Looking Forward to the Past
J. D. Pendry
"They spend their time mostly looking forward to the past." - John Osborne
It finally happened. I threw away that old camouflaged wallet I've been carrying around for years. Begrudgingly, I transferred its contents to the sleek leather one my wife bought for me. I had some interesting thoughts while doing that. Mostly about how we often look to the past and wish it was the future.
Actually, I didn't throw it away. I put it in the box where I keep those things. That box sits in a closet along with some spit shinned boots, starched BDUS, a Drill Sergeant hat or two, some stuff that will never hang on the wall again, an old leader's book, my 1SG's notebook... the past. I can sift through that stuff for hours and reminisce about the good old days. Those good old days produced today and today's good old days will make tomorrow. I'm not so sure Mr. Osborne's quote had positive connotations to it, but sometimes it's helpful to look forward to the past.
Recently I've been in some discussions with much reference made to the old army. - "We wouldn't have done it that way in the old army." "We were tougher on soldiers and had more discipline in the old army." - It's hard to figure out exactly when the old army happened. One NCO told me it happened in 1985 when he went to basic training. I thought of arguing with him about when the old army actually was, confident it happened before 1985. While pondering my response, I flashed back to 1971 and NCOs telling us TURDS (trainees undergoing rigid discipline) how much tougher basic training was in the old army. Although I have not been successful in nailing down for the record just when the old army happened there are some things I can tell you about it. In the old army basic training was always tougher, standards were always higher, soldiers were always more disciplined, NCOs were always tougher... . The only thing I can tell you for sure about the old army is that it happened sometime before right now.
In my version of the old army, my Drill Sergeant reinforced attention to detail and teamwork by low crawling my platoon across an asphalt parking lot. We scratched the paint off our steel pots, the knees out of our trousers and the toes off our boots because someone overlooked a cigarette butt while we were doing police call. "Over look something in the jungle shit fer brains and yer ass'll belong to Charlie." Physical training often consisted of double timing for miles wearing fatigues, combat boots, load bearing equipment, steel pot and carrying weapons. We carried and drug potential stragglers along so we wouldn't have to turn around and go get them. "C'mere bubble butt, don'tcha know stragglers die and they get other people killed lookin' for'em. Beatcher face lard ass!" Our favorite double time cadence was "Up jumped a monkey from a coconut grove, he was a mean motherf***** you could tell by his clothes." We finished basic training physically tougher than we'd ever been in our lives and we were looking for someone to fight with so we could prove it. "I wanna run, run all day long, I wanna kill some Viet Cong. Hey, Hey all the way, we run every day!" And your mouth is so dry you can't spit. "What's the spirit of the bayonet?" - "To kill, kill, kill with cold, cruel steal!" "Who's the best bayonet fighter? The one with the full f****** magazine Drill Sergeant!" "Today in unarmed combatives you will learn to use all yer equipment as weapons. You can ruin a sumbitches whole day with this e-tool." Who is the best hand-to-hand fighter? The one with the full f****** magazine Drill Sergeant!" Did I mention there were no girls in basic with me and that every drill sergeant in the company had at least one recent tour in Viet Nam? That was a snapshot of my old army. It might not be pretty, the language might not be to your liking and it miserably fails today's political correctness tests, but it was a positive, life changing experience for me and many other young men. I'm sure you have an image of your old army too.
Nine years later when I became a Drill Sergeant I looked forward to the past. When I stood in front of my first platoon, (my God it's girls!) standing behind me was Drill Sergeants Favor, Shepp, Leon Guererro, Sweeney, Castro and a couple of others whose names are lost to time. The campaign hats tipped at just the right angle to put a shadow on our faces, chins jutting out, hands on hips just below the pistol belt, the fatigues starched and the Cochran's spit-shined. They stood in front of us there on the sidewalk beside their bags in four neat rows, having just been chased from the bus by the Senior Drill Sergeant. We walked down the rows and stood in front of each, looking them all in the eyes, not saying a word. We smelled their sweat intermingled with the mothball smell of their new issue and smirked at the factory finish on their boots. We sensed their fear, saw a few quivering lips and tears in some eyes. Around the corner of the building came a straggler - red-faced, sniffling and dragging bags. "C'mere bubble butt, don'tcha know stragglers die and they get other people killed lookin' for'em. Beatcher face lard ass!" As we finished up the last row we started teaching the position of attention and reinforcing with many pushups that you don't move anything, not even your DAMNED EYEBALLS! "What the hell are you lookin' at bonehead? DROP! The next sound you hear will be my whistle. When you hear it you have thirty seconds to secure your gear, get it upstairs into the platoon bay and get back outside. DO YOU UNDERSTAND? I SAID, DO YOU UNDERSTAND?" It took them longer than thirty seconds and ever time we practiced for some reason they got a little slower. They got better, however, and those who made it through basic training (most did) were the toughest group of young women I know. The may cuss a little and a couple even took up chewing. If you can find one of them, they'll probably tell you of an old army quite similar to mine.
Nowadays I hear a lot of NCOs complaining about how soldiers are trained, about how it's too easy and they can't do anything about it. They speak of how it was much harder for them, how the NCOs who trained them were tougher, and how they turned out better because of it. If you're one of them, I suggest you look forward to the past. Find those tougher more demanding NCOs who made a soldier of you and keep them with you when it's your turn to produce soldiers. They'll help you out.
© 2000 J. D. Pendry