Bunker Mulligan "Let us endeavor so to live that when we come to die even the undertaker will be sorry." ~Mark Twain

December 30, 2004

Cannon Fodder No More

Filed under: Military,Society-Culture — Bunker @ 7:44 am

Nearly a year ago I wrote about the differences between people who are smart and those who are simply intelligent. I went back to read that post again this morning because of something that came to mind after hearing Lago mention he would have MajorDad on with him this morning by phone. Jim says he was impressed with a post on minimum wages which he considered to be definitive.

That made me think, which has been a chore recently. And it sent me back to that post to clear my mind a bit before deciding what to write.

I have heard many times in my life from many different directions that people in the military are somehow intellectually challenged. The words stupid and loser are sometimes salted throughout commentary. I want to challenge that. And I believe I am imminently qualified to do so.

Let’s simply consider a group of young men and women who graduated from college four years ago. If anyone bothered to collect a broad cross-section of those new graduates and compared their knowledge at that point and then compared them today, there would be a significant difference between two primary groups: those who went to work in the private sector or went on to get graduate degrees and those who chose to enter the military.

I see a lot of heads nodding in agreement right now. Some who are nodding believe those who went into business or education would blow the military folks away intellectually. Others are nodding because they understand the truth.

What is that truth? Those who enter the civilian workforce tend to expand their knowledge in their field of endeavor–and often become very good at it. For the first four or five years after graduation, their focus is on improving those skills, because that’s where personal progress is.

The group that enters the military does the same. They learn their particular craft to the best of their ability. But they also have other requirements of the profession, and those skills are developed just as strongly. This is called Professional Military Education. It encompasses everything from public speaking and writing to practical psychology and sociology. It also includes analytical history and management. And it is all taught in real-world application. The education a military officer gets from college is a very simple beginning for the much broader practical education in dealing with people from all backgrounds and cultures. Within that, their military specialty is but a small part. At USAFA there is a statue of an eagle and her offspring which the cadets all the “Knowledge is good” statue. The quote on it is “Man’s flight through life is sustained by the power of his knowledge.” Education and practical learning are emphasized throught the military. Every installation has an education office and access to all forms of learning.

I’ll be the first to admit that my skills as an engineer are less than those I graduated with. They focused on engineering after graduation. I couldn’t. It was important, but simply a part of what I was expected to know. But I was one of the best aircraft maintenance managers in the world, leading some of the best aircraft mechanics in the world. And a pretty good engineer on top of that.

Okay. Some will now say I’m talking simply about officers. What about the enlisted slime? Well, I were one. For eleven years. Later, I was in charge of over 300. Many of those had a year or two of college behind them and joined the military out of boredom with school. Most were enrolled in some kind of educational program, working on a degree or some technical skill they could use when they separated. I had several senior NCOs with college degrees, and one with multiple graduate degrees.

But that is simply their formal education. They also had professional military education programs which differed little from those for officers. At NCO Leadership School when I was an E-5 our management section of the course was derived from a graduate school management course.

But the technical aspect of military jobs is also pretty strenuous. A tanker must know how to operate, maintain, and effectively use his M1A2 tank. Everything. My helicopter maintenance course included not just nomenclature and tool use, but the aerodynamics of helicopter flight–how do all these parts work together to make it fly. And infantrymen are no longer simply cannon fodder. Some of the brightest young men you’ll ever meet carry an M16. They know people and societies, and can work with a team in ways civilians cannot even grasp.

I’m not saying those in the military are the smartest group on Earth…. Yes, I am. As a group. There are geniuses, and there are idiots in the military. I’ve managed to discharge some of those idiots and promote some of those geniuses.

The military is not a refuge for incompetents. It is not society’s trash heap. In general, it is populated by people with a far broader education than you will find anywhere else, and a worldview that is far more inclusive than that of our friends on the far left. And that broader practical learning experience makes them smart, and not simply intelligent. That opportunity is lacking in civilian life and must be actively sought. Not everyone has that ambition. In a military career, there is no choice. Learn, or leave.

Man’s flight through life is sustained by the power of his knowledge.


  1. Great tribute! I have a few “military” things bothering me that I posted on, Bunker. I’d appreciate your comments, considering your background.

    Comment by DagneyT — December 30, 2004 @ 8:33 am

  2. My comment on your post got truncated… so here it is:

    People in the military join for many reasons. As with what appears to be the majority of journalists, some join “to help make a better world”. Some for education benefits (gosh…military people are into education?). Others for a particular job they’d like to do.

    But most go in with the feeling they will accomplish something of lasting value for the world in some way. When they enter combat they are, indeed, fighting for the betterment of our nation as a freedom-giving nation–helping others do what they are incapable of doing.

    This idea of “fighting for the guy next to them” is valid–but valid in ways most people don’t really grasp. In the heat of the moment, their thoughts are very focused. The “Big Picture” doesn’t exist. They see themselves and their buddies in the immediate vicinity in mortal confrontation with another group. The team is everything. You depend on the man next to you doing what he needs to do to support you, and he returns that trust. That is the essence of “fighting for your buddy.” But those guys know full well they are part of a larger whole. This phrase is valid, but used by those who deride the military in a way that salves their egos. In using this, they can somehow justify their whining that they “support the troops, but not the war.”

