Private Snuffy

After reading James' posts on intelligence-driven stratification in military and civilian life, a friend of mine who serves in the US Army offered the following thoughts.

In the end I just find Rockford impossible to agree with. Don’t get me wrong — many of the military are smart and capable, even occasionally frighteningly so. It’s just that inasmuch as what we do requires that kind of smarts — say the kind of cultural sensitivity and strategic flexibility that the Economist did a big front-page review on a couple months back — it’s at the command level (and not always then). This idea that mechanical or technical expertise requires that sort of thing, as in the examples Rockford gives — well, that’s flat-out bogus. What the military excels at is figuring out how to write up and SOP things so they’re idiot-proof for Private Snuffy. That doesn’t mean Private Snuffy is an idiot, but the system can allow him to be at least on his bad days.

That shouldn’t be news: everybody bitches about military cookie-cutter standardization and paperwork and repetitiveness. Very, very few military jobs really do call for creativity and innovation and even in bizarre unforseen combat situations I don’t know that selecting for “smart” soldiers — unless they’re some kind of super-geniuses — is gonna help you: instead you drill and drill and drill until the soldier can do certain things “on automatic.” That’s our paradigm. So a lot of your motor pools or medical labs or what-have-you are staffed by — well, the same type of competent-but-not-earthshakingly-so schelp you have running those things in the civilian world. Not surprising since the civilian world has, well, similar tasks out there. For the few exceptionally mentally demanding tasks, well, we got Warrant Officers. It’s hard for a soldier to stand out, for good or bad, in a technical military role (so when one does stand out as exceptionally good, he probably rocks.)

I also don’t get Rockford’s “the military gets the civilians but the civilians don’t get the military” concept — I mean, sure, the latter part is true. But I don’t see how the military guys have a lot of insight into (say)the coastal academic American establishment either — I mean, they have some, because they can watch the same TV and read the same papers and so on and by the “civilians” you mean, well, the great wash of everybody, so, sure. But the military culture is damn incestuous. The cities — Fayetteville, Watertown, Killeen, San Antonio — are pretty militarized themselves and are full of retirees: even the people who haven’t served themselves know a hell of a lot about day-to-day military life (again with the Goth, heavily-pierced teenagers at the malls who can spot your rank and call you “sir” — in my civilian world, they’re support to snicker at “the Man” and call you a fascist). That’s the world the kids of military grow up in, and it’s pretty alien to say the Bay Area or suburban New England or what-have-you.