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Why I Got Out: An Introduction

(On July 22nd, Michael C officially left active-duty U.S. Army service. In an attempt to explain why, he started a series about the Army’s culture, its successes and its failures.

Read the rest of the series at:

- Why I Got Out: That's Just The Way It Is

- More 'That's Just The Way It Is

- What The Army Spent 570 Million Hours Doing

- Get Yer Hands Outta Yer Darn Pockets

- Why I Got Out: Physical, Not Mental

On a more positive note, if you want to know why Michael C joined the Army, read about it in “Why Do I Fight?”, “What Did You Do Out There”, “Did You Accomplish Anything Out There?”, “Why I Served”, and finally, “Hasta La Vista...Baby”.)

“Why did you do it Michael? Why did you get out?”

For some reason, I feel I have to answer this question, why? Part of it is for the reader; part of it is to justify it to myself. I could simply say, “My wife and I decided long ago the military was a five year service opportunity, and not a career,” and leave it at that.

But I need to answer a deeper question: why don’t I want to devote twenty-plus years to serving in the Army? Why, after I joined, did the Army not entice me to make it a career?

Last Friday I officially ended my active-duty service, so I now feel free to answer that question in a series of posts and guest posts. To start, I need to hop in the way-back machine to the year 2004, before I graduated from UCLA.

That winter I took a class at UCLA with Professor Lynn Hunt. Most of my readers will say, “and she is?” and I understand that. Simply, she’s the Eugen Weber Professor of European history at UCLA. In the field of history, she is something of a big deal. She was the President of the American Historical Association in 2002, and she’s ridiculously well published, in English and French.

She’s also a pioneer in cultural history, which is part of the reason I had such a problem with her when I first took her class, History of Western Civilization 1C. I just didn’t get the idea of cultural history. It seemed fuzzy to me. It seemed like I had somehow been dropped into my hippy brother’s English class, where up means down and Shakespeare advocated violent Marxism.

Despite my doubts about cultural history, I still ended up taking her classes again, specifically her course on the French Revolution, one of her areas of expertise. We compared her seminal Politics, Culture and Class in the French Revolution to Alexis de Tocqueville’s canonical The Old Regime and the French Revolution (which, I would argue, says more about the American theory of government than Democracy in America, take that as an overly bold, intellectual challenge). That second class gave me a key insight: this culture thing might really mean something. Sure, I still think the “great men” version of history is probably the best way to tell the story of history; but the images and symbols of the French Revolution meant something. They affected all the other versions of history, from the political to the social. You can’t ignore the culture without losing something.

Got it, Michael C. Cultural history means something. What does this have to do with you getting out of the Army?

Well, over the last seven years, through study, through travel and through deployment, I feel like I’ve experienced different cultures. I feel safe saying I know the Army’s culture.

And I’m not a huge fan.

The Army has a distinct culture apart from that of businesses, the private sector, the non-profit sector, academia or even the rest of the federal government. To argue otherwise--as pops up occasionally in the comment’s section on the Thomas Ricks blog “that a bureaucracy is a bureaucracy no matter what the name”--is to ignore reality.

In one sentence, I am getting out because the Army’s culture doesn’t challenge me enough. I need the risk and reward you can’t get from a career in the Army. When Tim Kane published “Why Our Best Officers Are Leaving” in the Atlantic, this idea was on the tongues of all the officers he interviewed.

The Army doesn’t have a truly innovative culture that rewards creativity, originality and innovation. We can debate the merits conformity and discipline versus uncertainty and free thinking, but those are the terms. And this culture encompasses more than just risk and stability; it extends to valuing physical fitness over intellectual rigor, a complete disregard for language proficiency, a lack of understanding of other cultures, the use of official investigations as a hammer instead of a tool, talking about “helping soldiers” while not, and a refusal to acknowledge that the soldiers most in need of help are the ones getting dishonorably discharged. Oh, I forgot a profligate attitude towards money with little regard for the business principles of efficiency or productivity.

