Read the rest of the series at:
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.