Government Issue

by Kathleen Cushman
MILITARY BRATS:
Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress
by Mary Edwards Wertsch. Harmony Books, $20.00.
IT COMES As a bit of a shock to be identified as a cultural artifact, I find—to be poked here and there on the examining table by sociologists and psychologists, having one’s traits listed and explained. Even if done with the most benign of intentions, the process feels invasive, as if one’s peculiar or lovable or neurotic qualities were no longer a function of self but instead the inevitable products of the agar they grew in. I wonder if the adult children of alcoholics feel this way, or the children of Holocaust survivors, or the children of affluence, when they are categorized and analyzed the way Mary Edwards Wertsch, a journalist, has written up my cohort and hers in Military Brats: Legacies of Childhood Inside the Fortress.
I read this book with a creepy fascination, recognizing a version of myself in quote after quote from the eighty military sons and daughters, born from 1932 to 1964, whom Wertsch has interviewed. I am the daughter of an Army general, and like other children brought up in the shadow of the flag, I knew that the rules of duty, honor, and country went for wives and kids as well as men; that I would move just as I started to have real friends to lose; that I would live in enclaves on the skirts of communities all over the world. Children like me believed that for our fathers’ careers to thrive, our bed corners must be made up square, our shoes must be shined, our chins must be held up in a military posture that allowed no dangerous emotion to leak through. “Zero defects" was the motto my six brothers and sisters and I learned from my father, a general’s son, who married my mother, a colonel’s daughter, right out of West Point.
All this was necessary, we military brats were given to understand, because at any moment our fathers could be taken off to war. We had no choice in this; no family assent is involved w hen a man receives his orders. What recourse had we but stoicism, denial, and perfect competence, as we were told in coded signals that our heartache could not compete with a parent’s professional calling or the national interest. What happens to children who grow up in such a structure, with control their highest value and with change an unavoidable constant? As a new generation of children watched their parents leave them to fight in the Persian Gulf, I felt an eerie, troubling recognition of their quandary, made more unsettling than ours was because their mothers could go too. And as I watched the war unfold under the command of another general who is himself a military brat, I wondered about the legacies he brought to his task, and how they might affect the way this war turns into history.
THE bringing, LEGACIES according of a military to Wertsch, upinclude many of the ways children respond to authoritarianism, extreme mobility, social isolation, alcoholism, family violence, and a deep sense of loyalty to a shared mission. Military culture is a fortress, she argues, unique and insular, in which “conformity, order, and obedience reign supreme.” This culture exaggerates the extremes of masculinity and femininity, insider and outsider, superior and subordinate, right and wrong, life and death; and so its children have trouble integrating ambiguity, compromise. a middle ground, into their lives. The children of military families become controlling perfectionists who subject themselves and others to unending critical scrutiny; they seek male approval and doubt their own worth, cry or anger easily, take risks, and work with a speed, discipline, and purpose unusual in the civilian world.
Most of Wertsch’s support for these conclusions comes from extensive interviews with her eighty subjects, but it is unquestionably filtered through her own bitter experience as the daughter of an Army officer who abused both alcohol and his family. As much as it is a work of cultural analysis, this book is also, it seems, a search by the author for wavs to make peace with her past. Perhaps in consequence, the tone of the book is sometimes oppressively negative and humorless, and the prose is laden with psychological lingo. Military brats don’t whine. I thought early in this book, narrowing my eyes as coldly as any general. Just so, Wertsch points out; instead we insist that everything is fine. In fact, I can’t count the number of times I’ve told people that I liked moving all the time, that I wouldn’t have wanted to stay long in any of those places anyway.
Those protestations echo time after time in the words of the people Wertsch has interviewed—a sample largely from the Baby Boom generation, slightly skewed toward the children of white officers and noncommissioned officers, but representative nonetheless of lifers’ kids. The book overflows with their stories and their reflections, and probably the author’s strongest contribution to the book is her discernment of patterns linking these individual voices. I was amazed, for instance, at the number of us who were lined up periodically for inspection by our fathers. And I discovered that many mothers other than mine controlled everything—what we kids wore, how we answered the phone, whom we played with or dated—because “it reflects on your father’s career.” Such rules were adhered to with varying strenuousness in different families, but few career-military children escape the sense of being constantly watched. “It is like living in a hall of mirrors,”Wertsch observes, “where the Fortress, the warrior, and the family all reflect one another endlessly.”