So Eric C and I have set out for a truly uncertain world, the world of writing. We are going to try to succeed by selling our ideas and ourselves in Hollywood, a immensely uncertain proposition, but also potentially extremely rewarding. This idea feels tremendously liberating: is there anything more different than the Army--where towing the line equates with success--than trying to sell screenplays in Los Angeles, where you are only as good as your last movie?

If that reason doesn’t satisfy you, then I will just say this: it is 90 plus degrees with humidity in Clarksville, Tennessee, and 70 degrees with no humidity in San Clemente, California.

eleven comments

I’d recommend pondering these big thoughts while surfing outside the Old Western White House. Yes, I know it’s now owned by some pharmaceutical heir, but you can still see the chapel where supposedly Nixon and Kissinger finally admitted they were wrong about Vietnam. Or so the legend goes.

It’s yet another indication that the military cannot afford to keep those it trains so well. The private sector offers more opportunities, pay, and benefits. Not to mention a natural higher degree of safety. We simply cannot afford (as a country) to pay young men a wage near their actual value.

@mikeF we’re still smarting that Yorba Linda got the Nixon library.

And matt I totally agree with your point, and that will com up again in later posts.

The Shakespeare thing is so true. That guy was so marxist 300 years before the philosophy was developed.

Thanks for the great post – appreciate the introspection. The big questions for people considering just such a stint: Was it worth it? Do you feel like it was valuable for you long-term?

I know those are impossible questions to answer, but as someone considering transitioning from academia to the military I would definitely appreciate your input.

Michael, I’m the journalist who did the survey for Radio Lab on whether war will ever end and has a book coming out on that topic, The End of War. Thanks for this thoughtful post. I’m going to show it to my 17-year-old son, who’s considering joining ROTC when he goes to college a year from now. John

@Russ G- I think I will have better perspective in a few years, but yes I think it was worth it. I will get into it in future posts, but I joined to serve, and serve I got to do. I just want to explain why 5 years was enough, and a career doesn’t appeal. Find my posts about my personal experience, particularly related to Pashad, and you’ll understand why I am glad I served, and the good I think I did.

@John- Thanks for the compliment. Now that I am out, and things have slowed down, I plan to go back through our posts about “Will Humans Ever Stop Fighting Wars?” To complile what we learned. You’ll be the first person I let know what we discover.

Interesting post, but I’m a little bummed by it. Like you, I served for five years in the army as an infantryman. I got out in order to go to school. Now, five years later, I’m about to go back to the army via OCS.

Here’s your thesis:
“In one sentence, I am getting out because the Army’s culture doesn’t challenge me enough. I need the risk and reward you can’t get from a career in the Army.”

Do you really know the Army’s culture through five years of service? Did you serve throughout the Army in different jobs/positions enough to be able make that kind of statement? What kind of ‘reward’ are you looking for? Big cash? Fast(er) promotions?

What kind of risk are you talking about? Everything is risk in the army!

I almost want to be offended. But that happens when I read how all the best officers are getting out…when I’m staying in. What does that make me?

But I know that you don’t think that is the case for everyone.

I’ll say you’re mostly right. BUT- I will also say there are jobs out there where the military rewards creativity, free thinking and language aptitude. Sure, they’re hard to find, often short lived and are likely damaging for the text book career. But they’re out there.

@Jon – I agree. For a dedicated soldier, there is a dream job somewhere in the Army. The problem is that the Army does a bad job of matching the soldier with the dream job. Or maybe it does a good job, since if everyone did what they wanted in the Army, it’d be no Army at all.

If you want it bad enough, you can worm your way to the place that makes you happy.

@Jon, hence why I tried to say that this culture isn’t for me. It is clearly for plenty of other people, just not me. (Whether it is the best culture to fight and win wars, I don’t know. The current military loves to use the example of WWII as our military at its best. But that military grew roughly 100 times in size from the 30s to that war. There was no institution prior to that war. Interesting.)

As for yours and Don’s thoughts on “getting the job you want”, I am sick of jobs being decided by some faceless peer in an office in Fort Knox. Why can’t I apply for the jobs I want? Why can’t I stay in a job I love? And how many people find the job that makes them happy and then “retire on active duty”?

Its tough, and I don’t want to offend anyone staying in. As I said, I have to explain myself though.