troops in your town. They look different, speak another language (and disdain yours), are young, large, rambunctious, horny, sometimes resentful of you and your home. Often the best real estate is taken up by bases, sometimes operating loud aircraft at all hours; the area surrounding these become dominated by red-light districts, bars, and merchants servicing the needs of the foreign troops.
Large parts of town are unsafe, particularly for young women, who aren't distinguished from prostitutes. Small crimes of public disturbance are common: fighting, vandalism, drunkenness; occasionally more serious crimes occur, such as rape and murder. The military authorities often deny your police the right to prosecute these crimes. The many, or even majority, of the troops who carry themselves with respect and dignity (which is after all the least to be expected and no cause for congratulation) cannot negate the adverse effects of the minority (but not necessarily few) who dishonor themselves and their hosts.

But on a personal note, on this Memorial Day, this is one veteran who would like to thank the American taxpayer, for subsidizing his post-adolescent maturation. I don't know what I would've done without you.

The vast military superstructure that we've created is unsustainable; eventually we will have to surrender it, no matter how loud and melodramatic the wailing of the military fetishists of the Victor Davis Hanson variety. I believe this to be necessary for our salvation. But much will be lost along with it.
Among the military/industrial complex's incidental benefits are its status as one of the greatest sources of job creation in history. The military services specifically have provided generations of young people with little education and few prospects with a job, or career, that is secure and comprehensive in its provision for medical benefits and retirement; placing them with relative efficiency via the Armed Forces Vocational Aptitude Battery.

The military also serves as a second system of education, a great vocational alternative to college (where so many go to squander four years and a considerable sum of their parents' and/or public money), training thousands in a vast array of technical and logistical disciplines as well as a general theory of management, while inculcating them in a culture of organizational discipline and pride rare outside of the professions. The naturally occurring prevalence of minorities creates the sort of racial diversity, and even racial accord, that elites unsuccessfully seek to engineer elsewhere through resented, damaging and degrading affirmative action programs; all without resorting to discrimination. Of course, as Bush grinds away at the fitness of current forces and frightens away new recruits with his seat-of-the-pants foreign policy, these fragile gains will be sacrificed to lowered standards and deteriorated morale.

Among the many absurdities in the common perception of the military, the most obscene may be the oft-leveled charge that the military serves as a sort of raw deal for minorities who are channeled into it by a cruelly discriminatory society that then uses them as cannon fodder. Even now, in wartime, the mortality rate for G.I.s is remarkably low considering the nature of the profession; in most military occupations even in war (and during peacetime in all of them) it is likely safer for a young black man to be in the military than on the worst urban streets.

The military in the post-Vietnam era has served as a pressure release employing and providing for countless minorities. This goes far beyond mere employment in the military, setting up veterans in improved entries into post-military work; this was brought home for me after the service when I went to work in the aerospace industry, where military veterans preponderate, in the last great manufacturing industry left to America. Just another case of Sharpton, Jackson, et al, having their cliche-riddled heads up their collective ass, belying their lack of not just common sense but any real concern for the welfare of those they claim to represent.

Something to remember when people propose a draft as a means of squaring things. Even more absurd is the notion that it will force discretion into our war policy. If we need a draft to compel us to act sensibly in our foreign policy, we are already lost.