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What is it about Military Service That Changes Your Perspective

May 1, 2003

A few weeks ago I wrote a
www.rightturns.com column on what the media was missing in its reporting from Iraq: how the military works. That column generated a larger than normal volume of mail. Those writing were mostly veterans themselves who expressed many of the same frustrations I wrote about while watching the war coverage.
I determined the source of frustration in the media output was because of the lack of military experience in the vast majority of the reporters.

This led me to think about what is it in the military experience that is so defining.

Separation: We are now seeing many photos of returning service men and women and their emotional greetings from family members. In addition, several reports stated that the marines and soldiers were eager to get to Baghdad, because "they knew they had to get to Baghdad to get home." Deployment in the military is not like a business trip overseas. It is longer, much more uncertain, much more dangerous, and much more isolating. It truly makes you appreciate our country. After my ship returned back to the states after a particularly long deployment in 1977, I had the quarterdeck watch the first night in, which was a Friday night. A bunch of sailors from my division were heading for liberty, all "dressed to the nines". I asked them what the special occasion was. One of them, a Filipino, said, "Mr. Harper, it is Friday night in America! It does not get any better than this."

Men who love men: Ironically, outside the gay rights movement, the military experience is the only other part of our culture where men learn to love other men. Of course, I do not mean in a sexual way. I do mean in a "willing to die for someone else" way. War memoirs, with rare exception, talk of the bonding of military men. Combat medal winners seldom talk of freedom, the Constitution, liberty, etc. as the reason for their bravery. Mostly, they talk of their not wanting to let down their fellow troopers.

Regular people: The Washington Post has a section on its website that lists the names and photos is those killed in Iraq plus some of the letters they wrote home. Read the letters. Our servicemen and women are not blood thirsty Rambos. They are normal American men and women who miss their children, their spouses, their parents, the Little League games, the backyard grilling, etc. Just like the overwhelming majority of past veterans, when they are through with their service, they will get a job, raise families, pay taxes, live the American dream, and, contrary to the media's point of view, not become lunatics.

Part of history: I remember my parents talking of the need for military service with my three older brothers and I. My father said it was expected of American males: had been since 1776 and would continue to be. My mother added her academic perspective with the responsibility we had to be part of our country's history, just like our ancestors were when they answered the bugle.

Healthy irreverence: Some of the craziest times I ever had were during my time in the Navy. We were far from the blind robots that would follow any orders given to us (as often depicted in movies). We were sassy and healthily disrespectful of ridiculous orders and missions. Early in the Iraqi war, a British newspaper ran a story ("a miracle") with picture of a Royal Marine who had a helmet with several bullet holes in it. When I saw the picture of the grinning Marine, I knew right away his grin was because he was pulling one over on the reporter. Alas, later the Marines admitted creating the story for a laugh.

An odd point about all of this is that these feelings are often transferable for the most part when you meet/communicate with veterans with whom you did not serve. That is what I learned from the responses I received about the article "What the media does not understand: How the military works".

I do not wish to imply that most of these perspectives are not unavailable in other parts of life (I certainly have good male friends from other chapters in my life), just not as intense or as lasting or as transforming as in military service.

Sam T. Harper graduated cum laude from Vanderbilt University.  Following a tour in the US Navy and a stint as Operations Manager at Roadway Express, he earned his MBA from Stanford University Graduate School of Business.  He was a contributor to “In Search of Excellence,” the best selling business book of all time.  Sam was also Manager, Economic Planning & Analysis at Sohio Petroleum, Partner and Chief Financial Officer at investment-banking firm Bridgemere Capital, and Chief Operating Officer of the Institute for Contemporary Studies, a San Francisco Bay Area-based think tank and international publishing firm that specializes in self-governing and entrepreneurial public policy.  Sam was a chairman of the San Francisco Republican party and the GOP co-host of California Political Review on KALW-FM in San Francisco.  Sam is currently the co-owner of the Tennessee based Institute for Local Effectiveness Training, LLC – a management consulting, training, and coaching firm.