    When an infantryman says it, he is speaking of the moment of combat. When an anti-war type says it, they imply full-time disassociation with the broader military. Don’t confuse the two.

    Comment by Bunker — December 30, 2004 @ 9:00 am

  3. Bunker…

    Hopefully I sounded like I might be one of those bright “losers” this morning on the Lago In the Morning Show. I wouldn’t consider myself to be nervous…but more like being on a recon of the battlefield. Don’t want to rush right into an ambush now, would I?

    I agree with you that the military is not filled with society’s castaways…although I think that as we continue to modernize and increase the level of technology, we might consider some form of selective service (imagine that..that’s what the administration’s even called) to bring in some of America’s absolute best and brightest to help us through some of the more complicated moves we’re experiencing as part of the transformation process. Rather than try and train folks…taking years…it might make sense to pluck/entice some willing takers from the corporate/industrial world.

    I tried to touch on the fact that I’m somewhat disappointed with today’s youth in that they don’t seem to have the focus we had some years ago. In my reserve life, I worked with candidates attempting to enter the United States Military Academy at West Point. Every time I spoke with a candidate I made it abundantly clear that I wasn’t going to hold his hand during the application process, but assist him/her along the way when help was needed. Why did I take that approach? Because I wasn’t going back to “the joint” to hold their hand for four years…and I certainly wasn’t going to be there when they took charge of their first platoon. I was somewhat taken aback by some reactions I got from both the candidates and the parents.

    I am a firm believer that junior military officers and noncommissioned officers are the backbone of this country’s leadership pool. Obviously I’m not alone…anyone that watched Donald Trump’s second season of “The Apprentice” will know that Kelly P. won the position to be Mr. Trump’s second apprentice (I knew that I should have applied!) Kelly’s background is quite similar to my own, with the exception being I remained in government service while he went on to business. I’m happy for him…and if nothing else, he should certainly be a good example of what a former military officer is capable of.

    See you on the high ground…and maybe Jim Lago’s show if I’m invited back!


    Comment by MajorDad1984 — December 30, 2004 @ 9:21 am

  4. I haven’t seen any episodes of “The Apprentice,” but the end of MajorDad’s comment reminded me of this book, of which I’ve read bits and pieces (I was working at the publisher during its publication process). Thought it might be of interest to Bunker and probably Slice, despite the fact that some of the promo quotes on the book jacket were provided by a short-lived Marine who’s now one of Bunker’s favorite people — Dan Rather!

    Comment by Bogey — December 30, 2004 @ 12:58 pm

  5. Oh, and having surfed over to Dagney’s site to read the referenced post, I’d like to see if you have any links (or care to write your own post) explaining what the problem really is with having women in combat. Don’t they serve admirably in all kinds of situations alongside men as police officers and firefighters now? Just curious how that argument goes; I’ve not read or heard much about it at all.

    Comment by Bogey — December 30, 2004 @ 1:05 pm

  6. Rather is NOT a Marine. He never finished boot camp.

    Comment by Bunker — December 30, 2004 @ 1:33 pm

  7. No opinion on women in combat. My reaction is only from personal experience on the flightline–some can do it, some can’t. If all standards are, in fact, standards, they can join in. On the flightline and many other places the standards were lowered for women so they could get those jobs. I had one who was one of my best mechanics, and another who was my worst and couldn’t even carry her own tool box.

    Comment by Bunker — December 30, 2004 @ 1:40 pm

  8. You are definitely correct WRT the modern military. When I was ETS’ing (3Jan72, after 2 tours in the RVN), VOLAR was “the wave of the future”. Damn glad it worked. I was RA (NOT draftee) – and I noticed that with ~5% error, we were getting from the enlistees what R. McNamara called “the best and the brightest”.
    BTW – I called the local Army recruiter on 12Sep01 and was told I was too old to return. Y’all are carryin’ our flag – and we’ve got “drag on the column”. My company’s motto on the pocket patch was “Mission First”. Thanks for carrying on for us old f&$#^…..


    Comment by Larry — December 30, 2004 @ 1:54 pm

  9. I’m one of those OFs myself. The sons are taking care of business now.

    Comment by Bunker — December 30, 2004 @ 6:10 pm

    Bunker wrote about the notion that the military is “society’s trash heap”, and I only have one thing to add. Having taught four sections of college English, I can say that the soldiers in my classes are just like students…

    Trackback by trying to grok — December 31, 2004 @ 1:37 am

  11. “I want to challenge that. And I believe I am imminently qualified to do so.”

    Umm, Bunker, I’m a huge fan. And I hate to undercut your theses (with which I agree, really!). But shouldn’t that be “eminently” qualified?

    Comment by UML Guy — January 3, 2005 @ 1:24 pm

  12. Unlike those in MSM, I can admit a mistake. Too many geeks around keeping an eye on me! That’s what I get for typing as I think–and not too well.

    Comment by Bunker — January 3, 2005 @ 5:17 pm

  13. Feel free to throw stones at my glass house. I present enough opportunities!

    Comment by UML Guy — January 3, 2005 @ 5:57 pm

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