The God Who Strikes From Afar: A Memoir of Rotc

At Fort Sill, Oklahoma, a member of the silent generation discovers the real meaning of coolness, distance, self-control.

A Memoir of ROTC

by Anthony Brandt

—New York Times, May 1, 1978

I’ve seen numerous comments in the press lately to the effect that the 1970s are a throwback to the 1950s. Commentators cite such things as short hair among young people, a growing interest in money, careers, security, a declining interest in social reform. They talk about the return of the conformity and conservatism of the 1950s, and the disinclination of the young to speak out, to make their views known. Now ROTC is back, too. According to the Department of the Army, 61,185 students were enrolled in Army ROTC in the past academic year, nearly double the enrollment at the low point in 1973. This is presumably one more sign that the ghost of the 1950s has come back to haunt us.

If so, it’s a ghost that has lost a good deal of its power. I can’t really speak for the 1970s; I’m forty-two and don’t know what it feels like to be young now, and I don’t want to get too deeply into the game of characterizing generations. But I sense a basic difference between the young of this generation and of mine. The young now are quiet, relatively apathetic, relatively self-centered, all of which we, too, were accused of being. But they’re not silent. They don’t speak out, don’t protest, but their not doing so is not a constraint they have imposed upon themselves. They don’t speak out because, it appears, they have nothing to say. (It’s not their fault; like all of us, they’re products of their time.) The generation of the 1950s was, however, specifically “the silent generation.” That’s what Time magazine called us in 1951; the epithet was accurate, and it stuck. Wc weren’t going to let anybody find out what we thought and felt

The commentators have forgotten this grim, tightlipped quality about us, and it was our most striking characteristic. They’ve forgotten the fear that inspired it, too, that built up, while we held our breath waiting, as history accumulated its long series of horrors and disasters: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, the Cold War, McCarthyism, “massive retaliation,” and all the rest. Norman Mailer said at the time, “We will never be able to determine the psychic havoc of the concentration camps and the atom bomb upon the unconscious mind of almost everyone alive in these years.” The fear is gone now, and we’ve forgotten how bad it was; we’ve forgotten the psychic havoc, which worked its way into the blood and generated a state of expectancy in some ways far more destructive than the actual event.

The event came, and it failed to be the apocalypse we expected. It was only a war. We watched it on television; we were, of course, disappointed. We had begun to want what we expected, to wish it would happen. Our disappointment was a sign of what the fear and the havoc had done to us; the apocalypse was inside us, we had made it our own. We knew it, too: “. . . if society was so murderous,” asked Mailer, “then who could ignore the most hideous of questions about his own nature?” Our own nature was cautious, conformist, noncommittal; William H. Whyte, Jr. called us “a generation of bureaucrats.” It was partly a mask, a defense, but there was enough truth to the accusation that when Hannah Arendt started talking about the banality of evil, many of us knew what she meant.

We’ve forgotten most of this, and that lets us interpret the return of ROTC as a sign of the return of the 1950s. But the generation of the 1950s joined ROTC in a spirit entirely different from what one finds today, a spirit that epitomized that fearful decade. Now the young join ROTC for the scholarship money, which is very good, or to get technical training in the postgraduate service schools, or because a military career offers a great deal of security. My generation joined ROTC almost exclusively to escape the draft, which everyone thought was otherwise inescapable. We certainly weren’t preparing for war; war had been superseded by thirty minutes or so of atomic holocaust, by the doomsday machine. We joined expecting an apocalypse, for which wc would train irrelevantly, with rifles and tanks and artillery pieces. The characteristic attitude was, Why not? Instead of protesting, we took care of ourseives; it was better to be officers than draftees. We were cynical, children of havoc, above all frightened; too frightened, in fact, to recognize the danger that we might really join ROTC and become the agents of what we feared.

