The Military Won’t Save Men From ‘Doritos and Porn’

Not long ago, I read a young social media warrior contemplate his periodic dream of joining the U.S. Navy to avoid what he calls the “Doritos and porn” purposelessness of youth. The first time, right after high school, he’d considered it for the “purpose, order, meaning” it would bring him amid his depression. The second time, he was “studying grand strategy, political theory, foreign policy alongside some of the foremost instructors and top students in the nation,” and desiring an “anchor.” Yet he won’t pull the trigger, instead remaining among the security of social media intellectuals and aesthetes. Reading some James Jones might help cure him of his armchair romanticization.

Jones is the author of a couple of America’s greatest works of war fiction: Thin Red Line and From Here to Eternity, both of which have been popularized by Hollywood. Though born into a prominent, affluent family in southeastern Illinois, the Joneses lost their wealth in 1932 when their investments were wiped out in the Great Depression. With no money to attend college, Jones enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1939. He gambled, contracted a venereal disease from prostitutes, and failed to qualify for pilot training because of his weak eyesight. He participated in the practice, common among enlisted heterosexual men in pre-World War II Hawaii, of hustling drinks from gay men. A loner, he tried his hand at boxing, though he didn’t last past the second round of his first fight. He wrote condescendingly of the men in his units, calling them “moronic,” possessing “no more brains than a three year old,” and “f*ggots.” In time, he became their advocate.

He took a notebook with him everywhere, scribbling notes of his experiences and the characters he encountered. He was still in Hawaii on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese launched their surprise attack on Pearl Harbor. One year later, his company shipped out to Guadalcanal. There he shot a Japanese soldier at close distance. The experience terrified him. Jones was wounded on January 12, 1943, and evacuated from the Pacific to a hospital in Memphis, Tennessee. Stateside, more drinking and whoring ensued, until he developed a romantic relationship with a married woman, Lowney Turner Handy, who encouraged and helped him in his budding writing career.

Much of Jones’ experiences in Hawaii and the Pacific Theater have made their way into his literary classics—the call girls, the privileges given to athletes (or jockstraps, as they were called), and the hustling of homosexuals. From Here to Eternity, which traces the lives of two enlisted men in the peacetime U.S. Army in the months leading up to the attack on Pearl Harbor, was originally censored because of its language and graphic sex scenes. Enlisted life, as Jones tells it, is a soul-crushing, highly regimented thing, punctuated by dramatic bursts of violence and sex that serve as coping mechanisms. Men from many walks of life, with varying degrees of talent and intellectual acumen, are forced to conform to a “system of caste” defined by favoritism and “a hierarchy of arbitrary authority.” Jones declares: “I assert it is impossible to escape this degradation unless a man allows his own moral nature to be corrupted.”

We see this dilemma with the two main characters in From Here to Eternity: Private Robert E. Lee Prewitt and First Sergeant Milt Warden. The former, a talented boxer and bugler, rejects both callings, in large part because he wants to maintain his freedom under the tight grip of military discipline. Prewitt, in Jones’ words, “symbolizes the open rebels against the Society, who…perceive the evils of it and seek to hold themselves aloof from it and to withdraw from it, and who are also defeated because such withdrawal is impossible.” Warden, a confident and talented soldier and leader, “symbolizes the consecrated warriors who try to fight all the evils of Society from within the framework and pattern of Society, who use the very methods they fight in order to defeat them, and who by the very height and compass of their vision defeat themselves in the end and go down.” Both men, despite their prodigious talents, succumb to the cynicism fostered under the suffering, tedium, and injustice they experience in the Army.

The U.S. military has significantly improved since Jones served in the 1930s and 1940s. There are far more opportunities for advancement and rewards for excellence. One of my family members, a high-school graduate from rural Virginia, has made a career of the Army. It rewarded him with good family-friendly tours in Hawaii and Texas. It also paid for his bachelor’s degree, which means he should have little trouble finding work when he retires around age 50.

Yet those benefits didn’t come without their costs, among them multiple tours in Iraq and a tour at Gitmo. Another relative of mine, also an enlisted man in the Army, suffered from PTSD after his tour in Afghanistan. He also developed a dependency on Skoal. My own father, who served as an Army medic during Vietnam, endured his own form of PTSD. As a child, I was terrified of ever having to wake him from his weekend naps—if I came too close to him, he’d violently grab my arm, his eyes portending some mad, primal readiness to kill.

Moreover, as I know from my own tours in Afghanistan, there’s plenty of “Doritos and porn” in the military too. Soldiers often subsist on diets of junk food and energy drinks—subsidized by Uncle Sam himself. We used to joke that you came back from a war zone “a chunk, a drunk, or a hunk,” since there were few outlets besides the gym, eating, and drinking (if you could acquire alcohol). I still remember when General Stanley McChrystal ordered the closure of the Burger King at Kandahar Air Base—a good move for soldiers’ health, but not so much for morale. And where there’s a WiFi connection, there’s porn. One of my friends shared a bunk with a soldier whose evening entertainment on his laptop was porn…every night.

All this is to say that those who perceive in the military a romantic escape from the tedium and purposelessness of materialist, consumerist, ennui-infused American society are mistaken, to say the least. Certainly there is a higher purpose, as there are with many callings, martial or otherwise. But it can quickly be obscured amidst the boredom, bullying, and banality of the military experience. Even for those able to “keep their eyes on the prize,” you might find that your leadership was lying to you about the war in which you served and saw friends die. In that case, you may find yourself wondering, as many veterans are, if you “fought for nothing.”

This is why Jones, who is recommended by TAC’s own Andrew Bacevich, is so essential. Those tempted to equate the military with romantic escapism need to be brought down to earth. Those tempted to send someone else’s kids to “the sandbox,” inspired by the glorious drama of war, need to know what they’re going to encounter and potentially suffer from for the rest of their lives. Jones wrote in Thin Red Line: “War don’t ennoble men, it turns ’em into dogs.” I don’t agree with that characterization…at least not all the time. But it certainly happens often enough that we must ponder it long and hard.

Casey Chalk covers religion and other issues for The American Conservative and is a senior writer for Crisis Magazine. He has degrees in history and teaching from the University of Virginia, and a masters in theology from Christendom College.

The post The Military Won’t Save Men From ‘Doritos and Porn’ appeared first on The American Conservative.

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