Enlisted Life

Friday, August 30, 2013

The Enlistment

The writer who taught the fiction writing class at Idyllwild Summer Arts before I started a two-decade run on the mountain was Bruce McAllister. I never met him, but recently I found out that my predecessor and I shared one crucial feature in our childhood: both of us grew up in military families. The degree to which this environment affects the maturation process of children is largely an unexamined topic. A colleague at CSULB, Heather Rae-Espinosa, once told me that the children of military families share a degree of displacement that is more often associated with the children of families of migrant farm workers. In particular, both groups of children share a prolonged experience of social alienation due to the frequent change of residence.

One thing remains familiar, however, as children embedded in the armed forces skip between living quarters: the environment at each point of traversal (at least for the children of enlisted personnel) is often equally degraded in terms of physical and psychological violence. My memories of Norfolk, Virginia and Imperial Beach, California are utterly replete with trauma. Children are bullied in civilian life, too, but when that experience is intertwined with a continual sense of being uprooted, an individual is almost certain to be beyond any hope of reclamation for a life that would provide the ordinary rewards of family and home.

I have tried therapy. It doesn’t work, and some of that inefficacy may be due to a factor that was articulated in a discussion I had a year ago with a man who counsels vets at CSULB: We ended up agreeing that career military people can integrate with civilian society, but can never assimilate. This is predominantly true for their offspring, too. It’s not just the abrupt oscillations of domesticity that buffet one’s social balance when young: the allegiances of submission (and the resentments thereof) permanently fester and lodge the military brat in an irreconcilable psychological redoubt. Once a person, whether as an adult volunteering or a child being imposed upon, absorbs the values of military culture, civilian behavior will almost always seem idiosyncratically narcissistic. The hierarchy of blunt expectation for no excuses performance in military life is not something that is recognized in the civilian life; a military brat often finds his or her civilian co-workers or associates to be weird in how they seek to exempt themselves from the tasks or assignments that they expect others to do in their place.

Even in integrating, though, there is the key difference in the offspring of career military personnel between those who have one parent who is an officer and the “military brats” whose father or mother serves at the enlisted level. There is a degree of class distinction between officers and the enlisted ranks that is difficult for a civilian to comprehend and it plays out not only in the cultural capital available to their children, but in values of self-subjugation that do not fit well with the civilian world. From the point of view of military brats, the civilian world is full of narcissistic vanity; the possessive individualism that is a prime virtue of the middle class seems nothing more than a feeble rationale to explain one’s self-importance.

In my life as a poet and teacher, I have yet to meet anyone in the academy whose father’s (or mother’s) service in the armed forces as a career enlisted solider or sailor required them to make transcontinental shifts. There are occasional writers and teachers I have heard of whose fathers were officers (as was McAllister’s, for instance), but the attrition rate of cultural accomplishment for anyone growing up in an enlisted household appears to be an intellectual and imaginative cleansing as thorough as any ethnic project. How I have ended up as a professor at CSU Long Beach remains a daily puzzle: it’s far too unlikely to be believable.

The sole other exception to this vanishing act might Rae Armantrout. She has written of her experiences in a somewhat similar situation, but her family was never posted outside of California and in growing up in a single state, Rae had an extraordinarily rare degree of continuity for someone who classifies herself as a military brat.  Nevertheless, anyone who might undertake a biography of Rae someday should not overlook the ways in which the experience of growing up in the skewed environment of military culture affected her affiliations with a poetics of skepticism. It just now occurs to me, in fact, that one interesting common factor in the contrast between two of my favorite poets would be the influence of San Diego’s conservative environment. Amy Gerstler grew up, too, in San Diego, but in a civilian family. The difference in registers of tone in their poems might well have points of origin in their responses to authority. If poems can respond to power, as etched in ranks of social authority, by manipulating language so as to make control over one’s identity a matter of self-orientation and enactment, the difference in the uses of irony are perhaps most visible in the palimpsests of military and civilian life.

Post-script: The poet Marilyn Nelson once mentioned in a conversation that she arrived at a new elementary school at the fourth or fifth grade level and went out for her first recess. She looked across the playground and began crying. She had spotted her best friend from one of her first years in school, and had thought she would never see him again after her father, an officer in the air force, had been transferred. But the young boy’s family had eventually also been transferred to the same military base as her father was stationed at, and so they were temporarily reunited.