[June 24, 2020] During my 40-year career in the U.S. military, people asked many times why I stayed in the Army. My response typically went something like this: “I don’t like being told what to do, but I like being part of something bigger than me.” Frankly, I never really gave the reasons much thought while I was serving. Looking back on my career, however, I think my intentions were much deeper but also more straightforward to explain.
All humans wish to be free of rules. But we also like structure in our lives at the same time. The ‘rules are bad’ versus ‘structure’ seems, at least on the surface, a contradiction. We love freedom, the idea we can go any place, any time, and with no hindrances. People have a distaste for rules that inhibit us and crush our free spirit. Like the old “Signs” song lyrics by Five Man Electrical Band1; “And the sign said ‘Long-haired freaky people need not apply.’” Applying for a job, the band lashes out at the restrictive nature of society.
But we also hunger for rules, especially younger people, or at least desire guidelines and for a good reason. Many are raised today untutored in what was once called “practical wisdom,” which guided previous generations. Simple things like how to be strong mentally and physically, protect the weak and innocent, fair play, an aversion to violence, reverence to the family and God, and loving one’s country. Rules and structure help simplify the world and make it more predictable.
Like many of my generation, leaders told us human knowledge of the past was out of date, oppressive, or not relevant. Surely – we were told – we could re-invent social norms and create a more modern and progressive culture where prejudices, hatred, and discrimination would go away. Morality could be redefined to mean whatever we wanted it to be. How convenient? We were superior to those that came before us. We were better educated, understood science, and had made significant advances that freed us from restrictions of the past.
But, this only put us adrift in a society; we were without any anchor. I certainly was adrift. The Army gave me something that I had hard identifying, partly because I wasn’t looking, and maybe I couldn’t understand it.
The Army cultivated good judgment in me. I now could ‘see’ the difference in good and evil more clearly. I could see also that the nihilists’ view that says that nothing matters, that there is no real good, and there are no actual values. The nihilist view is a bunch of hogwash. Wisdom is never out of date. A moral vacuum was created. And people don’t like vacuums in their lives. So I joined the Army and stayed there.