The most substantive chapters in Military Brats deal with specific social situations that grow out of military customs and attitudes. Race stands out as a strikingly positive example: over the past forty years, under executive order, the armed forces have far outstripped the civilian world in achieving balance and equality. Ironically, the very aspects of military life that destroy individuality— its rigidly authoritarian hierarchy, its strictly defined code of behavior—also enabled sweeping social changes that gave blacks in particular a new sense of individual power and pride. Before 1948, blacks served in separate units commanded by white officers; by 1988, 10.5 percent of the Army’s officer corps was black (though blacks were still mostly in the junior grades). Military children, black and white, absorbed the stated values of their culture, and Wertsch’s interviews show adults with a strong commitment to racial equality.
But so far no comparable policy has addressed the poison cloud of alcohol and violence that hangs over military culture. The words of the military brats in this book are nowhere so bitter, the statistics nowhere so chilling, as in these areas. From the routine drinking rituals at required “battalion punches" to the heavily discounted tax-free booze sold at base liquor stores, alcohol has been institutionalized in military life. Considering that much of family violence in the larger culture is alcoholrelated. the stories of abuse told by more than a third of Wertsch’s subjects should hardly be surprising. And though since Vietnam the Department of Defense has made considerable progress toward addressing addiction and abuse in the military, statistics indicate that the rates for both are substantiallv higher than the rates in the civilian population. When parents combine heavy alcohol use with an occupation that conditions them to violence. severe discipline, frequent dislocation, and an atmosphere of crisis, children are inevitably at risk. These days, when abuse is reported, the consequences to enlisted men are more often swift and effective; but in the officer corps such problems are still kept strictly under wraps. “When you know what it takes to be promoted in the military,”one base social worker told Wertsch, “you know that an officer would have to be insane to use a Family Service Center.”
The effects of alcohol-related abuse on children are particularly poignant, but military brats endure and adapt to other peculiar conditions as part of normal life. They change schools often (Wertsch’s subjects averaged 9.5 schools each), making friends quickly and leaving them easily. To distinguish themselves, they go to the top of the class or the bottom, where outsiders belong. T hey are preternaturally sensitive to the nuances of rank between officer and enlisted, and to the tribal rivalries among Army, Navy, Air Force, and Marines. (When my sister first heard that our parents were going to make their retirement home in Annapolis, Maryland, her response was a startled “But that’s Navy!”) They see more of the world than most civilian kids do, though their exposure is not sustained. And though their political opinions vary as they mature, they tend to have faith in moral absolutes. One Marine son describes his fifth-grade year in a civilian community:
From my perspective, these kids were out of their minds. They didn’t know how big the country was. They couldn’t say Schenectady. They didn’t know there was a place called Okinawa. . . .
It felt unsafe to be in a civilian community with a whole bunch of different rules, and to some extent an absence of rules. We had gone from quarters where my father was the senior officer in his building . . . to living in a suburban neighborhood where there was nobody in charge.
ALL THESE qualities have their bright and dark sides, as Wertsch notes. Military brats may grow up not righteous but idealistic, not narrow-minded but aware of the world around them, not shallow but resilient. The stubborn strength the military nurtures early on may serve well later in overcoming the life problems it provokes. Individual or family qualities may mute or enrich the military environment, as they did in my own family, which spent its pride and pay on education above all. Wertsch may overstate, and needlessly psychologize, the weight of the military culture, explaining widely various things through a single construct. Are military daughters inexpressive or do they cry at the drop of a hat? Do they kowtow to rigid authority or do they rebel? When Wertsch tries to codify her observations psychologically, her conclusions sometimes seem flimsy, gleaned too determinedly from the stories she has gathered. For all this, though, her main point seems unarguable: the military is not a normal childhood environment, and its effects are lasting.
The stories told in Military Brats are the strength of this book: children dismounting their bikes each day at five, wherever they are on post, hands on their hearts as retreat is blown and the flag lowered; friendships between enlisted personnel’s kids and officers’ kids broken in the name of propriety; fathers gone to war without regret being spoken, leaving mothers spinning myths to sustain the families left behind. I’m not sure we need Wertsch to interpret and resolve these images, so strong is their accumulated effect. Inevitably, I added my own memories: long car trips through the rural South to the next assignment, all of us packed into a two-door 1951 Pontiac; daily letters from our father during the four years he was in Vietnam; paratrooper’s boots spit-shined at reveille; soldiers running alongside the school bus in double-time.
Military children may have no home town, but Mary Edwards Wertsch has given LIS instead, in Military Brats, the voices of our comrades-in-arms. I hope that as a new generation of American children see their parents return from war, someone is listening to this brave and honest chorus and inviting the 1.6 million children next in tine to speak of their own fears and sorrows. Military Brats gives the experience of a military childhood a weight many of us have never fully admitted, allowing our pain, finally, to be saluted alongside our pride. At ease, children.