COGNITIVE DISSONANCE |
January 11, 2008
Name: LTC Robert Bateman
Posting date: 1/11/08
Returned from: Iraq
Stationed in: Washington, D.C.
Hometown: Cleveland, "We never win anything" Ohio
I thought I might lighten the mood with a fairly current observation from my world. It is an observation that puzzled me at first. I think I have a handle on it now. I recently noticed a change that took place between 2004 and the present. There is, you see, a lot more hugging going on nowadays where I work.
I work in the Pentagon.
Yeah, I know.
The realization of a definite shift in behavior did not really hit me until late October this year. But in hindsight, as is normal with an epiphany, I could look into my mental rear-view mirror and see the outlines. What precipitated my thoughts was that inside of the space of a single week I received (and I must admit, somewhat awkwardly returned) three hugs from brother officers. One of them was a full colonel.
The other two were generals.
Yeah, I know.
After the third of these hugs I felt a little disoriented. Reeling through my mind was the scene from the movie A League of Their Own in which, after making one of his female baseball players cry, the coach (Tom Hanks) is flabbergasted, then exasperated, finally shouting, “There’s no crying in baseball! There’s no crying in BASEBALL!!” But in my head the words were swapped. “There’s no hugging in the Pentagon! There’s no hugging in the PENTAGON!!” But, quite obviously, there is now.
I seem to notice things like this. Anomalies. Outliers. Whatever you want to call them. And then, sometimes, I figure them out. This one took a while.
During my first tour of duty in the Pentagon, from the middle of 2002 through the end of 2004, there was no such phenomenon. That is easy enough to understand, because although the “guy hug” had become fairly common in the civilian world (I suspect it leaked over from professional sports) by the late '80s and early '90s, mine is a somewhat more restrained sub-culture. Indeed, there are aspects of Army culture that are clear throw-backs to the 1950s.
For example, when you move in to “quarters” on a military post, even as the moving trucks are unloading all of your worldly possessions into the cramped government-constructed housing and your children are running hither and yon exploring their new environment, your neighbors arrive. They will, all of them, bring food. Traditionally this will be casseroles of some sort, with baking directions and their name and address taped to the bottom of the dish. Casseroles are the norm because they can feed the whole family, need only be warmed, and can be served on paper plates -- essential since you will not yet have unpacked your own plates. Within hours you have sufficient food to sustain the family for the week it will take you to get unpacked without the need for major grocery shopping, and a convenient reason to visit all of your neighbors in return. (Usually with beer in hand.) It is, in other words, the essence of life in 1955. That is what I mean about us being a tad retro in our sub-cultural changes.
So why the sudden change in the Pentagon? Why has our culture made this leap? As I said, it took me a little while to puzzle this one out. I think I have it now. There are certain rules that seem to apply, and I should note that I am speaking only of what I have seen, and that is only within the Army.
Rule #1: A hug is only appropriate between two men who have not seen each other in at least a year. It only occurs on the first meeting of those two after such a gap.
Rule #2: During that period one or both of them have been to combat in Iraq or Afghanistan. Neither has died or was crippled beyond repair. Both now know too many who have been so.
Rule #3: The hug occurs in conjunction with a forearm gripped handshake. It is brief. Right arm in shake, left arm over the other man’s shoulder, two or three hearty slaps or punches to the back. No more. Release. The sentiment is as direct as the action, "I am glad you are not dead."
In other words, what changed us was war.
That seems to make sense.
Note: This piece first appeared on Eric Alterman's website, MediaMatters.