Let the Strange Spartans Tell You…


One Friday night a few years ago, I was watching videos on YouTube with my headset unplugged. Someone knocked on my door. Actually, no — someone pounded on my door, with a force and urgency that comes more typically from a rifle butt or a booted heel. I opened the door and beheld a man in uniform.

The uniform belonged to the security agency that furnished our complex with armed guards. Fit and buzzcut, square-jawed and scowling, this guy gave the impression he’d worn other uniforms before this one. “Your music’s too loud,” he snapped.

Previous guards had been cheery and diffident almost to a fault, as though eager to live up to their euphemistic title of “courtesy patrolmen.” I’d worked security myself, and had been warned never to mistake myself for a cop. As umbrage mixed with the vodka I’d been shooting, I fed the grim sentinel a piece of my mind, and he fed me back one of his. First thing next afternoon, I complained to the property management, and the following week I noticed new guards in different uniforms, bearing the logo of another agency.

If the man really was a veteran, I failed him in a way veterans say they’re often failed. In the Times, David Eisler, who served in Iraq and Afghanistan with the Second Cavalry Regiment, observes an “incongruity here between society’s respect for the military and its fear of the ways that military life can reshape people.” In the Atlantic, a former infantryman named Alex Horton dubs this paradox “the pedestal problem.” Explains Horton, “…viewing something on a pedestal: you can only see one side at a time, and rarely at depth. It produces extremes—the valiant hero or the downtrodden, unstable veteran.” By showing no patience for the guard’s brusque style, even as I called myself a patriot and supporter of the troops, I was embodying that problem.

Worse, by these authors’ account, corporate America’s gatekeepers have been marching in step with me. Though hiring managers understand that military service inculcates habits of leadership, problem-solving, multi-tasking, and all that other good stuff, many may fear PTSD meltdowns even more. Horton sums up this attitude as “Thank you for your service. But we’re looking for someone else.”

If Rudyard Kipling is a reliable source, this mixture of abstract admiration and concrete aversion is nothing new. As he wrote in the voice of a late-Victorian soldier:

I went into a public-’ouse to get a pint o’ beer,
The publican ‘e up an’ sez, “We serve no red-coats here.”
The girls be’ind the bar they laughed an’ giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an’ to myself sez I:

O it’s Tommy this, an’ Tommy that, an’ “Tommy, go away”;
But it’s “Thank you, Mister Atkins”, when the band begins to play,

Kardashian America has this in common with Victorian England: imposing no national service obligation, it fields an all-volunteer military. At no time over the past decade has greater that one percent of the population been serving on active duty. Pew estimates that six in 10 Americans have an immediate family member who served. Among Americans aged 18 to 29, however, that share falls to a third. With researchers now speaking of a “military-civilian gap,” military customs, jargon, and attitudes are more exotic to the average citizen than ever before.

If service members — and veterans, and their immediate families — don’t form a strictly homogenous group, neither do they quite reflect the demographics of the nation as a whole. Whites are represented more strongly than blacks, and both groups more strongly than Latinos. Republicans are more likely to belong than Democrats or Independents, Southerners more likely than Northeasterners or Westerners. Again, not a caste, but probably more prone to behave as one than the passengers on any randomly-selected New York City subway car.

These figures shouldn’t kill anyone from shock, but they should provide context for the self-accusations that make up a big part of Alex Horton’s essay. In Horton’s view, he and many of his fellow vets have given in to a “superiority complex,” or a self-conscious elitism, that prevents them from taking civilian values and sensibilities entirely seriously. Now in his senior year at Georgetown, he finds himself at pains not to “view everything through the lens of a cynical former door-kicker.”

If Horton’s doing himself and his fellow vets justice, then his essay and Eisler’s are impressive simply for having been written. It is not in the nature of warrior elites to ask other types to meet them halfway. Imagine if Colonel Jessop switched from lecturing in the vein of “Son, we live in a world that has walls,” to conceding, “We also have to pay bills,” and you’ll appreciate the magnitude of the gesture.

