Life Lesson: Treat the Body Strictly

No!

As Seneca, the Roman Stoic who advised treating the body “somewhat strictly,” wrote in a letter: “Avoid whatever is approved by the mob, and things that are the gift of chance. Whenever circumstance brings some welcome thing your way, stop in suspicion and alarm… They are snares… we think these things are ours when in fact it is we who are caught. That track leads to precipices; life on that giddy level ends in a fall.”

From the New York Times, October 12, 2008.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

The Painting at the Spouter-Inn and other gems from Moby Dick

The Spouter-Inn, 18x24" acrylic on canvas, 2009 (Marlene Angeja)
The Spouter-Inn, 18×24″ acrylic on canvas, 2009 (Marlene Angeja)

Entering that gable-ended Spouter-Inn, you found yourself in a wide, low, straggling entry with old-fashioned wainscots, reminding one of the bulwarks of some condemned old craft. On one side hung a very large oil painting so thoroughly besmoked, and every way defaced, that in the unequal crosslights by which you viewed it, it was only by diligent study and a series of systematic visits to it, and careful inquiry of the neighbors, that you could any way arrive at an understanding of its purpose. Such unaccountable masses of shades and shadows, that at first you almost thought some ambitious young artist, in the time of the New England hags, had endeavored to delineate chaos bewitched. But by dint of much and earnest contemplation, and oft repeated ponderings, and especially by throwing open the little window towards the back of the entry, you at last come to the conclusion that such an idea, however wild, might not be altogether unwarranted.

But what most puzzled and confounded you was a long, limber, portentous, black mass of something hovering in the centre of the picture over three blue, dim, perpendicular lines floating in a nameless yeast. A boggy, soggy, squitchy picture truly, enough to drive a nervous man distracted. Yet was there a sort of indefinite, half-attained, unimaginable sublimity about it that fairly froze you to it, till you involuntarily took an oath with yourself to find out what that marvellous painting meant. Ever and anon a bright, but, alas, deceptive idea would dart you through.- It’s the Black Sea in a midnight gale.- It’s the unnatural combat of the four primal elements.- It’s a blasted heath.- It’s a Hyperborean winter scene.- It’s the breaking-up of the icebound stream of Time. But last all these fancies yielded to that one portentous something in the picture’s midst. That once found out, and all the rest were plain. But stop; does it not bear a faint resemblance to a gigantic fish? even the great leviathan himself?

In fact, the artist’s design seemed this: a final theory of my own, partly based upon the aggregated opinions of many aged persons with whom I conversed upon the subject. The picture represents a Cape-Horner in a great hurricane; the half-foundered ship weltering there with its three dismantled masts alone visible; and an exasperated whale, purposing to spring clean over the craft, is in the enormous act of impaling himself upon the three mast-heads.

After a long time, I finally finished reading Moby Dick. The above was the most memorable part of the book for me, which took place very early on. The picture I chose was the one that I thought captured the description in the text. Here are some of the other gems I found in Melville’s classic that readers of this blog will appreciate:

On the emotion of the first encounter with the leviathan:
Not the raw recruit, marching from the bosom of his wife into the fever heat of his first battle; not the dead man’s ghost encountering the first unknown phantom in the other world; — neither of these can feel stranger and stronger emotions than that man does, who for the first time finds himself pulling into the charmed, churned circle of the hunter sperm whale.

On commanders and their more capable subordinates:
“Now, as you well known, it is not seldom the case in this conventional world of ours — watery or otherwise; that when a person placed in command over his fellow-men finds one of them to be very significantly his superior in general pride of manhood, straight-away against that man he conceives an unconquerable dislike and bitterness; and if he have a chance he will pull down and pulverize that subaltern’s tower, and make a little heap of dust of it.”

On emulating the leviathan:
Oh man! admire and model thyself after the whale! Do thou, too, remain warm among the ice. Do though, too, live in this world without being of it. Be cool at the equatorl Keep they blood fluid at the Pole. Like the great dome of St. Peter’s, and like the great whale, retain, O man! in all seasons a temperature of thine own.

