The Swirling Winds of Time

I saw the hungry armies of the men who had no work
I saw the silver ship fly to her doom
I watched the world at war and witnessed brave men go berserk
And saw that death was both the bride and groom
I watched Bikini atoll turn from coral into dust
At Dealy Plaza worlds came to an end
And swirling winds of time blew as the Soviet went bust
And life is born in stars as some contend
The swirling winds have always blown around man’s aimless trials
And will continue blowing ‘til the stars
Wink out in just a few short eons as the goddess whiles
Away the time in counting kings and tsars
Who think that they control the winds that swirl around their heads
Believing they are mighty as the sword
Not knowing that in blink of eye they’re taken to their beds
The swirling winds of time are oft ignored
Until, like we, the winds becalm and we stand face to face
With zephyrs and Spring breezes at our back
Propelling us toward what it seems is finish of the race
The winds we have but time is what we lack –

Walt Erickson, the poet laureate of Belmont Club, on this particular discussion thread.

So, tempus fugit and all that … dust in the wind, as the pop group Kansas used to sing. That number always reminds me vividly of a certain time and place, a memory which is strictly personal and has no bearing on this post, really … save for reminding me in an oblique way, that as of this month twenty years past, I went on terminal leave from the USAF. As of the end of this year, I have been retired from the military for as many years as I was in it. I can’t claim that I have traveled as far in this last two decades as I did in the two before that … after all, when I went to my high school reunion in 1982, I won the award for having come the farthest to attend the reunion. That was the year I was stationed in Greenland at the time, and the reunion was coincident to my middle-of-tour leave. The two decades past included travel to California to visit family, to Brownsville on client business, to Washington DC/Arlington for a milblogger convention, to Houston once and innumerable road trips to the Hill Country on book business. Dust in the wind, my friends – dust in the wind.

Time. It happens to all of us. Of late, I have come to realize that the military that I experienced and knew so very well is now as distant as – say, the military experience of the late 19th century was as distant from the military experience of the of post-WWI-era military, the finance-starved and tightly-bound professional military of the 1930s from the draft-expanded and eventually victorious WWII military. Only the uniforms, the ranks, the various understandings remain, from age to age the same. The culture itself changes from war to war. The military I knew so well was the all-volunteer one which had recovered from the desperate straits that Vietnam and a draftee-nation had left it in, which proved the worth of the all-volunteer service in the first Gulf War and saw the falling of the Iron Curtain. Now there has another leap over a gap of perceptions/experience. My daughter has said, often enough, that she was quite fortunate, time-wise – in that she was able to see the last few years of the military that I knew, where a TDY mostly meant a fun deployment exercise in a mostly interesting part of the world, segueing to the post-9-11 military where a TDY mostly meant a grim tour of duty in Afghanistan or in the Middle East.

And now the American military is a very different place. Once again. Discuss.

16 thoughts on “The Swirling Winds of Time”

  1. Dearie, the US military is … well, always has been rather odd in comparison to European militaries. For one, there is a hell of a lot of responsibility taken by NCOs and initiative encouraged by them – much more so than in most other armies.
    In the 19th century, and up to WWI it was minuscule professional officer corps, volunteer enlisted … and a massive influx of volunteers and local militias for the occasional war, leavened by draftees in the Civil War. Then the 20th century – much the same, with massive numbers of volunteers and draftees. A universal male draft from 1941 to 1972 … that skewed everything. And then the culture of the services themselves is quite different. But it’s been all-volunteer since 1972, which I believe is completely appropriate. A lot of modern military skills are not the kind that can be learned and used effectively by unwilling draftees serving a two-year long stint.
    But the institution of the military is being stressed, I think. A lot of servicemembers were just worn to shreds by deployments over the last fifteen years. People got tired. And the tendency of this administration to play all sorts of social experimentation with a captive body is demoralizing as well. Or so my daughter perceives from her contacts among the veteran community — a veteran community which is about twenty-five years younger than the veterans I know.

  2. I grew up all over the world, an army brat. I sat on very black, men’s knees, and drove the ambulance at the airfield in Kaduna when I was 5, 65 years ago. I watched the crew start scout cars, you got one running, then pushed the rest to life. It was in many ways a wonderful life as the son of a Canadian, British Army Captain. We had a villa with servants, maybe 10 or so. The cook’s son Suli, was my best friend for a couple of years. Hell I even got to drive the plane home, an Avro York of the Queens Flight, well for a couple of minutes. ;)

    Great memories for a person to have, and as you get old, you value them more.

    Let us pray that the Hildebeast will not kill us all. It’s entirely possible.

