Wednesday, May 27, 2009

Then and Now: Sergeant Sensitive

Echo Company is a maintenance support unit based in Central Pennsylvania and composed to a large extent of soldiers who are also mechanics. For the deployment the Army filled our ranks with other National Guard soldiers literally from across the nation. I could not have written this post before West Coast soldiers joined our unit.

First a disclaimer: Sergeant Sensitive is more than one person, but none of those persons are female. The female NCOs in our unit, as you already know, are some of the best soldiers at PT and on the ranges and the ones who stay in know they must be in charge--and they are. As far as I have ever heard, they have no mixed feelings about the job of a soldier.

THEN: During my first enlistment, Sergeant Sensitive was inevitable given the times and the draft. Because of the draft there were men in the Army who clearly did not belong there. Because of the times, those men were likely to be devotees of New Age spirituality, peace and brotherhood. In the 70s, especially the early 70s before the draftees had all left the system, I would run into a smart young sergeant who was trying to do his job in a cooperative way. “We should all be able to get along. We are all on the same team.” Since I was an agnostic at the time, I noticed by their manner of speaking that almost all of these men were believers, but had rejected some traditional faith from their childhood. The “Give Peace a Chance” mentality does not mesh with the creeds and doctrine of orthodox religion. They communed with God in Nature, the old-fashioned God who had rules and standards and was the head of an absolute monarchy was way too Old School.

2007: That was then. We are now eight years into the War on Terror and more than three decades away from the end of the draft. For a few years after September 11, 2001, there could have been soldiers who enlisted thinking there had not been a war for a while. But when I re-enlisted in 2007 I assumed that by now no one could be in the military and be unclear that being a soldier meant being a soldier in combat. Back in the 1970s people might have thought an Age of Aquarius could be dawning, but no one could think that way now—or so I thought. And while I was in central Pennsylvania, my assumption was correct. No soldier I met gave any indication that “Give Peace a Chance” was his anthem. (Just a reminder for the neutral pronoun crowd: I am using “his” correctly. Sgt. Sensitive is never a woman.)

NOW: When we went to Fort Sill and soldiers from the West Coast joined our ranks. Soon I met Sergeant Sensitive. The first place I met him was on the rifle range. We were getting ready to go to the firing line and qualify with rifles. Sgt. Sensitive had 40 rounds of ammo in two magazines. He was getting ready to knock down 23 or more targets with those 40 rounds to show he was qualified as a rifleman. He came from a laid-back unit which he liked very much and landed in the company that does the most combat training in battalion. He was getting pushed hard to be a combat leader. But to be Sgt. Sensitive is to be convinced there is a "better way" than the Army way. He said, "They think there is no other way than yelling. They could, like, cooperate. I mean we can all work together. . ."

In another incarnation, I met sergeant sensitive riding a rented bike at Fort Sill. He was happily out communing with nature. We had a five-minute conversation during which "like Dude" occurred more times than I can count.

You could think, "So what?" These guys are National Guard, they are not making military careers, and it's not like we are front line troops anyway. But the random gods of the Army reach down and move soldiers like so many chess pieces. After a year of hearing we were going to Balad, here we are in Tallil. Some of us are rebuilding battered buildings, some of us are fixing vehicles. But others of us are on security detail. The soldiers on the detail are picked for various reasons, but they are not consulted about their feelings and what if sergeant sensitive is a team leader on alert status for guarding the fence?

Any sergeant at any time could be the commander of a vehicle with a gun on top. If that gunner is hurt, the vehicle commander has to put another gunner up in the place that is going to be the first aiming point for an enemy. That decision, who goes next when things go bad can't be made cooperatively. In seconds, somebody has to get up in that turret. It will be an order, not a consultation.

We practice telling soldiers what to do in the motor pool and on work crews and during PT to get them used to obeying and keep us in the business of keeping the soldiers moving when and where they need to.

Of course, sergeant sensitive can be East Coast also. Two weeks ago, I wanted to put one of our best guys on a security detail in place of a guy who was not enthusiastic about it. I told the first sergeant I was thinking like a civilian. I wanted the best soldier from our unit to be on duty at a higher headquarters. Ten minutes later I had a loud argument with the indifferent soldier's squad leader and I changed my mind. Security is a rotten detail and the kid who screwed up should be sent back to do it right. That's the Army way. I was sergeant sensitive and decided to go with the Army way.

Now I just have to be sure to turn the switch back to civilian in February.

The Philosopher of War and Terror and Politics: Hannah Arendt

Hannah Arendt 1906-1975 Today a friend asked and I were talking about politics and how refugee problems have led to wars in the pas...