Usefulness And Identity

I was “swamping” for extra money on the weekends, back in college, with a saw crew.  We would head out to the forest early in the morning, work all day, and start yearning for the main guy, Jeremy, to say, “Alright…” around five in the evening.  It was such hard work, and I never really got used to it.  The sawyers would saw, but the swampers would just drag all the chopped up parts into piles, to be burned later that year when the snow fell.  That was it.  When I got home, I’d have dirt and twigs eeeeeverywhere, including inside my pants, even inside my underwear.    

Jeremy would round up whoever he could, each weekend, so it wasn’t always the same faces, and one weekend there was this guy who had a typical young man’s energy, and was reasonably nice and smart etc, but somehow felt really challenged when I mentioned I was in the Army National Guard.  This was an unusual reaction in my experience — most people thought it was cool or thought it was stupid, period.  So I poked around a little in his sense of aversion, and discovered that he associated military service with “being yelled at by some asshole”, and that he just knew he could never tolerate that.  He’d have to punch them right in the face, or run away, or…something.  He would kill them, if he was in that situation.  He was very emphatic about this, almost hyperventilating.  

Now that I think about it — it was so long ago — yeah, it was like he had treated me like a perfectly normal person up until the point he discovered I was in the Guard, and then he became, no pun intended, very guarded around me, as if I was some borderline new critter.  “How could you?,” he asked, without even meaning to, it seemed.  This reaction was just elicited from him by…not me.  Some overlay.  “How could you let them treat you and everyone else that way?  They take your clothes, your individuality, your personhood, and turn you into this…this…mindless…and they just yell at you!…”

Looking back — I think this is the first time I thought about it since it happened, so that’s like a 20 year pause lol — this guy was having some kind of low grade trauma response, honestly.  At the time I didn’t have enough perspective to even consider that.  I was just struggling, I guess, with the enormity of what he seemed to be experiencing, vicariously, on my behalf, and which was not in any way true for me.  Like, he just shot off into space, all on his own.

He and I were just off from the scattered group, dragging up endless logs and branches, so this was the conversation to have, now, apparently.  Of course it was odd for me — most of what we did on drill weekends was digest one meal while waiting for the next, try out various Adam Sandler movie quotes on each other, and scope out who hadn’t shown up on time with the intention of stealing their mud flaps and brackets.  There weren’t ever enough of those to go around, so they constantly just redistributed themselves.  We’d congregate in one of the armory classrooms for a sexual harassment refresher or gas mask inventory.  Just your basic weekend warrior stuff.  

I think I tackled the yelling thing first.  “They only yell at you when you go off for training, at first.  Then it’s just like a normal job.”

“I couldn’t.  No way.”

“It’s actually pretty impressive?”  I told him this story, to try and reframe the whole thing.  We were still at Reception Battalion, where they issue uniforms and “TA 50” (big duffel o Army junk), shave the boys’ heads, give us ten thousand shots, take our saliva sample for the DNA bank, stamp the dog tags, all that.  It is, no doubt, an experience of getting yelled at, rather than spoken to, as a rule.  It’s a sort of psychological tenderizing for going “downrange” to boot camp proper.  

Depending on how quickly the cadre downrange graduated their current cycle, relative to the new one that’s just arrived, a group of newbies might spend several days or even up to a week at Reception Battalion, as was the case with us.  They literally ran out of shit to have us do.  There’s only so much junk to issue and clean.  So at one point they herded us into this big auditorium and showed us Full Metal Jacket, which was a big hit.  Halfway through the movie, though, too many people had fallen asleep because we were all exhausted from being marched around all day and half the night.  I sure was one of the ones who fell asleep.  So they stopped the movie and yelled at us, from the stage, with bullhorns, to wake everyone up and generally shame us.  

Up until that point, all the drill sergeants had seemed almost interchangeable to me, with surface level differences like action figures.  But waking up, being yelled at from the stage, I noticed that the drill with the bullhorn was on a pretty good tirade and then for just a brief moment — you’d never catch it if you weren’t looking — he faltered, his energy and bravado stuttered; the whole act skipped like a CD; and another drill smoothly segued in with his bullhorn.  It happened so fast.  