On the joy of sperm, or sea-madness:
Squeeze! Squeeze Squeeze! all the morning long; I squeezed that sperm till I myself almost melted into it; I squeezed that sperm till a strange sort of insanity came over me; and I found myself unwitingly squeezing my co-laborers’ hands in it, mistaking their hands for the gentle globules. Such an abounding, affectionate, friendly, loving feeling did this avocation beget; that at last I was continually squeezing their hands, and looking up into their eyes sentimentally; as much as to say, — Oh! my dear fellow beings, why should we longer cherish any social acerbities, or know the slightest ill-humor or envy! Come; let us squeeze hands all round; nay, let us all squeeze ourselves into each other; let us squeeze ourselves universally into the very milk and sperm of kindness.
     Would that I could keep squeezing that sperm for ever! For now, since by many prolonged, repeated experiences, I have perceived that in all cases man must eventually lower, or at least shift, his conceit of attainable felicity; not placing it anywhere in the intellect or the fancy, but in the wife, the heart, the bed, the table, the saddle, the fireside, the country; now that I have perceived all this, I am ready to squeeze case eternally. In thoughts of the visions of the night, I saw long rows of angels in paradise, each with his hands in a jar of spermacetti.

Ahab, on the Leviathan-slayer:
“Not forged!” and snatching Perth’s levelled iron from the crotch, Ahab held it out, exclaiming — “Look ye, Nantucketer; here in this hand I hold his death! Tempered in blood, and tempered by lightning are these barbs; and I swear to temper them triply in that hot place behind the fin, where the White Whale most feels his accursed life!”

Ahab on his mad obsession:
“Oh, Starbuck! it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky. On such a day—very much such a sweetness as this—I struck my first whale—a boy-harpooneer of eighteen! Forty—forty—forty years ago!—ago! Forty years of continual whaling! forty years of privation, and peril, and storm-time! forty years on the pitiless sea! for forty years has Ahab forsaken the peaceful land, for forty years to make war on the horrors of the deep! Aye and yes, Starbuck, out of those forty years I have not spent three ashore. When I think of this life I have led; the desolation of solitude it has been; the masoned, walled-town of a Captain’s exclusiveness, which admits but small entrance to any sympathy from the green country without—oh, weariness! heaviness! Guinea-coast slavery of solitary command!—when I think of all this; only half-suspected, not so keenly known to me before—and how for forty years I have fed upon dry salted fare—fit emblem of the dry nourishment of my soul!—when the poorest landsman has had fresh fruit to his daily hand, and broken the world’s fresh bread to my mouldy crusts—away, whole oceans away, from that young girl-wife I wedded past fifty, and sailed for Cape Horn the next day, leaving but one dent in my marriage pillow—wife? wife?—rather a widow with her husband alive? Aye, I widowed that poor girl when I married her, Starbuck; and then, the madness, the frenzy, the boiling blood and the smoking brow, with which, for a thousand lowerings old Ahab has furiously, foamingly chased his prey—more a demon than a man!—aye, aye! what a forty years’ fool—fool—old fool, has old Ahab been! Why this strife of the chase? why weary, and palsy the arm at the oar, and the iron, and the lance? how the richer or better is Ahab now? Behold. Oh, Starbuck! is it not hard, that with this weary load I bear, one poor leg should have been snatched from under me? Here, brush this old hair aside; it blinds me, that I seem to weep. Locks so grey did never grow but from out some ashes! But do I look very old, so very, very old, Starbuck? I feel deadly faint, bowed, and humped, as though I were Adam, staggering beneath the piled centuries since Paradise. God! God! God!—crack my heart!—stave my brain!—mockery! mockery! bitter, biting mockery of grey hairs, have I lived enough joy to wear ye; and seem and feel thus intolerably old? Close! stand close to me, Starbuck; let me look into a human eye; it is better than to gaze into sea or sky; better than to gaze upon God. By the green land; by the bright hearthstone! this is the magic glass, man; I see my wife and my child in thine eye. No, no; stay on board, on board!—lower not when I do; when branded Ahab gives chase to Moby Dick. That hazard shall not be thine. No, no! not with the far away home I see in that eye!”

