AMONG MY awkward memories of Army life, I remember fondly the blue dawn over Fort Knox, Ky., when on many cold mornings I had no choice except to stand in the company street and enjoy the sky, that extraordinary moment before the first light when it turns a deep and purifying blue.
Army life forces one to focus on simple pleasures. Watching the dawn. Getting in from the cold. Riding in a truck instead of marching. Smoking a borrowed cigarette at the end of the month when you are broke and cannot buy your own.
These are experiences which most women don't share since, in modern boy-girl America, the girls are not conscripted for the national defense. I think women suffer from the exclusion, but so do men, for reasons that are less obvious.
Every morning at Fort Knox, they roused us in darkness, several hundred young American males undergoing basic training, and we lined up at the mess hall. At the doorway, every recruit had to do chinups before he could get inside and, if a young turkey failed to do the required number of chinups, he went to the back of the line.
I spent a lot of mornings at the back of the line, watching the dawn. Cursing the sergeant. Feeling cold and humiliated. Bumming cigarettes in the darkness. And, yes, enjoying myself.
Like most men, part of me loved Army life -- although I love the feeling of it more than I actually loved it at the time. And this has nothing to with war. This was 20 years ago and I was in the peacetime, draft Army of the 1950s, which was a national joke not that different from the jokes told today about the volunteer Army. I still have my old field jacket in the hall closet, which I wear occasionally when my son isn't wearing it.
My experience is different, of course, from that of career soldiers or soldiers who suffered tragically. I recognize that my summer soldier days will sound trivial and unreal to them. But most American men who have been in uniform in peacetime feel the same way, I think. Even summer soldiers tell "war stories" from Fort Knox or Fort Sill, Okla., the way women talk among themselves about giving birth.
Now many of the old soldiers feel positively threatened by the idea that American women might share this experience equally. The Army is a boys' game and girls can't play. If we examine that proposition, I think we may uncover an unpleasant secret about little boys and the true content of their nostalgia.
Behind the masculine bravado of playing soldier, the experience of Army life actually involves a kind of impotence -- the luxurious irresponsibility of individuals who must give over all personal decision-making to the organization. There is secret joy in that which no many males is anxious to reveal about himself, for it conflicts so starkly with his masculine ideal of heroic warriors.
Life in the barracks begins with a kind of crude equality. All of us were abruptly reduced to nameless cattle, waiting in line with our duffel bags. Smart-ass college kids, like myself, were stripped of our private advantages. The sinewy country boys, who had never been away from home, who had never talked to college kids, who perhaps had never owned two pairs of new boots, were our equals. Some of them were more than equal.
At the end of the line, all of us underwent the famous GI haircut, a crucial psychological step to becoming a soldier. All of us emerged limp and ridiculous. Skinheads. I remember a big Italian kid from Cleveland, who seemed so menacing with his oily ducktail. He left the barber's chair pale and confused. The haircut equalized us, reduced us all to the same sorry status. So did the Sad Sack figures, of course. And so did the language.
Within a few weeks, every recruit in our barracks, from the urbane UVa graduate with his mellow Tidewater accent to the spooky black dude from Dayton, everyone spoke the same coarse language -- an awkward patois of obscene adjectives and sexual malapropisms.
At the mess hall table, one said routinely: "Please pass the f------ bread." The young troopers were "every swinging dick." On the command of double-time march, the platoon sergeant exhorted "hump." If our platoon straggled, we were stood in formation in the company street while the top sergeant denounced us as a "bunch of pussies."
What shame, what ecstacy. Women who work with men in factories or offices may hear echoes of this soldier talk from the men around them; ambitious women may even try to imitate it. Nothing sound more absurd to my ear than a woman critizing another woman by saying: "She doesn't have the balls."
For soldiers and perhaps for other workers, too, the crude language is a cover. The hard-bitten sexual talk is a way of concealing -- even denying -- what has happened to them. They have become skinheads, serial numbers, uniform parts. They have lost their individuality, their personal control over their own time and energy. They are reduced to the simple pains and pleasures; they must conform to mindless rules and regulations. The coarse language enables soldiers to feel manly about their loss of freedom. To feel strong in the group when they are clearly impotent as individuals.
The thing is, it works. Basic training does succeed in converting a collection of wildly different individuals into a cohesive group. In a very brief period, the barracks is "humping" to please the top sergeant whom we hate. People of considerable sophistication and cynicism are laboring with energy they didn't know they had in order to pass ridiculous tests of perfection. Are the footlockers lined up precisely for inspection? Has everyone memorized the "Code of Conduct" and the "Chain of Command"? Is your underwear folded according to specifications?
These petty bureaucratic matters are taken seriously because, if one fails, the group fails. So, after the racial differences are fought out, after the Yankees have baited the Southerners and the college brats have been ridiculed as "born f---- ups," the platoon begins to function collectively. The country boys teach the college kids about rifles. The college kids do the fast talking when the sergeant comes around.
As every old soldier knows, there is an extraordinary amount of bureaucratic cheating in the military -- honorable cheating, I would call it, because it represents the group's effort to cover for its weakest members. I remember a kid from Arkansas named Friday who, in addition to being too puny to carry the standard pack and rifle, was also illiterate. The Army was the best thing that ever happened to poor Friday -- good food, good clothes and $84 a month, in cash. We all cheated for Friday, took all the tests for him and carried his rifle when he wilted on long marches, but the Army finally sent him home.
In time, after basic training, the inequalities begin to reassert themselves. The college kids know how to control a typewriter, which means indoor work, no heavy lifting. The college kids score highest at artillery school, which means they do not have to be sweaty cannoneers. We get to direct the howitzers and watch the field of targets. We get to keep score while others do the "humping." Still, we are all part of the same joke and we pull together.
Army life is ridiculous, boring and mindless, constructed of maddening repetitions, endless waiting, unnecessary slop and sludge, and the joke of course lies in our manly responses to this. The organization says implicitly to the individual: You thought you would never go along with this insane regimen, with our crazy agenda for your life, but look at you now. You are striving to be good at it, even though you hate it. And we are as thrilled as small boys, or at least we pretend to feel manly.
In Army life, at least for enlisted men in peacetime, there is that luxurious sense of irresponsibility. For the individual, all important choices are made for him. One feels trapped, like nameless cattle, but there is a kind of estasy in surrendering all decisions to the group. The important luxury of watching the blue dawn.
What I am suggesting is that the American definition of manliness conceals this hollow element. Hiding behind the manly myth is the unpleasant dictum of self subordinated to the group. This false esprit is repeated and elaborated in a boy's life, albeit more subtly than in basic training.
One hears it in the coach's angry voice in a high school locker room. In the smart advice whispered in corporate corridors. In the cautious hunkering of nervous government bureaucrats. In the outrageous, mechanical rhetoric of that great national church, pro football. If men truly wished to be free (and many men do not), I do not think they would define manlinesss as a willing submission to the team.
If women were present as equals in Army life, their presence would disrupt this "manly" tradition. Not because women are more individualists than men, but because as newcomers women would see the true content, particularly of the sexual language. Women would embarass the process and expose it, which would be good, I think, but obviously painful for the men.
If little girls were drafted too, it would be less fun for little boys to play soldier.