KEEPING YOUR MOUTH SHUT |
March 10, 2008
KEEPING YOUR MOUTH SHUT
Name: LTC Robert Bateman
Posting date: 3/10/08
Returned from: Iraq
Stationed in: Washington, D.C.
Hometown: Cleveland, "We never win anything" Ohio
I now work in the Pentagon.
The Puzzle Palace is a curious place, five sides and political appointees mixing with uniformed professionals results in a potential for chaos which nears perfection. Indeed, it can be bizarre. One ceases to wonder when one finds signs in the latrines which refer one to the “Building Command Post” if there is a toilet blockage (the janitors have a TOC?!) and others which state the obvious to an absurd degree (“Unauthorized personnel are prohibited”). But perhaps that makes more sense when one realizes that this is the one major post within DoD where officers outnumber the enlisted, and by a wide margin. Fortunately, there are pockets of sanity. One of them happens to be in the courtyard.
Google Maps can show you the spot. The Pentagon is a huge hollow structure. Some might argue, “in more ways than one.” The scale of the building is revealed when you realize that the center courtyard is a full five acres. It is, I am told, the largest “no hat, no salute” outdoors area in the DoD. It is also where I go to have a smoke.
Smokers are, probably rightly, a decided minority in America nowadays. Increasingly this is so in the military as well. At least outside of OIF/OEF anyway. (Inside those AOs, obviously, we all have a lot more pressing health concerns. “Massive traumatic lead poisoning” trumps “Maybe someday perhaps cancer” every time.) But smokers are a definite minority in the Pentagon. That status confers a sort of embattled sentiment among us, the offending, which seems to transcend rank and service issues. The mutual emotion of de facto persecution unites. My conversations in the courtyard, at one of the approved “smoking spots” seem therefore to be somewhat more egalitarian than in other places. This is good.
The group which clusters at my usual spot is an interesting cross section. Among the “regulars” are one Specialist, an E5, two E6s, five civilians, a couple of O4s and O5s, and at least two O6s. Army, Navy, and Air Force primarily, with a sprinkling of Marines. But around “our” bin, aside from normal professional courtesy, there is no deference. Conversations flow and spread -- nothing is really off-limits, and this group is sharp. Over the course of a single day the discussion may flow from issues of the 1st and 14th Amendments to the Constitution, to high energy and particle physics, to the nature of “Honor Cultures” and their relationship to the GWOT, to military history of the 18th Century, to name but a few of the issues we’ve wrestled with lately.
That is a lot of intellectual ground to cover, and our eclectic little group handles it well. Anyone may espouse any position -- but they can be absolutely assured that they will be challenged and must present facts in support of any argument they make. Logic rules, and while the debates can range far and wide, nobody is considered to have a corner on the intellectual market. It is one of the few places I’ve seen in the military where de facto salon culture actually exists, and men are entirely judged on the content of their intellectual arguments, completely divorced from their rank.
It was in that spirit, I suppose, that just the other day one of the regular NCOs felt free to ask me, “So, sir, who are you voting for?”
For the first time I had to decline a response. “Sorry, can’t tell you.” This brought the Staff Sergeant up short. We had, in the past, comfortably discussed and debated issues as disparate and potentially inflammatory as immigration policy, macroeconomics, abortion, and the role of religion in the United States. Sometimes we were on the same side in a multi-person free-for-all, sometimes we were on opposite sides. But I had never before balked from a topic or a question. What follows is as near as I can come to an exact transcript of what followed.
“What? No. C’mon sir, who’re you supporting?”
“I can’t say sergeant. Seriously.”
“Because it would be wrong.”
“Well, while it is not technically illegal, it runs completely against my professional ethic. Bottom Line: Officers should not endorse or vilify any civilian politician while they wear the uniform. Ever. Enlisted can say what they want, but an officer has got to keep that opinion to himself. Doing otherwise, well, it’s bad for the Republic.” (No kidding, that’s how I talk.)
“Nah, c’mon sir, seriously.”
“I am serious, sergeant. As serious as a heart attack. Any officer who ever tells an enlisted man, regardless of their relationship, who he is voting for is just wrong. You can talk about the positions of various politicians. You can explain or explore their stated policy objectives. You may even disagree with their logic or evidence, as you understand it. But you can never, ever, express a preference for a politician. Especially in an election year. Hell, my own wife and kids don’t even know who I have ever voted for. And that, well, that is exactly as it should be until I hang it up.”
“Whoa, well, uh, okay,” he says, taking his last drag and snuffing it out. “But I’m voting for Obama.”