For me ROTC was nothing more at first than a large olive-drab anomaly that had to be sorted out from the impact and confusion of college itself. My first two years were a chaos of adjustment and change; I went from a protected high school environment in a protected New Jersey suburb to Princeton, with its sophistication, its extraordinary social pressures, and its wealth, all of which were foreign to my experience. The academic pressures were also heavy, and I was unprepared. To have spent all those years in high school and never have heard of. much less studied, the works of Henry James, T. S. Eliot, Yeats, Joyce; to know nothing of the theory of relativity or the structure of the atom; to be totally ignorant of classical history and literature, the Napoleonic Wars, Platonism, the Renaissance: that was the common fate of most high school students in the mid-1950s. For someone with that kind of background, Princeton was a profoundly dislocating experience.

The experience bred its own kind of havoc in me. I remember maintaining a low-grade cold for most of my first year, being terribly lonely, losing thirty pounds, leaving the campus every weekend I could. But it was exciting, too. For the first time I was free: no parental authority in evidence, no schedule to maintain. Lectures were large and optional; required classes, the preceptorials, amounted to no more than eight or ten hours a week, with maybe one afternoon of lab work if you were taking a science course. The intellectual stimulation was also liberating. I took a course in the history of philosophy taught by a short, quiet, unprepossessing man named Gregory Vlastos, who, I have since discovered, is known as one of the greatest contemporary interpreters of Greek philosophy. He unveiled the mysteries of the pre-Socratic philosophers to me, and I’ve never been quite the same. Not that it made me a philosopher; it was just my first experience of depth, my first real struggle with meaning; it was a beginning.

In the midst, then, of confusion, fear, freedom, and occasional joyous enlightenment stood ROTC. Though it was the only way out of the draft, it was a mindless ordeal. One went from a small preceptorial on Parmenides, where the question was what he meant when he said that “what is is uncreated and indestructible,” and the answer was not known, to a class on the nomenclature of the M-l rifle, where everything was not only known and undebatable but dull and trivial as well. Cynicism was a genuine defense; you had to be cynical—at Princeton it was virtually impossible to be “gung-ho” about anything—to survive the mindlessness of the subject, to endure the marching and the drill, to carry the stigma of the uniform upon your body. Some of us (I was one) took a perverse pride in not doing well most of what ROTC required of us.

What finally brought me into ROTC, to the extent that I ever really joined it, was the guns. The Army ROTC unit at Princeton was an artillery unit. We were given to understand from the beginning that if we made it through the first two years, we would be introduced to the guns, the 105-howitzers. We would study them, handle them, eventually fire them. For me, and for others, too, this was something to wait for.

Why the guns should have been so fascinating is an interesting question, and the answers are not completely the obvious ones. To a certain extent, we were still little boys at heart, and a 105-howitzer is about as neat a toy as a little boy could hope for. You could also say we were acting out our sexual frustrations, nothing being so phallic as the tube of a howitzer. But there was another aspect to it as well, at least for me, and an even more important one. I didn’t fully understand it until years later, when I read the Iliad and was struck by the passage in the first book where Apollo is decimating the Greeks with a plague, in revenge for an insult to one of his priests. He is described as “Apollo who strikes from afar.” The image immediately explained a great deal to me. Apollo is the god of self-control, the god of distance, of remoteness. Even when he is angry he stands apart. He does not rage into battle, he does not surrender himself to his anger. He strikes from afar.

The image arrested me, and then I began to understand about the guns. We were being trained to be forward observers, the men who, hidden in observation posts, look out over the battlefield and direct fire upon targets. The forward observer is of the battle but not wholly in it; the havoc takes place elsewhere, and he watches it and to some extent creates it. He orders the battle, in a sense, even though he isn’t there. Like the god, he strikes from afar.

We fired no howitzers at Princeton, of course; that would come in summer camp, during the six weeks we were to spend at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, between our junior and senior years. Junior year we prepared, learning the cannoneer’s hop, map reading, the fire direction system used by a howitzer battery. The cannoneer’s hop is the Army’s name for the sequence of operations involved in firing a howitzer. These operations are performed by a team of men, all of whom have to know each others’ jobs. The idea is to learn to do it with maximum speed.