Before this moment, I hadn’t been UN-conscious of them as human beings, let’s say, but it was just a lot happening at once, psychologically.  After this moment, I had a total re-framing.  I realized they probably trained up new drills at Reception Battalion, before giving them their own cycles downrange, and that just like anything, there were more experienced and less experienced drills, and a mentorship process, and a teamwork process, and that they all had feelings all around that.  

The magnitude of their responsibility wasn’t clear to me yet — in the coming weeks I’d watch them protect us all from injury while handling a wider and more frequent assortment of weapons and situations, in increasing states of fatigue and stress.  One private didn’t manage to get his hand grenade thrown *over* the wall, and his range sergeant grabbed that thing and lobbed it and tackled them both down flat.  I had just finished low crawling along with everyone else at the tracer range one day — a miserable endeavor, used for casual punishment — and just before I got in position to shoot again, a drill ran over, grabbed my rifle, upended it, and a couple rocks fell out.  He had noticed from fifteen yards away that I got some rocks in my barrel.  And literally endless more micro-heroics, too many to relate.  I didn’t know any of this yet, on the occasion of the Full Metal Jacket viewing, but I did suddenly see through the curtain, let’s just say.  What an act, what an exhausting act!  I began to appreciate it in earnest, how hard that would be when you’re new, less focused on myself and more aware of my surroundings.  

I tried to tell this story to my fellow swamper but it fell flat.  “That’s just not right, it’s just not right,” he repeated.  “Why do they have to do that.”

“Well, for one thing, a lot of people who go into basic training are total fuck ups,” I surmised.  “They’re completely unmanageable, and do the opposite of what they’re told to do just as a rule.  The whole thing is, like, designed to take a really dissimilar group of people and make them all function the same.”

“That’s just it,” he fumed, and agonized some more about people’s clothes, music, and individuality being ‘taken away’.  

To this, I truly laughed.  “‘Taken away’??  How could anyone’s individuality be ‘taken away’ by a couple months of different clothes and no music?  That’s not what your individuality is.”  Even at twenty-four or whatever I was, this was really really clear to me.

“Whatever,” he said.  “If anyone gets in my face, yelling — I just can’t.  No way.”  

I tried one more time.  “They get in your face and yell because it’s their job, and because they have to keep you from killing yourself, and they’re actually pretty funny once you get over the shock.  And they’re really good at their jobs.  And their jobs are really hard.”

In the end, I think we agreed to disagree, or just moved off to separate piles.  The guy was standoffish with me the rest of the weekend, which was fine.

I guess I’m remembering this conversation now because I’m having so many interactions with people (via social media of course) that feel the exact same way, but relative to cops.  I just watched the most amazing video last night — some more body cam footage.  The cops in Nisswa, Minnesota pulled some guy over at the side of the road, and were doing their jobs when the Mayor of Nisswa comes walking along with his dog.  Unbelievably, the Mayor gets really triggered, out of nowhere, and begins verbally harassing the cops.  They tell him to stand off multiple times, he continues approaching and aggressing them, goes for physical contact at one point, and they finally just arrest him.  

So, to recap: the cops had to arrest their own mayor for disorderly conduct and interfering with them doing their jobs at the side of the road.

It is difficult for me to understand how we’ve matriculated an entire generation or two that is so…wounded?…that they’re all essentially functioning on the level of this kid I swamped with, twenty years ago.  They’re so focused on surface level individuality and psychological safe spaces that they can look *right at* the professionals tasked with their physical safety and see only a threat.  (Yes, there’s obviously room to talk about “bad apples” and police unions running interference for cops everyone knows are off the deep end, etcetera and so forth, but to treat those instances as representative of the whole is just another example of this deep, reality-distorting woundedness.)  

Just the fact that this mindset cannot even begin to resonate with the realities faced by cops is, in itself, proof that they are entirely unprepared to negotiate the consequences of defunding police, and tackling law and order on their own.  They can’t.  They absolutely can’t, and it’s horrifying that they are sheltered enough and narcissistic enough to feel qualified to make this decision for the rest of us.  And that’s no exaggeration — they defunded the police in Seattle by 75% and my brother moved the fuck out of Seattle, because that’s what you do when people who are so sheltered they don’t even understand what they’re dealing with, remove the systems and institutions that protect you from, for instance, them.  

