In honor of Veteran’s Day — thoughts about redemption

Since I was a child, I’ve enjoyed a very specific type of book or movie, of the kind that I call the “Getting it Right” genre. Getting it Right entertainment involves a protagonist who is making big mistakes, and who figures out how to — yes — get it right. The moral trajectory of failure and redemption is one that that I have always found deeply satisfying.

The easiest example of this genre is, of course, Groundhog Day. Bill Murray’s character, Phil, is loathsome in myriad petty ways. He’s not big evil — he’s not killing anyone or even breaking small laws. Instead, he’s characterized by complete selfishness, plus a heavy dose of arrogance and condescension. The movie, which sees him trapped in endless iterations of Groundhog Day, allows him to work through his failings until he gets it right, at which point he’s allowed to move forward with his life.

My favorite book, Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice, sounds exactly the same theme. Although Elizabeth Bennett is utterly charming from the first page, she suffers from the fact that her overly quick wit and impulsive personality drive her towards making disastrous snap judgments. She’s taken in by a con man, and reviles an honorable one. Fitzwilliam Darcy is less manifestly charming because his fatal personality flaw, an arrogant boorishness, hides his fundamental decency. The book’s pleasure comes from watching these two bright, misguided people work their way through their own personal failings — in other words, they get it right — allowing them to have a happy ending.

Outside the world of fiction, I’ve often viewed the military as a redemptive experience, at least for those who seek that redemption. I know where I got this idea: from my father. As I’ve written before, he had a miserable childhood. He was born into abject poverty in Weimar Berlin. His father had left for America before he was born, and his mother, with three children ranging in age from newborn through 12 years, simply couldn’t find it within herself to join her husband. After letting him run wild in the slums, my grandmother, incapable of caring for a five year old thug-in-training, placed him in a Jewish orphanage.

From that point on, my Dad’s life had structure, but no love. He was bright and did well in the Jewish Gymnasium. He probably would have made a life for himself, but for the fact that, in 1933, Germans collectively went mad. By 1935, my 16 year old father knew he needed to escape and, when one of his teachers offered to take him to Palestine, my father left his family and Germany behind forever.

A requirement for Dad’s journey to Palestine was to help found a kibbutz near the Sea of Galilee. He hated the experience. The labor was incredibly hard and, after years in an orphanage, my dad believed he wanted nothing more to do with communal living. After sticking it out for three years, he ditched the kibbutz and made his way to Tel Aviv. There, he did the only thing a young man without family, focus, self-esteem, or an operational work ethic could do: he started to starve to death on the streets. Ironically, war was his salvation.

Britain declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939. My father enlisted in the RAF on September 4, 1939. As a German Jew who had seen the Nazis first hand, I don’t think it ever occurred to him not to engage in the fight. But the reason he enlisted with such speed was to get food. My Dad spent the next five years in active combat. He was in North Africa (El Alamein) and Southern Europe (the Battle of Crete), and all points in between. His hearing and his digestion were permanently damaged. He lost friends. He gained nightmares. It was the worst of times.

But it was also the best of times. My father discovered that communal living worked for him when he believed in the mission. He discovered that he was an adrenalin junkie. He discovered that he could take responsibility for things. Despite the horrors of hand-to-hand war with the Nazis, my dad loved being in the RAF (and ANZAC, to which he was loaned). When he left the military, he was a superbly self-disciplined, well-organized human being. But for his Communism, which meant he was bound and determined to thumb his nose at success, he could have ruled the world.

Had my father been the only military success story of my child, I might have written it off as an anomaly. After all, I was a child of the Vietnam War, and I was told (repeatedly) that military service turns people into trained, drug-addicted killers. (Of course, knowing all the high functioning, moral, clean-living vets from my parents’ generation meant that I was never quite able to believe that horrible canard.)

In the mid-1970s, though, I saw another person saved by the military. This was a young man, a neighbor, who was bright, and utterly unmotivated. After barely graduating from high school, he retired to his parents’ couch, beer can in hand. When they kicked him out, leaving him homeless and destitute, he did precisely what my dad did: he enlisted. There, in a highly structured, dedicated environment, he thrived. He went to officer’s training school, and came out a leader of men. When he eventually left the military and entered the business world, he swiftly made a fortune.

Now I’ve got two anomalies. Care to go for a third? I got my third recently, when I learned that a young man of my acquaintance, who could only be characterized as a complete waste of space when I knew him — whiny, ineffectual, spoiled, and deeply unhappy, but also a patriot — enlisted in the Army after 9/11. He’s still in the Army, in Special Forces, having the time of his life. To him, danger and hardship are an acceptable compromise for meaning, purpose, structure and camaraderie. (And indeed, if he’s an adrenalin junkie, the danger is part of the pleasure.) There is a possibility (G-d forbid) that he might die in battle but, if that happens, at least he will have lived life. Before, he was just sleepwalking.

I started this post by talking about redemptive, or transformational literature, segued in a discussion about the transformational role the military has played for people I know, and now want to tie the two strands together with one book: Marco Martinez’s Hard Corps: From Gangster to Marine Hero, a book that was published in 2007, but that I only got around to reading yesterday.

It’s a good book. Indeed, it’s a much better book than I had anticipated. Martinez has a good eye for detail and a good ear for dialogue. I could easily imagine the scenes he described, whether it was tense gang confrontations, the intense and often painful training he went through to become a Marine Infantryman, or the fear, boredom, discomfort, horror and uplift of battle. Martinez is especially good at describing that way in the men who have trained for war crave engagement to such an extent that they are able to confront and control the fear, boredom and discomfort he describes.

What I especially like about the book is that it’s another in the “getting it right” genre. By joining a gang when he was 14, Martinez has put himself on a straight trajectory to one of two locations: prison or an early grave. Not only was he harming himself, he was harming others. He admits to incredible violence, to participating in theft rings, and to causing deep unhappiness to his parents. The one thing that set him apart from other gangsters was that his father was an Army Ranger. Even as his own life was imploding, he had before him the example of military discipline and purpose. When he could no longer take the downward path he was traveling, he sought redemption in the hardest of hard: Marine infantry.

Martinez details the way in which his training was intended to break down completely all previous behavior patterns and to build each recruit into a warrior. Frankly, I was horrified to read what the recruits go through, but I also understood perfectly why they did. If you can’t take sleep deprivation, hunger, thirst, a full bowel/bladder and physical pain on your own ground, without gun fire, how in the world are you going to survive battle? Martinez, and those recruits who stuck it out, understood the same thing: They were willing to transform themselves from civilians, whether because of patriotism, boredom, the desire to push themselves, or the need to escape an ugly past, even if it meant suffering a training regimen most of us would run from, screaming at the top of our wussy lungs.

For Martinez, basic training was redemption with a vengeance. By the time Martinez arrived in Iraq, near the end of his four year enlistment, he was a completely disciplined, dedicated warrior, ready to put himself on the front line to protect those of us without the will, ability or desire to fight our own battles. It was almost logical that, in the heat of battle, he’d engage in an incredible act of bravery to protect his team, thereby earning the Navy Cross. He had fully redeemed himself. He got it right.

Not all men and women join the military to redeem themselves. Not all have to (or get to) face battle. Not all acquire useful life skills from being in the military. But without exception, each of our veterans, living or dead, got it right. Each put himself or herself through the rigors of training, ready to go to the front line of battle, to defend the most basic human freedoms, freedoms which have truly flowered in America for the first time in any nation’s history.

To all the men and women who have served this nation, therefore, whether for their own personal redemption or for that of that nation itself, I say thank you, thank you so much.

Cross-posted in Bookworm Room

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