“What is it, what nameless, inscrutable, unearthly thing is it; what cozening, hidden lord and master, and cruel, remorseless emperor commands me; that against all natural lovings and longings, I so keep pushing, and crowding, and jamming myself on all the time; recklessly making me ready to do what in my own proper, natural heart, I durst not so much as dare? Is Ahab, Ahab? Is it I, God, or who, that lifts this arm? But if the great sun move not of himself; but is an errand-boy in heaven; nor one single star can revolve, but by some invisible power; how then can this one small heart beat; this one small brain think thoughts; unless God does that beating, does that thinking, does that living, and not I. By heaven, man, we are turned round and round in this world, like yonder windlass, and Fate is the handspike. And all the time, lo! that smiling sky, and this unsounded sea! Look! see yon Albicore! who put it into him to chase and fang that flying-fish? Where do murderers go, man! Who’s to doom, when the judge himself is dragged to the bar? But it is a mild, mild wind, and a mild looking sky; and the airs smells now, as if it blew from a far-away meadow; they have been making hay somewhere under the slopes of the Andes, Starbuck, and the mowers are sleeping among the new-mown hay. Sleeping? Aye, toil we how we may, we all sleep at last on the field. Sleep? Aye, and rust amid greenness; as last year’s scythes flung down, and left in the half-cut swarths—Starbuck!”

But blanched to a corpse’s hue with despair, the Mate had stolen away.

Ahab crossed the deck to gaze over on the other side; but started at two reflected, fixed eyes in the water there, Fedallah was motionlessly leaning over the same rail.

On the mission:
They were one man, not thirty. For as the one ship that held them all; though it was put together of all contrasting things — oak, and maple, and pine wood; iron, and pitch, and hemp — yet all these ran into each other in the one concrete hull, which shot on its way, both balanced and directed by the long central keel; even so, all the individualities of the crew, this man’s valor, that man’s fear; guilt and guiltiness, all varieties were welded into oneness, and were all directed that fatal goal which Ahab their one lord and keel did point to.

Ahab on the uncompromising end:
Some ships sail from their ports, and ever afterwards are missing, Starbuck!”

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Brave New World

“A New Theory of Biology,” was the title of the paper which Mustapha Mond had just finished reading. He sat for some time, meditatively frowning, then picked up his pen and wrote across the title-page: “The author’s mathematical treatment of the conception of purpose is novel and highly ingenious, but heretical and, so far as the present social order is concerned, dangerous and potentially subversive. Not to be published.” He underlined the words. “The author will be kept under supervision. His transference to the Marine Biological Station of St. Helena may become necessary.” A pity, he thought, as he signed his name. It was a masterly piece of work. But once you began admitting explanations in terms of purpose — well, you didn’t know what the result might be. It was the sort of idea that might easily decondition the more unsettled minds among the higher castes — make them lose their faith in happiness as the Sovereign Good and take to believing, instead, that the goal was somewhere beyond, somewhere outside the present human sphere; that the purpose of life was not the maintenance of well-being, but some intensification and refining of consciousness, some enlargement of knowledge. Which was, the Controller reflected, quite possibly true. But not, in the present circumstance, admissible. He picked up his pen again, and under the words “Not to be published” drew a second line, thicker and blacker than the first; then sighed, “What fun it would be,” he thought, “if one didn’t have to think about happiness!”

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Infidel Redux

Hipster

Without question, my short post last year on why it’s a bad idea for troops to embrace the term ‘infidel’ has been my most popular. It has garnered the most comments and is usually the post that attracts the most viewers per day. Judging by the comments, people get very emotional about this topic and have strong, mostly unshakeable and extreme opinions. Those who are ardent advocates of the brand cannot be convinced otherwise and in many cases, take to insulting me, my writing ability, or my credentials to make or punctuate their argument.

