Thursday, March 16, 2006

Blogging for Books: The Military

Over at BlogHer, I saw a reference to Blogging for Books. This month's call for entries over at Faster than Kudzu is this:
Write about the military. HOW BROAD IS THAT? SO broad. You can talk about anything from your own experiences in the military, or you own experiences as a pacifist, or how hot Jake Gillenhaal looked in Jarhead, or how Michael Kors could NOT see the military influence in Daniel V's collection for Project Runway, and how when Daniel pointed out the BIG HUGE OBVIOUS MILITARY boob-epaulette on the front of an evening dress Michael Kors said, "Oh, THAT thing. I can't tell you how bad I want to RIP IT OFF that otherwise pretty dress," or how the Trojans were SO dern dumb for buying that whole "hollow horse" ruse, and how the fact that the horse was used to SNEAK AN ARMY INSIDE THE CITY makes Trojan such a BAD name for a condom.

Heck, I'll take anything with the word SOLDIER in it.
If not enough people participate, Blogging for Books will die an untimely end. So please join in! Hell, if I'm willing to write about the military, anyone can.

Without further ado, here's my post:

Running from the JROTC

I went to Long Beach Poly High School, Snoop Dogg's alma mater (recently featured on NPR for being "one of the best schools in the nation" and for having a damn good football team). As you might imagine from its connection with Snoop, it's in the inner city, a rough neighborhood where I'd hear gunshots as I waited to be picked up from orchestra practice on Wednesday nights. I was there for an academic magnet program that drew students from all over the city, but in addition to meeting our needs, the school aimed to provide the neighborhood students with opportunities beyond graduation.

One of these opportunities was the Army Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (JROTC). JROTC students met for class every day and once a week wore dress uniforms. The most hard-core among them (all boys during my years at Poly) wore camouflage fatigues frequently. I don't know how many students participated, but the program had a relatively high profile on campus.

Even as a teenager, I was a pacifist, and so the mere presence of an Army-sanctioned activity on campus made me very uneasy. My theoretical distaste for military indoctrination, however, was at once overshadowed and reinforced by a very concrete problem: the behavior of some of the JROTC boys.

Three scenes:

1. One day in tenth-grade PE, I had just finished running a mile on the track and finished at least an 1/8 to 1/4 mile ahead of the rest of my class. When I crossed the finish line, I began walking to cool down. Over my panting, I became aware of voices yelling from the field in the middle of the track: "Hey, take another lap! What are you, lazy? Just a stupid girl! Can't HACK it, bitch? Take another lap!" I looked over my left shoulder and saw a group of JROTC boys in olive-green fatigues sitting in--I kid you not--a puddle of mud, legs splayed out before them, their close-cropped hair making their heads seem exceptionally small. These guys obviously thought I was cheating, that I hadn't actually finished ahead of the other students in my class, that there's no way I could have run a mile faster than the boys in my PE class. Though I was shaken to the core, I pretended to ignore them.

At the time, I didn't really understand the effect of swift reporting. I was a good student and worried about what would happen if I abandoned my PE class to walk into the JROTC officer's classroom to report the harrassment. As it was, it took me several months to work up the courage to wander into the classroom one day after school. The officer feigned interest and asked for the boys' names. As the offenders all looked alike to me--stocky, dim-witted white boys with close-cropped brown hair--he told me he wasn't able to help me. Um, yeah. At a school that was only 20% white, how hard could it have been to identify the five or six white boys who had sixth-period JROTC?

I wish I could say I then took my complaints to the top, to the principal's office and the school district. But I felt powerless and kept my anger, as my witty younger sister would later put it, "bottled up inside me like a good woman."