Firing a howitzer is the little boy part of artillery: it’s fun, with enough danger thrown in to spice things up. It’s also teamwork; and when it’s well done, when everyone’s movements are coordinated and perfectly timed, the sequence flows, it possesses a genuine choreographic beauty. Firing the round is beautiful, too; you can stand behind a howitzer and watch the shell take off into the sky, follow it until it reaches its apogee, then fades out of sight. The shell spins and whistles—a low but exciting, almost throbbing, sound—and describes a graceful arc through the air. Fifteen or twenty seconds after it disappears, if there aren’t too many hills intervening, you may hear the faint dull thud of its explosion.

Fire direction also has to be done quickly, but it’s more complicated, involving work with maps, rulers, compasses, firing tables. From the time a forward observer calls for fire until the time a fire command has been computed and sent to the guns may be as long as two or three minutes, as little as forty or fifty seconds. We studied and practiced all this thoroughly, and we were relatively well prepared when we got to Fort Sill. We were prepared, that is, for the artillery; nothing could have prepared most of us for Oklahoma.

I drove out with two of my friends and we arrived in Lawton, the town that adjoins Fort Sill, one hot night late in June. I had never seen anything like it. The streets were covered with June bugs, large, black, shiny beetles, millions of them; driving was like driving on gravel, a constant crunching noise under the wheels. Oklahoma was bugs, tarantulas, scorpions, rattlesnakes, dust, and the low, eroded Wichita Mountains, 240 million years old. Oklahoma was hot; 105° in the shade was not uncommon. Hot, dusty, somehow magnificent: the land had clearly never been tamed; it was a place with its own laws and a giant sky over it where thunderheads rose to 40,000 feet and took up half the horizon. The town, and the fort, were too young to belong there; they seemed futile at best, like the shade trees planted here and there. These were the Great Plains still, once thought to be uninhabitable. It was not a lovely place, but grand, a home for the winds.

We lived in tents mounted on concrete platforms and got used to the bugs. We learned a great deal, all the usual techniques for surviving Army life; eventually we learned to handle the howitzers; finally we learned to fire missions, to be forward observers. Quite unexpectedly, I turned out to be good at this. It had something to do with an ability to read landscape, an ability that must have been innate in my case, since I’d had no practice. A forward observer has to be able to look at a map, tell where he is on it, tell where the things he sees are on it, measure distances with his eyes, know what a gully looks like from a distance, know what’s behind what else and can’t be seen from where he stands, and so on. What all this amounts to is a feel for the land. Shells are going to go whistling over his head and explode two or three thousand yards away in little puffs of dust that the wind immediately dissipates. He has to know where the shells land—when he’s adjusting fire they come two at a time—in relation to the target he’s trying to hit, and be able to move them onto that target quickly, without hesitation. If I’m a typical example, the ability to do this is more or less a gift; to my surprise, I was one of those born with it.

We each fired six missions, with the same instructor each time. The instructor for our particular battery was a major with a neatly clipped moustache, a short man with a pronounced military bearing. He almost looked British; if he’d carried a swagger stick it wouldn’t have seemed out of place. We sat on top of hills, crouched in concrete bunkers, sometimes lay in the dry grass and peered out over the landscape, studying the contours, picking out the targets: old tank bodies, wrecked trucks, nondescript twisted hunks of metal that were often nothing more than barely discernible black dots, miles away, located who knows where on the map.

As time went on a certain tension developed between the major and myself. I kept shooting well, bracketing the target and closing in on it in the required number of rounds (four sets, two rounds at a time), succeeding with whatever method we used. The major was waiting for me to miss. I didn’t miss. Probably it didn’t make any sense to him; I wasn’t an outstanding cadet by any means, didn’t want to be, but there I was, unaccountably doing well, making no mistakes. My guess is that he wanted me to miss and didn’t want it at the same time; he was afraid to hope I was that good, afraid of being disappointed, yet I was firing beautiful missions and that gave him pleasure. A well-fired artillery mission is, like a well-executed cannoneer’s hop, an aesthetically pleasing act.

Whatever the source of the tension, the major contained himself until the next to last day in the field, in our last week there. We had been out for several days firing missions, moving the batteries around, then firing more missions: war games, the climax of our training. The day before the last day the major came up to me and told me with the requisite solemnity that I would be firing a demonstration mission the next day before the entire ROTC summer camp, assembled for the occasion. There were seven batteries, and one man from each battery was to fire a mission. From the one hundred or so cadets in our battery, he had picked me. I’d won him over.