The point I was trying to make in that post was to say that while troops are entitled to their right to free speech, it is unprofessional to embrace the term infidel for the reasons I outlined. In reaction to my opinion, in the comments section, I have been accused of being a sympathizer of the enemy, an “incredible dumbass,” a poor writer, an empathizer, one who has a “hidden agenda,” dishonorable, a fobbit, an “embarrassment to our military and country,” someone “who needs a kick to the balls with a spiked combat boot,” and most recently, a traitor.

There is something deeper underlying that kind of defensive behavior that has led me to re-examine this phenomenon.

When I wrote the post, I knew it might attract some opposing views. I had no idea, though, that it would be so pervasive, persistent, and filled with hate.

Now, over a year later, I’d like to revisit the topic to see what has changed – if anything.

There is nothing outright “wrong” in displaying an infidel bumper sticker or getting it tattooed on the body. The word ‘infidel’ or its Arabic counterpart, kafir (ÙƒŰ§ÙŰ±), is not in and of itself, extremist. This is not to say that those who brandish the term are or are not extremist. Some might just like the pretty Arabic script and others might just enjoy how ‘cool’ the word sounds. But I think some use the fact that the word is not considered a ‘hate word’ in the same way as a racial or ethnic slur to barely hide an extremist viewpoint.

Now, seeing the response and having thought harder on the subject, and having dug a little further into the regulations which cover extremist behavior, I think there may be a case for a closer examination as to whether this is appropriate behavior for service members.

The relevant portions of DoD Directive 1325.06, Handling Dissident and Protest Activities Among Members of the Armed Forces:

8. PROHIBITED ACTIVITIES

a. Military personnel must not actively advocate supremacist, extremist, or criminal gang
doctrine, ideology, or causes, including those that advance, encourage, or advocate illegal
discrimination based on race, creed, color, sex, religion, ethnicity, or national origin or those that advance, encourage, or advocate the use of force, violence, or criminal activity or otherwise advance efforts to deprive individuals of their civil rights.

9. PREVENTIVE ACTIVITIES

a. Commanders should remain alert for signs of future prohibited activities. They should
intervene early, primarily through counseling, when observing such signs even though the signs may not rise to active advocacy or active participation or may not threaten good order and discipline, but only suggest such potential. The goal of early intervention is to minimize the risk of future prohibited activities.
b. Examples of such signs, which, in the absence of the active advocacy or active
participation addressed in paragraphs 8.a and 8.b are not prohibited, could include mere
membership in criminal gangs and other organizations covered under paragraph 8.b. Signs could also include possession of literature associated with such gangs or organizations, or with related ideology, doctrine, or causes. While mere membership or possession of literature normally is not prohibited, it may merit further investigation and possibly counseling to emphasize the importance of adherence to the Department’s values and to ensure that the Service member understands what activities are prohibited.

According to the directive, a service member does not have to be using direct hate speech or be an active member of an extremist group in order to warrant a command action, but merely be ‘in the orbit’ of such speech or behavior. I’d argue, given the vitriolic comments to my infidel post and the ease in which you can find extremist views just beneath the surface of a Google search for ‘major league infidel,’ that displaying these things just might warrant command action.

While free speech for service members is protected, hate speech or extremist views are not.

To quote Army Pamphlet 600-15, Extremist Activities, “Our soldiers do not live in a vacuum.” Individual soldiers have a responsibility to understand the things that they do and the potential consequences, on and off duty.