Even beyond the overt issues, here, it’s the emotionality of it that leaves me scratching my head.  Like the kid I was swamping with — no one’s saying he has to join the military.  If he did, it would’ve knocked some of his limiting beliefs loose.  I’m not even talking about “toughening up” or “being a man” — I mean, literally, see what it’s like to put on a uniform and be of service in a larger project that isn’t about self-pathologizing, or being trendy. 

I’m of the mindset that every American high school graduate should be conscripted, for about two years, into some type of uniformed service, as a prerequisite to moving on to college or a career.  I’m strongly opposed to this service being necessarily military.  If people want that, great, but there’s a lot of other shit that needs doing.  Domestic peace corps, international peace corp, community service and improvement, support for the elderly and the disabled, care for all the animals abandoned to the Humane Society and various shelters — just an endless list of things that would benefit the receivers and the givers of the service.  

The two main problems would be an impingement upon people’s sense of freedom and choice, and secondly a new built-in government money funnel that is likely to function no more efficiently than the MVD.  

Did you know the Pentagon had never been audited?  Until recently.  Trump had the Pentagon audited — how hilarious is that — and they failed.  In fact, the audit couldn’t even be completed:  “…the DoD’s financial records were riddled with so many bookkeeping deficiencies, irregularities, and errors that a reliable audit was simply impossible.”

So I think the project of mandatory youth community service could certainly be erected under the umbrella of several private interests with, at most, loose government oversight, if at all.  

This is not, like, the hill I want to die on — it’s more of a chronic, idle speculation, but one that seems more urgent, not less, as I continually take the temperature of my own generation and the younger generations.  I think it’s atrocious that the apparently average younger perspective in America is that the choice to put on a uniform and be of service to others represents this emotionally and intellectually impenetrable barrier of dehumanization.  We should all just be out here emoting and performing our most surface level identities to the hilt, right?  That’s a great way to truly dehumanize and ethically euthanize a populace.   

In free market style, it wouldn’t even have to be a mandatory thing, just heavily incentivized.  This whole transition from high school to whatever’s next could use some help.  And frankly high school, and K-12 period, could use an overhaul, with a better focus on simple usefulness.  Knowing the the mitochondria is the powerhouse of the cell just ain’t enough.

What does it mean when a large segment of the population can’t “see” usefulness, to the extent that they cannot imagine being expected to themselves become useful as payment in advance for their rights, and even demonize the people who have chosen to become useful in any case?  It’s not just about the cops — it’s about “protestors” dragging truck drivers from their vehicles; blocking arteries of traffic when people need to get to work; the total disregard of businesses and personal property as a symbol of manifested social usefulness; rejecting both the economic and social institutions that require usefulness as a prerequisite to upward mobility.

The saddest part to me, now, is the same as it was twenty years ago, talking to this guy in the woods: the world is your oyster, your luxury cruise ship of amazing experiences, and you know what the cost of that ticket is?  The willingness to become useful.  There are so many jobs that need doing, and you don’t have to do the ones you don’t like.  You can spend your whole life doing only things you enjoy, and probably become one of the most useful people on earth as a result.  When we’re young, and this was certainly true for me, I didn’t have a big vocabulary of useful things I could offer, and I didn’t know what that might look like for me.  I had to just get out and, you know, do some stuff.  These big sheep dips of service, military or medical or law enforcement or clerical or commercial driving or the trades, are not where individualities go to die; anyone who tells you otherwise has some real limiting beliefs which render them, among other things, less useful than they might otherwise be.  Individuality and usefulness are complimentary, for fucks sake, not mutually exclusive.

The main impression I have, watching videos of the 93% or 95% fiery, but mostly peaceful, protests, these last few months, is of a population that has been convinced that their identity is a vehicle to usefulness, not that usefulness can be a vehicle to identity.  

I’d like to say more but, speaking of usefulness, it’s time to for me to get useful and start breaking down this operation.  We’re headed to standby unless we get called to another fire en route — looks like things popped off in California, Montana, and a couple more burners in Colorado yesterday and last night, so it’s a roll of the dice.              

3 thoughts on “Usefulness And Identity

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