I was on active duty in the U. S. Navy from May 1973 to May 1977. I had not originally intended to join the military. In fact when I was young I had always had a great aversion to all kinds of authoritarian institutions, especially the military which I vaguely imagined to be like my father only on a much larger scale. But the real world was not inclined to adapt itself to my personal likes and dislikes. Back then the Vietnam War was still going on and even though the Pentagon had just begun a long, slow process of troop reduction in Vietnam, the fact was that they were still drafting people into the Army. And at that point it was hard to tell how much longer the war might go on. Though the American military forces were supposedly drawing down in Vietnam, it seemed quite possible that the inscrutable, shadowy military leaders in the Pentagon might change their minds and decide to go back full force into the war again. Who could tell what might happen?

I turned 19 in 1972 and became eligible for the draft. At that time they were drafting young men according to a lottery system. A date was picked at random and all the 19 year old men who were born on that date and who eligible to be drafted were called up into the Army. Then a second date was picked at random and all the 19 year-olds born on that date were drafted, and a third date was picked, and the process continued until the Army had acquired its needed quota of new soldiers. They actually picked the dates by drawing little slips of paper out of a rotating drum, and you could watch the process on television.

My birthdate is July 21. When the next draft lottery was held after I turned 19, I was of course keenly interested in the results of this lottery because more than anything I did not want to go into the military, to which I felt a profound antipathy. The lottery was held and my birthdate was the fifth one picked. My heart sank when I learned of this. I knew I was going to be drafted, it was inevitable. I broke the news to my father, who seemed irritated and impatient with me as if it were somehow my fault that my birthdate got picked in the lottery.

I think he didn’t mind so much the idea of me joining the military but he was against me going to war in Vietnam, which he thought was a war that had no purpose. He himself had been in the Navy in the South Pacific in World War Two and was proud of his Navy service. He wasn’t opposed on principle to going into combat but he thought to go into combat and be placed in danger for no good reason, such as in Vietnam, was stupid, which was one of the very few things that he and I agreed on.

I decided to look into alternate types of military service, something not in the Army. Hopefully there would be less, perhaps even NO, chance of going into combat if I joined the Air Force or the Navy. I talked to an Air Force recruiter and a Navy recruiter. I got the impression that the Navy perhaps had better service schools than the Air Force so I picked the Navy, foolishly not stopping to consider that this meant that I would probably have to go to sea. When I signed up the recruiter asked me what type of technical specialty I wanted to go into. At the time I was becoming curious about computers and data processing, having taken just one elementary course in data processing at the local community college, so I chose the Navy Data Processing Technician school. This became the start of my “career,” if you could call it that, in the computer technology industry, from which I finally retired in 2015.

But first I had to go to Navy boot camp, and get through it, a prospect that filled me with dread. I entered Basic Training at the Naval Training Center, San Diego, in May of 1973. I was terrified. I was a severely neurotic kid, so riddled with chronic, generalized anxiety I couldn’t think straight, scared of everything, and with serious psychological issues concerning authority. I didn’t really understand authority, it felt alien and irrational to me and basically antithetical to my nature. I had serious doubts about my ability to function in such a system as the U. S. Navy. Would I have some kind of breakdown, go completely bonkers when subjected to the pressures of living and working within this (to me) strange and illogical authoritarian system? On the surface it would appear to be no big deal. Navy Basic Training consisted of a lot of marching, and going to classes where we learned about how the Navy works, things like military etiquette, conventions of shipboard life, firefighting and damage control, first aid and other practical topics. Of course we also were subjected to a great deal of harassment and verbal abuse from the trainers, especially from the company commander, a petty officer first class, a rednecky kind of guy who spoke with a lisp because he had lost his two front teeth (according to him in a bar fight in Puerto Rico). He was blustery and impulsive and gave off an impression of barely-contained violence. He screamed at us a lot. I was genuinely frightened of him. I thought he might be crazy and that there was a possibility he might actually kill me. I wondered, does the Navy know that they have this crazy nut working as a boot camp company commander? We recruits were screamed at pretty much all the time, and it was difficult for me to deal with it. At one point I even approached the company commander and asked him if I could get put out of the Navy because I was not psychologically fit for it. He declined. I think he actually took pity on me at that point and, uncharacteristically for someone I had taken to be a neanderthal and a savage, took the time to explain to me why it wouldn’t be possible for me to get out of the Navy. At that point he actually seemed, momentarily, like a pretty sensible person.

Much later, after boot camp it was explained to me by other Navy people I met that the kind of psychological tricks and the techniques of intimidation that were practiced on the recruits by the trainers were intended to break down the recruits’ resistance and make them more pliable and obedient, eradicating any tendencies toward individuality that might lead to rebellion. I could understand that from a strategic point of view, although it also seemed obvious to me that some of the trainers got a certain amount of sadistic satisfaction from treating the recruits like shit, and that didn’t really seem like discipline to me. It just looked like sadism under the guise of discipline. Much later in my life I came to see that sadism masquerading as discipline is a common theme throughout our American culture, in fact it seems to be a longstanding American tradition.

Looking back on that boot camp experience after so many years, I see clearly how laughably absurd it was, how very stressed I became over something that was really just a lot of trivialities covered over by a thin facade of bluster and tough talk. I can see that what they actually did to us was not so awful, but they made us think that they were doing something awful, or were about to do something awful. It was mostly about trying to scare us and intimidate us. It was just a game after all.

It took me a few years to realize that there are many similar games going on in various aspects of our society, and that we should try to be alert and recognize them for what they are. Eventually, though it took me quite a while, I learned to stay mentally disconnected from such games and let them go on around me without my participation.

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