That night I slept on the ground, on a tarpaulin surrounded, or so it seemed, by huge field spiders three and four inches across. I was too tired to care. I was still tired in the morning, I remember, and I neglected to shave or change my fatigues. The major was disappointed, close to being angry; this was not a good sign. I was firing the mission, but it was his reputation that was at stake, and he wanted me at least to look good. What the whole thing meant to me wasn’t clear yet. A demonstration mission? I’d already fired six perfect missions, and I thought it was easy. The major picked me up in his jeep and he and I rode to the top of the hill together where all seven hundred cadets were gathering. I wasn’t particularly nervous. Maybe I was just cocky; or maybe I was ripe.

Since we were in Battery A, I went first. The sun was still low in the sky and hadn’t yet burned off all the haze. What was emerging from the haze was a broad, slightly rolling, almost featureless plain stretching miles and miles to the east. It was the worst kind of landscape to shoot on because there was nothing to go by, no hills, no streams, no way to place yourself. The cadets settled down, scattered over the hillside, each one with a map and field glasses, while I leaned against a rock and tried to figure the area out, guess the location of the tanks and trucks, plot coordinates, estimate distances, and feel the place, intuit it. Then someone gave me my target, an obscure black something in the middle distance, on a little rise in the ground.

I fired by map coordinates, very close to the correct coordinates, as it turned out, but the first rounds that came out were a thousand yards off, more than a half a mile to the left. Some idiot had goofed, and I was scared; I thought I’d had it. But the god who gave me the talent in the first place must have been standing by. I ordered the next rounds a thousand yards to the right, then dropped them four hundred yards, on instinct, on the totally unprovable feeling that the first rounds, if they had been on a direct line of sight between me and the target, as they should have been, would have been long. I sweated out four or live minutes waiting for the next rounds while the fire direction center figured things out. When they came they were on line, and short. That was one big hurdle over: you have to get your rounds on line, otherwise it’s impossible to tell whether they’re long or short. But I still had to bracket the target to prove my point. I added two hundred yards for the next rounds, praying they would be long. The wait was briefer this time. They came; there was a flash of red, metal on metal, then dust obliterated the target. I’d made a direct hit. There was nothing more to do; the mission was completed. It was better than perfect; it was miraculous. Score one for instinct, or luck. Score one for the god.

The major, of course, was a happy man. His military reserve vanished; he apologized for having criticized my appearance, praised the mission, told me what a superb job I’d done, marveled at how I’d known the first rounds were long. I think he would have adopted me if he could. His joy was increased when the cadets who followed me fouled things up, one by one. I—no, he—was the best; he was the best instructor, had the best eye for talent.

As for me—well, I lived on that triumph for a long time. Not only was it a high, it confirmed some vague sense of my own destiny. Call it an identity: I was a forward observer; I had good eyes, good instincts; I could strike from afar. The experience created the metaphor for me, and it was a powerful metaphor, the kind that molds lives. Here, then, was an answer, a way to transcend the havoc: act without being seen, speak out while remaining anonymous. I worked best at a distance; that’s who I was, a remote, cool talent, someone behind the scenes. No one would know me, and yet my voice would be heard.

The rest could not help but be anticlimactic. Back at Princeton, ROTC got dull again, dull and increasingly irritating. I remember having to forgo a course in poetry taught by the well-known literary critic R. P. Blackmur because it conflicted with ROTC. The irritation increased as the end of the academic year approached and we waited for orders. We faced two possibilities—six months or two years of active duty, with a corresponding seven or four years of time in the active reserves thereafter. We could apply for what we wanted, but man proposes, the Army disposes. I was lucky and got what I wanted: six months active duty, beginning a year after I graduated. In the spring of 1959 I went back to Fort Sill for my active duty. For three months 1 went to school there, learning all over again what I’d spent four years learning at college.

