Tuesday, 14 October 2008

Lots more comments on "soldiers"

Some talking points about the podcast on soldiers. I first listened to this as a podcast in the car whilst driving to work, so obviously didn't have a chance to make notes. After reading a few comments at Sharpe's Sortie, I decided to listen to it again tonight and jot down a few things as I went.

I was intrigued by his description of watching slideshows of photos taken by soldiers who had returned from the Vietnam War, because I only took a camera on an exercise once, and it was not a big, clunking 35mm SLR type camera. For those of you born after the advent of digitial photography, cameras used to be big, bulky and heavy. They were not the sort of thing that your average infantryman would ever lug around. We used to cut down the handles of our toothbrushes to save weight. So just who was it that was taking all those photos? Probably pogues or tankers - someone who didn't have to carry all their crap on their back.

The other thing is that the sort of patrols that the infantry did in Vietnam tended to demand absolute noise discipline. By that, I mean that a platoon of 30 guys could pass you by without a sound. The idea of someone snapping a photo (and those SLR cameras made a lot of noise when the shutter flicked open) and then winding the film..... doesn't bear thinking about. I'd be interested to see what vets would have to say about that.

The modern digital camera is a completely different kettle of fish. Lightweight, silent and even available in black (infantry types are not fond of shiny things that reflect the suns rays and give away your position). I think the advent of the digital camera will enable us to see a much better picture of the "true" infantry life than we've ever seen before.

He then said that the two qualities that you need to be a good soldier are patience and toughness, and I'd agree with that. His reasoning is that most time is spent on tedious and repetitive tasks that require total concentration. I thought that was quite a good description of a lot of military life - a life where you need the patience to put up with "greatcoats on, greatcoats off", and the toughness to put up with the heat, the cold, the rain, the stress, the lack of sleep and the sheer physicality of so many tasks that can't be automated or mechanised.

Duffy then asked if those joining the military had a working class background. Duffy should read "Not as a duty only", which lists some of the many and varied characters that served in one battalion in WWII. Duffy should also look up the background of the author, "Jo" Gullett.

I guess that a lot of the guys that I served with were working class - I can't think of many that hailed from the elite, leafy Perth suburbs of Dalkeith and Peppermint Grove and Mosman Park. But I do get the total shits when people say that the children of the professional classes never serve in the military. I can only give you two examples of that being a crock of shit, because I only have two, but I'm sure there are many more.

My parents once owned a 1/3 share of a house with a Knight of the Realm (that is, a bloke you addressed as 'Sir'). He was quite upper crust - wealthy, a Federal Minister and later High Commissioner. We visited their house when they were living in London, and I went "wow". It was something else. One of his sons was commissioned into the British Army - and he chose to sign up with the Brits rather than us because he was more likely to see action with the poms at that time (Northern Ireland and all that). That's example number one.

The other one is me.

You can stop laughing now.

Seriously, I feel uncomfortable with the idea of blowing my own trumpet, but I was born into a family that was not working class. My paternal grandfather had totally working class beginnings, even down to helping found a Union. We were comfortable but not wealthy - Dad always wanted to own a Jag, but couldn't afford it. We lived a good life but had to do without the yacht, waterfront mansion and private jet. I had to put up with being born with a silver-plated spoon in my mouth.

The thing is though, although we weren't rolling in cash, Dad spent time at the centre of power in this country. And I mean right at the centre, and well-known enough to feature in newspaper cartoons on a regular basis (you know you've made it when cartoonists start to draw you). I couldn't go anywhere as a kid without people saying, "hey is your dad so-and-so?" (Funilly enough, J was chatting to a bloke just last week and he caught my name and said, "hey is his dad so-and-so?, which gives you some idea of the level of "celebrity" we had to put up with. It's over 20 years since Dad retired, and people still dredge that up).

And I joined the Army Reserves as a grunt. I thought about going Regular, but the period of my service was a generally peaceful one - if I had gone Regular, there wouldn't have been much to do. I thoroughly enjoyed my time in the infantry, even if it was only part time. One of the great things about it is that no one gives a fuck what your background is once you get out into the bush. Infantry work sorts out the strong from the weak, and respect has to be earned with sweat and blood. Out bush, patrolling under the blazing sun or the pissing rain, no one gives fuck if you come from a single drug-addled parent on welfare or whether you last name is Packer.

