“Little did I know when I was drafted that I was going to get almost four years of free research. The Army thoughtfully sent me to a number of places so that my experiences could be broadest. I was a private, a corporal, a sergeant and a lieutenant and I was a goof-up in every rank,” Mort Walker (1923-2018), The Best of Beetle Bailey, quoted in his obituary.
From 1968 to 1970 I was stationed at ACE Counterintelligence in Mons, Belgium. ACE was not a description of our professional prowess. It was, like most things in the military, an acronym, standing for Allied Command Europe. We were the intelligence unit for NATO’s military headquarters.
When I walked into the office on the morning of May 5th, 1970, I learned that Ohio National Guard troops had opened fire on anti-war protesters at Kent State University, killing four students. The reaction to this tragedy was markedly different among our unit’s younger members, for whom the army was a two or three-year interruption to their lives, and the so-called “lifers”, for whom the army was a career. There was no cheering from the latter, but there was a sense that the students were to blame for their own demise, that the protests “back home” were tearing the nation apart in ways that made such confrontations inevitable. The transient soldiers, of which I was one, were shocked both by the events at Kent State and by the reactions of our comrades. It was partly a generational issue, to be sure, but I understood that morning that it went deeper, that many of the men with whom I worked believed they were the guardians of a traditional America that had gone dangerously off the rails. There was little sympathy for the victims and no sense of community with the country they represented. Despite what the history books told me, we were a divided nation.
As I wrote in may last post, there are many reasons to consider universal service, but one that is often overlooked is the attitude – and even the incompetence – the draftees brought to the service. “I was a goof-up in every rank,” wrote Mort Walker, who gave us a cartoon character that put even him to shame. Beetle Bailey put the F in SNAFU, and we loved him for it.
Career officers, here as elsewhere, can lose sight of the military’s role in a republic, and millions of inept civilians remind them not to take themselves too seriously. Thrown together from all over, those recruits also help democratize an increasingly divided country.
And don’t underestimate their valor. Most of those who hit the Normandy beaches on D-Day were not career soldiers, and far too many of them never came home.