Only one occasion stands out, a time on a hillside when a group of us were sitting on folding camp chairs firing time missions at targets around the base of one of the Wichita Mountains. In a time mission a special fuse is used on the shells, a time fuse set to explode the round about twenty yards above the target. It’s designed for anti-personnel use; the idea is to rain shrapnel down on troops from above. On a time mission, then, the observer has to adjust not only for range and direction but for the height the shell explodes above the target as well.

When my turn came I adjusted fire on the target easily enough, but the height adjustment was more difficult. Some were exploding much too high in the air, some on the ground, and I couldn’t seem to get it right. Finally I did get one right, or so I thought, and called for fire for effect; but the instructor interrupted, “No, no, Lieutenant, you’re wrong. Didn’t you see what happened? Those rounds didn’t explode in the air, they hit a tree. You knocked down a tree.”

I had knocked down a tree. It wasn’t what you’d call momentous, but it gave me pause. Suppose those weren’t trees out there, but men. Could I calmly sit up there on a hillside, a mile or so away, and shoot them down? We had a captain as an instructor in one of our classes who had been in Korea and took delight in telling us how effective the artillery was there, how in that stalemated war the battlefields were so well charted that artillery fire didn’t have to be adjusted. Nestled securely in a concrete bunker, he told us, you’d see three hundred Chinese swarming up a hillside and call for corps artillery, seventy or eighty big guns firing all at once, on Checkpoint Charlie, say, where the gooks would be in a minute or so, and in a minute or so all that firepower would descend without warning on Checkpoint Charlie and you’d have three hundred dead Chinese. It was a turkey shoot, he said. But there I was, an educated man who had recently spent four years absorbing the humanistic values taught by and embodied in highly civilized, deeply learned men such as Gregory Vlastos. What exactly was I doing on that hillside, anyway? Suppose it wasn’t just an absurd game; suppose war broke out someplace and I had to go and shoot people. Could I really do it?

I knew, of course, that I could. That the question wasn’t real. That the real question was, How much would I enjoy it? After Auschwitz, after Hiroshima, who could ignore “the most hideous of questions about his own nature"? What we learned in ROTC was that war is a skill, and the more skillful you are the better you like it. I liked it very much; I was like the major, it gave me pleasure to lay fire from distant guns on distant targets, to do it quickly and coolly, and to do it well. It was a beautiful experience to fire a perfect mission. I liked it very much indeed.

A man’s life is like a text, endlessly interpretable. I don’t want to force a conclusion on this material. 1 started out, however, talking about the difference between my generation and the generation of the 1970s, about our self-imposed silence, our fearful selfrestraint, and the horror of history that inspired it. Each of us had to come to terms with that horror in his own way, but many of us, I think, did something similar to what I did. We distanced ourselves. We sought some kind of mastery, something that transcended the havoc inside us.

While I was at Fort Sill that first summer the Army put on one of its firepower demonstrations and the whole ROTC summer camp attended. That day the Army fired everything from pistols to Honest John missiles for the benefit of the crowd assembled in the bleachers, but what I remember best was the technique the Air Force had developed for delivering tactical nuclear weapons onto targets. A fighter-bomber came in low and level, the bomb (an ordinary high-explosive type, of course) strapped to the belly of the plane, and then, just over the target, abruptly went into a vertical climb, streaking skyward at 500 miles an hour. At about 1500 feet the pilot released the bomb, which went on climbing, up and up, until it was lost to sight; the airplane, meanwhile, snapped out of its climb and sped off toward the horizon. When the bomb finally fell it was gone.

No other word but beautiful describes this maneuver, this brilliant fusion of technology and human skill. It was awe-inspiring; it was high art. Each of us, I think, unconsciously sought just such an image; to the horror, the psychic havoc, we opposed precisely such an aesthetic feel for mastery, for a transcendent efficiency. My case was unusual, but undoubtedly not unique, in that I found my image among the very implements of horror themselves. But we were all after the same thing, the same Apollonian remoteness. “Perhaps,” said Nietzsche,

. . . out of the original Titanic divine order of terror, the Olympian divine order of joy gradually evolved through the Apollonian impulse toward beauty, just as roses burst from thorny bushes.

Just as shells burst from howitzer tubes and climb gracefully toward the empyrean.