I do not think that everyone that slaps an infidel bumper sticker on their car is an extremist or holds extremist views. But I know some of them do. It’s evidenced right here on this blog, by those who said as much in the comments. While soldiers have a responsibility to know what they’re getting themselves into when they start marketing an idea on their body or property, commanders have a responsibility to remind their soldiers that we are a military with values, and that extremist behavior is not compatible with those values. Additionally, given DoD Directive 1325.06, commanders have the authority to lean in if they suspect a soldier of being in the orbit of extremist activity. The way that the term ‘infidel’ is slung around, there is a good argument that brandishing it puts a person in that orbit.

Lastly, the thing that really bothers me about this theme is how it looks like it will endure longer than the actual wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s a brand, an image. They sell ‘infidel’ shirts at the PX. What value is their as self-identifying as an ‘infidel’ if you go fight in some other war? It’s troubling to me, because a soldier should not be self-identifying as anything but a soldier (or marine, airman, what have you).

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Two years of Carrying the Gun

I realized the other day that I missed the two-year anniversary of the blog (July 9, 2011). Like I did on the one year anniversary, here’s some stats:

Most popular posts:
1. Enough with the ‘infidel’ stuff. Seriously, stop.
2. Army Myths: The .50 cal will kill/harm/maim even if you miss
3. Why we fight

Top search terms:
1. troll
2. major league infidel
3. drill sergeant

The post I wanted to be more popular than it was: Veterans on the Set of World War Z.

You can read about the day I started the blog here.

From the Introduction:

The blog is centrally about soldiering, writ large. Sometimes, I’ll write about things only remotely connected to soldiering, but there will be a connection there, somewhere.

I’ve decided that I’m going to drop the ‘Soldiering, writ large’ line. I’ve found it constraining, and a commenter recently pointed out how annoying it is. I typically do write about things in the soldierly orbit, but not always. So, on this, the two-year anniversary of the blog, it’s just ‘Carrying the Gun.’ I’ll write whatever I want.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

The Army Cook’s Creed

Army Cooks Civil War

Doing some research for a blog post, and yeah, apparently Army cooks had a creed:

The Cook’s Creed

“Cleanliness is next to godliness,
both in persons and kettles be ever industrious, then, in scouring your
pots.
Much elbow grease, a few ashes, and a little water are capital aids to the
careful cook.
Dirt and grease betray the poor cook, and destroy the poor soldier; whilst
health, content, and good cheer should ever reward him who does his duty
and keeps his kettles clean.
In military life, punctuality is to be exact in time.
Be sparing with sugar and salt, as a deficiency can be better remedied than
an over-plus.”

U.S. Army Cookbook, 1863

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

Stupid Lieutenants

“Some lieutenants could be seen wandering through the woods seemingly aimlessly, far from their objectives. At least two lieutenants also vomited, and a few ran into some sort of trouble that left them bleeding from the head.”

Lieutenants. My favorite species.

From a blog post on ‘Battle Rattle’

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.

A Dark Imagining – the dwindling flash-to-bang ratio of the internet

soldier

A few months ago, I tweeted about how demoralizing it would be to go to war in the Twitter age.

My point, was that as someone who is now plugged into the social media universe, I can imagine how demoralizing it would feel to be suddenly unplugged, deployed, and forward in a fight, fully knowing that there is a cadre of Twitterarti in Snarkistan talking shit about my every move. Things that happen today on the battlefield are instantly captured, written about, analyzed, and then snarked-up before lunch.

General Dempsey, the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff recently hinted at this at a recent talk:

“For the first time our competence and character are being evaluated by experts and pundits while we fight.”

I also saw it a couple of days ago, as another Egyptian leader was deposed through the massing of people in Tahrir Square. Less than 24 hours had passed and already people were decrying the whole thing as a fraud or an American plot, before the party in the street had even ended.

I’m really not making any striking points in this post, but to say this is the way the world is heading, and it is high time to accept that instead of lament and thrash at history. Future war will involve us going forward, doing things, and having those things beamed back and dissected and becoming memes before we re-enter the forward operaring base. Raging against the machine will just make you nuts.

Just something to think about.

Enjoy these posts? Follow me on Twitter and sign up for the monthly newsletter.