I've kept my mouth shut until now, but I reckon there have to be more out there like me - those that have come from the professional classes, yet have served in the military in one form or another. I find the whole concept of class and the military to be vaguely offensive, because the military is a great leveller. Your background counts for nothing. You get places based solely on your achievements (and I must say, I got nowhere, because I was rather lacking in drive at that age).

Whenever someone says that the elites or the upper classes or the whatever are not sending their sons into the military, my first reaction is to shut my mouth, because the last thing I want to do is sound like e a big-noter (which is also why this is done anonymously, and I've changed enough of the facts to try and stay that way). If I stood up and said, "Excuse me, my father is so-and-so, and I have spent my fair share of time being eaten alive by mosquitos in a night ambush position", I'd pretty much die of embarassment. I just apply the stiff upper lip and keep my trap shut. It's hard enough writing this, but I feel that it needs to be said.

I served alongside plenty of people who had come from the working class, but they had little intention of staying there. Most were studying at Uni, or running their own businesses. They were the go-getting types who were on the up and up. Say what you like about the military, but it is not for bludgers that like to sleep in.

Basically, I feel contempt for the people who even bring up this topic of class and the military, and it shows how little they know about the military and the type of people that serve in it. Duffy gets a free pass, because I don't think he was having a dig, but I've read plenty of nasty comments over the last few years about this topic, and it makes my blood boil. Next time you see some birkenstock wearing, hemp clad wierd beard with a bone through their nose making a snide comment about the Army being made up of illiterate bludgers that couldn't get a job in the real world, just remember that the likes of me will be sitting their, arms folded across their chest, smiling a smile that says, "You don't have a fucking clue, you craphead".

Also, when I hear someone mention the word "chickenhawk", I want to punch them in the face. If the timings had been different (ie, I had been born earlier), and if we had gone to war in the late 1970's (a big if, after Vietnam), then Dad would have been one of those people making the decision to go or not. He would have been sending me off to fight.

It didn't happen of course - I was born 10 years too late, and Dad retired too early for that to occur etc etc etc. But it's worth considering that it is possible for those who make the decisions to commit troops to have some skin in the game. I know there are others out there, because when I attended functions as a youngster with my parents, I'd meet all sorts of people from a similar background, and it turned out that a fair number of their kids were serving or had served in the military. They're out there - but they tend to keep their mouths shut. I for one don't want to get down in the gutter and argue with those ignorant, pig-headed hippies.

Why did I join? In the interview, one explanation is the "intense call to be a warrior - it does not strike everyone, but those that it does strike are compelled to have a go". I'd pay that. There is also the desire to "want to know if you are made of the same stuff as the ANZACS", and I'd pay that too. It's not like I grew up with a military background - the photo of Dad in his sailor's rig from WWII was hung in the basement store room, alongside the photo of his brother in his Army uniform (looking a lot chunkier than he did after he returned from New Guinea). But I saw those photos from time to time, and always wondered if I had the same stuff in me. And there is only one way to find out.

I'll post some more comments later.


Richard Sharpe said...

The whole US Army being recruited from the poorest class with incentives of good pay and college tuition was what gave me pause. Again this is one of those Vietnam era myths that just keeps on coming up. I will update my own post on this shortly. I just need to find a site I saw while ago that breaks down the US Army's demographic. It doesn't play out the way people think.

Boy on a bike said...

Have a look at blackfive - they sometimes have a lot to say on this issue.

It's a belief from the 1970's that just refuses to go away.

Richard Sharpe said...

New post linked to yours. You should enjoy it.

Anonymous said...

The hints you make about yr identity are a taunting challenge to an amateur sherlock like me. I've figured out who the High Commish was, but damned if I can get beyond that.

Here's my grandfather, fwiw. He was born in a mansion late 1800's with a silver spoon in his mouth and a lace collar, as rich kids did in those days. He had to change his name and run away to Qld to join the Anzacs, as his father did not approve. Was a staff sergeant at Concord Repat Hosp in WWII.


Anonymous said...

BOAB, My husband served in Vietnam with the son of the then Minister for the Army. This guy was a conscript (no choice there) like the rest in the intake. Did his basic training, corps training, shipped out with everyone else, served his time, came home with the rest. All still mates today.

Another was the son of a wealthy Perth business family, another came from the Northern Beaches, private school rugby player. My boy was the son of a tradesman.