One day this August, in Chicago’s O’Hare airport, I watched 50 or so Navy seamen ride down an escalator in a single-file line and form a circle around a baggage claim belt. By the time the last seaman stepped crisply off the escalator, the arrivals area was awash in white. Several people stopped to stare and take pictures. The seamen’s pristine uniforms were identical, and each carried the same black garment bag in his left hand. The men were silent. They looked regal — and handsome.
I feel a twinge of pride every time I see a military officer in uniform. I come from a multi-generational military family, and my mother, who was commissioned in June of 1978, retired as an Army colonel after serving for 30 years. Growing up, my sister and I often played dress-up with my mother’s dog tags and black combat boots. We’d salute our stuffed animals and march around the house, proudly announcing our intentions to someday be in the Army, too.
Instead, I opted out of the family business and am now a liberal twenty-something journalist living in Brooklyn. But I am a proud military brat—and today being Veterans Day, I am especially proud—something with which most people cannot identify. I understand why. Less than 0.5 percent of the population serves in the armed forces, compared with more than 12 percent during World War II. The widening gap between the American people and their armed forces means most civilians know very little about what serving in the military entails. The military is not a popular topic of conversation among my friends, but when it comes up, I am often struck by their misconceptions about what it means to wear the uniform, and their belief that there is a correlation between serving in the military and agreeing with the military’s mission.
My friends make this assumption because, as civilians, they are free to choose their actions based on their beliefs and opinions. But political preferences have little bearing on military service; wearing the uniform does not necessarily mean agreeing with the Commander-in-Chief’s policies or supporting the wars in which the military is engaged. In fact, a 2011 Pew Research Center report found that only 34 percent of post-9/11 veterans believe that, given the costs and benefits to the U.S., the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have been worth fighting.
In the U.S., where individuality and self-expression reign supreme, it is easy to scoff at those who blindly follow orders. Beginning in kindergarten, we are praised for thinking for ourselves; we grow up looking down on people who submit to authority. In corporate America, asserting creativity and challenging the pecking order will earn a young employee a pat on the back on their rise to the top. In the military, a low-ranking soldier who voices a difference of opinion at an inappropriate time may be told to drop down and give twenty.
The culture of black-and-white standards in the military begins with the uniform, where there is no margin for error or room for personal preference. Each branch of the armed forces has several uniforms for specific occasions, and each uniform has its own traditions and rules for correct wear. Hands cannot occupy pockets. A cover (a military hat that is never referred to as a hat) is not to be worn indoors. When in uniform in public, service members are not permitted to eat, drink, smoke, chew gum, or talk on a cell phone. They cannot engage in public displays of affection. Umbrellas are sometimes allowed, but only if they are black and logo-free. And when it comes to sleeves, best to consult the specific service’s rulebook.
These may sound like uncompromising rules. But properly wearing the uniform is a matter of personal pride for service members (as well as their offspring — a true military brat understands the value of spit-shining combat boots), who view their service as more than just an occupation. As retired Major General J.D. Lynch wrote recently, “There are no ‘jobs’ [in the military]. There are only ‘duties.’” Fulfilling these duties requires obeying commands in service of carrying out the mission at hand. This is a good thing. Moreover, it is a matter of national security. Rules of engagement do not mix well with judgment calls; a soldier who follows his or her moral compass on the battlefield instead of a commander’s orders is a dangerous liability.
In January of 1991, when the Gulf War air campaign began, U.S. military personnel were immediately deployed overseas. My mother, a staff officer in a logistics unit at the time, was pregnant with her third child (my sister). Had her unit been called up, my mother would have been allowed to defer deployment until my sister was six weeks old.
One day, before it was certain my mother’s unit would not be deployed, my father’s secretary asked him: “Peter, how can you allow her to go?” My father — who had also been in the Army, achieving the rank of captain before resigning his commission — was flabbergasted. “It’s not up to me,” he said. “She wears the uniform. It doesn’t matter if she’s a wife, a mother, a pacifist — she wears the uniform.”
I do not wear the uniform, and I doubt I ever will. But I will always be proud to come from a long line of men and women who did. And I am glad to have grown up with a deep appreciation for what wearing the uniform signifies: sacrifice, allegiance, and a commitment to serve.