It should go without saying that we civilians owe it to veterans to do our part. For prospective employers, Eisler offers a wonderful insight. Combat leaves every survivor a mixed bag of strengths and vulnerabilities, “So it is hardly out of the ordinary to imagine a veteran who could be an asset to a corporation or as a public servant, but who would also require some degree of care and attention outside work.” Maybe my Manhattan is showing, but culling an eager, qualified applicant from the short list on the chance that he might be in therapy or taking meds sounds not only callous, but self-defeating. Let him who can run a business without high-functioning neurotics cast the first stone.

For the rest of us, well, Horton solicits contributions to Team Rubicon and The Mission Continues and The Pat Tillman foundation. But I’d say that the essence of what he and Eisler are asking is expressed in Deuteronomy, where God orders the Israelites: “Love ye the stranger, for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt.”

Never mind Iraq or Afghanistan — as far as most of us are concerned, the armed forces make up a separate country all by themselves. For an idea of how we might feel, were we suddenly transported there, I recommend Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry. Like all foreigners, vets are bound to have some strange, possibly off-putting, folkways. Some are going to pound on doors like the doors owe them money.

But others, like Eisler, Horton, and the bloggers at Small Wars Journal, are going to do their best to explain themselves to us. In the old days, we were the strangers, and we had to tell it in Lacadaemon. Now that the Spartans are the strangers, it’s our job to listen.

  • Kenneth Bolin

    Max,
    Wonderful little essay. I give complete concurrence. I was an Infantry officer, but left active duty to go to seminary and into ministry. I’ve been an Army chaplain now for some years, and am currently on a civilian schooling assignment in DC, so I’m once again seeing the civilian world, up close and personal. There is a huge divide. We do have to beware of the elitist attitude, as the declared values of the military, and to an extent the lived values, are different than the oft-demonstrated values of the civilian sector. Service does change people in subtle ways. At the core, though, service reveals some things within people that they would have otherwise been able to hide if they’d remained civilians. Military service no longer tears down and completely rebuilds people as it once did, but it does strip away enough to reveal more of the essence of each of us, both the good and the bad. The gap widens a bit when the data you mention above is the reality. Some say that the nation is/has been at ware since late 2001. The reality is, though, that the nation has never really been at war in this century; the military has been away at war, while “Kardashian America” as you called it has continued to indulge itself with its disordered appetites. The military is a microcosm of the society, though, inasmuch as service members come from and return to the culture at large. Many of the military’s problems stem from how individuals come from the culture, and many of the problems you mention above come from how individuals return to it. May God help us all.

  • JohnE_o

    I disagree with your assessment that you may have failed that guard. He clearly did not understand his role at the apartment complex and you were under no obligation to cater to his mistaken belief that he could treat you as if he were a member of an occupying force.

  • lindenman

    True. And I don’t flatter myself one complaint from little old me made the property management company switch agencies. Probably, it was the straw that broke the camel’s back. On the other hand, there was a lot of ground between humoring him and shouting back in his face. My conscience would be a little cleaner if I’d found it.

  • David_Naas

    When I did a link to this article from my FB page, it seemed advisable to also post a link explaining what the bronze plaque in the photo was about. Popular movies to the contrary, the reference may not have been apparent to folks today.

  • http://ashesfromburntroses.blogspot.com/ Manny

    There’s always been a cultural (if that’s the right word) gap between people who have actually served and those who have not. Perhaps it is accentuated at the moment. With all the wars going on that actually seems counter intuitive. ecellent piece Max. i’m always amazed at how you can find a personal anectdote to place the reader into context for your more abstract thoughts. You’re the best. And i’ll have to check out Babel’s collection of short stories.

  • Flavius Aetius

    Max, Thank you for this essay. You might not know how right you are, As a career Air Force officer I find myself more and more unable to process how my fellow Americans think, and struggle to understand why they think the way they do about me. At the risk of sounding melodramatic, I feel like I’m living in somone else’s country most of the time. My neighbors are nice, but they haven’t the faintest idea what I do, let alone why I do it. I’ve never met any American who didn’t “appreciate my service” but it’s a rarity to meet someone who doesn’t treat me as if I’m some sort of zoo animal or foreigner visiting their country. It doesn’t take a lot of imagination to place myself in a 5th Century legion doing my duty on the frontier while the Empire destroys itself from within back in the Eternal City.


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