2. My junior year, I joined the marching band because my friends were already in it and seemed to be having a lot of fun. (I learned to play the French horn so I could spend more time with my friends. If you've ever tried to play the French horn, you know that subjecting your friends to novice French horn playing is no way to keep them as friends.) During the last couple weeks of summer, we had daily band practice. The first couple days of summer practice were, I seem to recall, dedicated to teaching the new band members all the field maneuvers, how to turn right and left smartly and in sync, how to take the specified number of steps between each ten-yard line on the football field.

It made sense to the band director at the time, a kind but (as we shall see) misguided man, to let the JROTC folks in the band handle these drills. On the final day of newbie practice, we had an elimination round that resembled Simon Says, with all of us starting out in one big group and a JROTC cadet barking commands at us. When individuals fumbled, they had to leave the field. As the game progressed and it came down to me and six boys, the goal of the JROTC cadets present became clear: let's get this girl out of there. They tried to distract me, directing their gazes and comments at me instead of the remaining boys. Of course, this only strengthened my resolve, and I, who had never been prone to conformity, found myself jumping to fulfill every new order. I outlasted everyone, and one of the JROTC boys said to me grudgingly, "Good work. You remind me of me when I was first in JROTC."

High praise, indeed. I wonder who really won that round.

That same year, the band director let the JROTC cadets design the half-time show. Our football team was the Jackrabbits, and the centerpiece of the half-time maneuvers was, I kid you not, the Playboy bunny logo. I was part of the eye. The other French horn players and I had to duck at one point so that the Sousaphones could dip forward and make the eye wink. I asked the band director if he really thought this was appropriate, and this kind (and very Christian, I might add) man said merely it was all harmless fun.

3. Football games, my junior and senior year. The JROTC guys still ruled the roost. At some games they were part of the color guard, and thus wore their JROTC uniforms instead of their band uniforms for at least part of the game. Their non-band-member JROTC color guard fellows (all male) sat in the band section of the stands. When they got excited and couldn't keep their berets on their tiny little heads, they asked the female band members to hold their hats for them.

They also cheered inappropriately whenever the cheer squads performed high kicks that lifted the cheerleaders' skirts. Again, the band director, who on other occasions reminded us that we were representatives of the entire school, turned a blind eye.

For me, then, the military has always been about gender. When I was in high school, girls were lobbying to get into the Citadel and the Virginia Military Institute. The Tailhook scandal made the headlines. When I was in college and grad school, I listened to a friend of mine talk about her treatment as a woman in a largely male unit of the Army Reserves. She's not as assertive as I have become, and thus suffered--and I do mean suffered--largely in silence. I have read in recent years about how the military's "don't ask, don't tell" policy ends frequently in the discharge of some of the armed forces' best intellectual workers, especially translators.

I know a few individual women have achieved some kind of success in this country's military. And I understand that for the inner-city kids, the military may provide opportunities they otherwise would not have. However, I worry about what those same youth were learning when a group of sexist boys was elevated to a leadership role in JROTC, in marching band, and undoubtedly in other campus groups. What kind of roles were the many girls in JROTC being asked to adopt? And what life lessons do the young women who enlist learn?

I once heard the U.S. military (and the U.S. government in general) critiqued for seeking "to save brown women from brown men" in other countries. I wonder what the military is doing to protect its own women from those men who would take advantage of their willingness to volunteer to serve their country. My understanding? Not much.


Queen of West Procrastination said...

And this seems like a continuation of "Blog Against Sexism" day.

Is it odd that I cheered when you said that you outlasted everyone in that awful Simon-Says-drill thing? But hurt for you so much, that you would have to be subjected to that kind of stupidity?

Honestly, knowing how passive I was in high school, I don't know how I would have handled all that. It probably wouldn't have occurred to me to report the harassment from the JROTCs at PE.

Queen of West Procrastination said...

(By which I meant "a fantastic continuation of 'Blog Against Sexism Day'".)

Dejah said...

It was Tailhook, not Tailgate.

Leslie M-B said...


Thanks so much for the correction. My stupid mistake. I'm just so used to all scandals having -gate affixed to their names.