  3. The BRAC base closings also changed things. By demilitarizing northern and northeastern states, it helped create the Red/Blue political divide we have today, and it widened the age-old problem of the civil-military divide. Your average citizen in a major metropolitan area doesn’t know anyone who served.

  4. “By demilitarizing northern and northeastern states…Your average citizen in a major metropolitan area doesn’t know anyone who served.”
    Drive around small town upstate New York and you’ll see plenty of trucks with “I Served”, “Iraq”, etc., stickers. It’s not a regional thing, it is a urban/rural thing.

    I grew up on military bases in the 80s and 90s. A good chunk of the ones I lived on are gone. My sister’s husband is AF. It seems like they never live on base anymore. That’s got to be a big difference to military life. I wonder about how the idealism about the country that is required to serve is holding up after the last dozen years. It seems like it’s fraying quite a bit.

  5. “For one, there is a hell of a lot of responsibility taken by NCOs and initiative encouraged by them – much more so than in most other armies.”

    I think the German army had far more NCO responsibility than the American army in WWII. The US army has been officer heavy since the Civil War.

    Sorry but I am not the only one who has said so.

  6. “Sorry but I am not the only one who has said so.” My father said so, based on his experience of fighting the buggers. Alas, the Germans were all round much better soldiers than the soldiers of the democracies. Or maybe not “alas”, maybe it’s a proper feature of men who were civilians from a civilian culture.

  7. “a proper feature of men who were civilians from a civilian culture.”

    Yes and that was the era of management where workers were assumed to be unskilled and required heavy layers of middle managers. The “Industrial Age.”

    I think the two features the Americans contributed were artillery and close air support. The Marines did better than the Army Air Corps but both were handicapped by the lack of radio contact between ground and air. Artillery was probably the most effective arm in WWII.

    Air support did better at intermediate range, like roads and railroads.

  8. “Yes and that was the era of management where workers were assumed to be unskilled and required heavy layers of middle managers. The “Industrial Age.””

    Only partially true: a lot of unskilled and semiskilled workers, but there were also significant numbers of people in jobs requiring substantial craft skills. See my post Myths of the Knowledge Society

  9. Our boys did excel at maneuver, taking the initiative, and turning the General Corp’s sow’s ears into silk purses. The problem was just when we’d get going the Generals would turn around and slam us into the brick wall of the German army.

    I would also add airborne assault to Mike’s list. The 101st and 82nd Airborne repeatedly made brave stands in the middle of morass of Market Garden and the Ardennes Forest.

  10. David, I agree but:

    Although an old-line company may have had many highly-skilled toolmakers, hammer smiths, etc, it usually had even more people who were laborers, rote assembly workers, semiskilled machine watchers, etc.

    That is also true. My uncle was superintendent of bricklayers at Wisconsin Steel, the steel mill owned by International Harvestor, in the 1930s and 40s. His father had been the same position in the 1910s and 20s. He told me that his father could look at a brick wall and tell you how many bricks were in it but he could not do the math to calculate it.

    He worked all his life in that mill, beginning as an apprentice bricklayer. I saw, although the family seems to have misplaced it, his father’s indenture papers from England in the 1880s. They were part of his apprenticeship. Skilled trades go back, probably to Greek and Roman times. The Industrial Age took many farmers and other unskilled workers who moved to the cities and began to work as factory hands. They had been skilled at trades that no longer were good occupations.

    The essence of the age of the factory was supervision of less skilled or unskilled by middle managers. Many of those workers lost their jobs as manufacturing moved offshore or became automated.

  11. “Market Garden and the Ardennes Forest.”

    Market Garden was a Montgomery fiasco as they were too far ahead for the armor and artillery to reach them. They also jumped into an area with a panzer division they did not know about.

    In the Ardennes, they were not jumping. There was an argument during that war that too many high IQ soldiers ended up in the Air Corps or Airborne or rear echelon jobs because the army considered infantry to be cannon fodder. The guys in Airborne were elite soldiers. That is what won that battle. That and Patton’s tanks that got to them far faster than Monty’s tanks got to the Airborne troops at Arnhem.

  12. That may be true of the Airborne troops. An uncle of mine was in the 101st. He parachuted into Normandy the night before D-Day. He was an automotive mechanic his whole life. He owned the garage, which I suppose says something about his acumen for business and enterprise, but he also worked on the cars. He died in his 80s while at work. Sort of burly, he stayed in reasonably good shape his whole life. He never talked about it, and I didn’t even know of it until my dad told me when I took my car into his shop for repairs.

    I had another uncle who was an accountant. He was in infantry. He quipped once that he toured Italy and France on his belly. I would imagine he may have been one of those guys they always talk about that was reluctant to shoot. He was a sweet and pious man that didn’t have a malicious bone in his body.

Comments are closed.