When You’re a Hammer…

I few months ago I wandered into the Tucson airport bookstore, the victim of the dreaded and constant Tucson to San Diego delay, and saw four books on the “non-fiction” shelf by men I’d once worked with. They were war books. They were books on how to lead people differently, based on lessons learned in war. Or ways to live your life better, based on lessons learned in war. These men weren’t distant acquaintances. They were men I knew well. Men at periods in my life that I spent more time with than my family. They were my friends. And when I saw their work, and their stories in majestic hardcover form on the shelf, it made me happy. They deserved to tell their story. And others owed them a listen.

If there’s an upside to war, it’s the character that comes with the sacrifice of the generation that fights it.

You can’t turn on the television or scan your Facebook feed without a lead in that doesn’t say something like “A former Navy SEAL does X” or “this veteran has a message for Y”. There’s much to be learned from us and the experiences that less than 1% of America had fighting a never-ending war that took up all of the most productive portions of many of our lives.

So when we talk, you should listen. When we tell you about what it’s like to sacrifice years of our life to be a part of something bigger and more important than ourselves, then you should listen. And when we tell you what it’s like to serve in combat and fear for our lives and then pull ourselves past that fear to do things only we could do, you should listen. And when we tell you what it’s like to leave our family for years on end to go serve at the leisure of our national interests, you should listen. You should listen when we tell you what it’s like to watch our friends die to protect us. Or what it’s like to sift through body parts after a suicide bomb at a funeral. Or see dead children. You should listen. You should listen to us tell you what it feels like to slam a “Rip It” plug a wad of Copenhagen in our jaw and get your gear ready to go out the door on a raid with Titus Andronicus blaring in your ears.

You should listen to all of it. Because there’s power and wisdom in the lessons that life at war can teach you. Some of my friends have even written them down. I write them here.

When it comes to our opinions on things like politics or how the United States of America should behave towards other nations and other peoples, you should listen to us too. But you should also remember two critically important things.

First, the service of arms, in an all volunteer force, tends to attract a certain type of person. Good bad or indifferent, those that sign up and choose the path to stay against all available options tend to value certain things above others. And those things tend to align with a strong, conservative world view. And for we vets, that world view weaves itself into the fabric of our identity deeply. And sometimes, if we’re not careful, we’ll wrap ourselves in and wear it as a shield against realities that perhaps weaken the narrative we’ve told ourselves to help us live with the pain and sacrifice of our life of service.

It’s neither a good nor a bad thing. It simply is the way it is. And you shouldn’t discount what we say. But you should remember the things that shaped our perspectives.

The second is this. When you’ve been a hammer your whole life, the world starts to look like a nail. And the call of the one who promises to swing it, is the one you’re more likely to answer. So take what we say seriously, but also make sure it’s not the only voice your listening to.  If you try to build your house with just a hammer, you get a lousy house.

I’ve gotten asked a few times about the zeal that members of the military are showing for the new Commander in Chief. And whether or not it worried me. It doesn’t. In fact, it’s a good thing. Our military enthusiastically carrying out the legal orders of their Commander is a good thing. If you were looking to them to serve as opposition, look elsewhere. It won’t happen. And it’s not their job. That’s a problem for a different group to solve-the rest of us.

And if you’re worried about the uneven nature of the POTUS coupled with this new found enthusiasm for their leader resulting in the military becoming unhinged and sweeping the nation of the enemies of their leader, rest easy. I don’t have a ton of faith in Congress to do the right thing. I have a little more in the judiciary. And you may see some misguided junior military members doing stupid things like flying Trump flags from military vehicles, which is in fact against the rules, but don’t worry. They’ll be taken care of. Because the men and woman who lead them are perhaps the one group you can bet your ass, has the courage to stand up to the boss, when he’s out of line.

We all raised our hands and swore an oath to defend something for which  we were willing to sacrifice all we’ve had or all we were ever going to have. And it’s not a man. And that’s not changing anytime soon. No matter who’s sitting in that office.


8 thoughts on “When You’re a Hammer…

  1. Hi Matt, I’m fascinated by your “Paul McKenna & Me” series, you obviously rereocsvided your creative ability:-) Any chance of the rest of the story soonish? No pressure:-) Thanks, Rachel


  2. I hope you’re right. I do have great confidence in many of the people that I served with in the Marine Corps, but my concern is that the current conservative narrative is dehumanizing Muslims and “other-ing” liberals to what appears to me to be a greater extent than recent history. In my experience, military culture is vulnerable to these narratives (the hammer/nail analogy is fitting) because it is the fundamental method of convincing regular people to kill. When the same narrative is being employed on our own citizens, and the regular military person is buying it, I think we may have the beginnings of the breakdown this particular institution. It seems that the current military leadership at the higher levels will resist the narrative, and I hope that continues, but we have to be vigilant for fault lines.


  3. I think you’ve hit the nail on the head. Good order and discipline always relies on following the rules and sooner or later all good leaders understand and can be counted on to execute their jobs with the utmost professionalism.


  4. Here here … the oath we swore was to obey the lawful orders of the office. I’ve been telling anyone who will listen that our messy by design participatory democracy is still the best form of government going & we should all have a little faith in the amazing system of checks & balances our tri-partite system imposes.


  5. I thought responding to the email would not go to comments. Very sorry. That was meant to be private.

    Anyway, offer still stands. Later gator


  6. Your prose gives comfort Sean. There will be exceptions to your thoughts. An possible example Is Gen. Flynn, if indeed, he did make the calls currently being discussed by the media. I really enjoy reading your essays.


  7. Hi em. Thanks for the feedback. This one in particular actually published the first draft by accident. So if you read it by email, that one was gnarly. And I agree. It would be better if I spent more time proofreading…no offense taken.

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I hope you are correct, that our military will know when to say “no, Sir, we will not do that”. I have also seen a fair amount of military and veteran comments and articles calling out the Trump administration for what amounts to unconstitutional talk. So the enthusiastic support you speak of is not one sided.

    Liked by 1 person

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