By Matthew Wadler:
Just about every veteran who served during the past twenty years has heard about the infamous stress cards. For those that are unaware of this progressive construct, let me enlighten you. These cards were supposedly handed out in basic training so that when the drill sergeant made the newly inducted private feel too stressed they could hold up this card and get a twenty-minute time out. I say supposedly because during my career I never could find a firsthand account of any soldier who was actually issued one. I was, however, a firsthand witness to a stress card being handed out to an officer trainee.
I was a prior enlisted, non-commissioned officer who had applied for and received a ROTC scholarship. As a ROTC cadet, I was required to attend Advance Camp between my junior and senior year in college. Back in 2000, advance camp was a combination of Basic Training and Romper Room. The cadets were housed in the typical World War II era barracks where everyone sleeps in a long open bay, on bunk beds, separated by wall lockers. Within a couple days we had more or less separated ourselves into two distinct groups: prior service and civilian college students. Those of us who were prior service were well versed in the expectations and regimen of camp. Get up in the morning, shave, conduct physical training, shower, then a quick GI party where we would spot mop / buff the barracks floor. There was a fairly constant battle between the two cliques for things that the prior service guys thought were common sense; such as not walking through the barracks in boots and messing up the buffed floor.
I was aware that there would be a learning curve for the non-prior service cadets to figure out how to “play army” but I was completely ill prepared for what happened about halfway through camp. Our current leadership decided they wanted all the cadets in our company to hang their towels on the side of the bunks in a pseudo uniform fashion (pseudo because each person had a different size / color towel). However, one of the cadets there did not seem to have a towel to hang; which begs the question of how was he drying himself off after the shower? The rest of the company headed outside to get into formation while he sat in barracks for several minutes perseverating about how to correct this conundrum. At this point, not only does he not have a towel hanging, but he was also late for formation. He finally bursts from the barracks shouting into the air how he couldn’t handle the stress and he was done with camp and its stupid rules. Interwoven into this was the standard myriad of expletives that one would expect from such an outburst. As a former noncommissioned officer watching this all occur, there was no doubt that this young man would be sent home immediately. How could he lead soldiers; he couldn’t even handle the stress from not having a towel?
To my great distress, he was back in training within hours. He had been issued, by our cadre, a half sheet of paper which stated that if he felt too anxious he could walk away and have a “safe place” to reframe his thoughts and collect himself. At the end of the month he graduated from the course with the rest of us. Worse than that however, was when I saw him several years later as a military intelligence officer while at the National Training Center in California, he had been promoted to captain and had troops under his direction.
This, to me, signified a changing of the culture in our military; the advent of the progressive socialization of our armed forces. I do not hold anything against this young man personally. He simply lacked that hard edge required to truly survive the culture of the military. It is a culture forged from generations of blood spilled from friend and foe alike. From having to learn to live with your first kill, write your first letter home to a next of kin or watch as a friend, who was supposed to wish his daughter a happy birthday after patrol that day, gets killed in front of you. It is a culture for those imbued with the warrior spirit, and that is not something found in everyone. Is it somewhat harsh for me to judge him lacking or not wanting to give him a second chance at proving himself? No, not at all. Not when one considers his lack of mental and emotional toughness could be solely and directly responsible for the deaths of numerous of our military men and women.
As I pondered this memory, I couldn’t help but draw the correlation to safe spaces popping up throughout the supposed institutions of higher learning. I found it surprisingly difficult to find what would pass as a solid and decent definition of a safe space or place. The one I felt most adept was from http://safespacenetwork.tumblr.com/Safespace: “A Safe Space is a place where anyone can relax and be able to fully express, without fear of being made to feel uncomfortable, unwelcome, or unsafe on account of biological sex, race/ethnicity, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, cultural background, religious affiliation, age, or physical or mental ability. A place where the rules guard each person’s self-respect and dignity and strongly encourage everyone to respect others.” A safe place is, by its own definition, a paradox. How is it possible to fully express yourself, while at the same time being protected from feeling uncomfortable. In fully expressing yourself you run the risk of offending the other person in the safe space. Better question yet, how is it possible to ever protect anybody from their own feelings? A safe place is an illusion of safety for those who do not have the grit to stand by their own convictions while at the same time defending their values.
It appears that we have become a society so worried about people making us push past our boundaries that we have sought to completely close ourselves off from anything that might offend us in any facet. This is a monumentally dangerous stance to take as a nation. We have created a generation of men and women who are completely unprepared for the reality of the world around them. This is true whether one is talking about the corporate world or the battlefield, albeit with much different consequences.
John Wayne said it best, “Courage is being scared to death…and saddling up anyway.” This is what we have lost in America, the courage to have our convictions attacked and still defend them. With this weakness, we open ourselves up to collapse in the same way that Rome did. When one can no longer defend their values and beliefs from assault they lose more than a simple debate or argument; what they lose is the ability of self-reflective and introspective analysis.
A heated debate spurs one to reflect upon their views. They are forced, sometimes uncomfortably, to confront the weaknesses in their argument. They struggle to find counter points to validate their beliefs. In the end, they have either validated and strengthened their views, or they are forced to take a second look from a new perspective. When you strive to protect people from this you kill the free thoughts of an entire generation, seemingly what safe spaces are trying to secure.
Instituting this form of progressive ideology within our military is completely counterintuitive to the mission of the military. Yet in today’s current politically correct environment we are seeing more and more social experimentation being not only tolerated, but applauded. We need to remember that the mission of our military is to engage in close combat with an enemy of our country and kill them. This is not done through good feelings and politically correct phrases. It is done through violence of action by people who do not have the leeway to calmly sit across from their subordinates and explain in tranquil and rational language the semantics of their purpose and plan. Our military leaders cannot call a timeout in the middle of a firefight to pull a young soldier out of a precarious position to let them express their feelings and anxieties. Our military, like our country, needs to toughen up once more.
There was a time not long ago when we were thought of as a bunch of cowboys throughout the world. It was believed that we were guided by a moral code and overwhelming desire to push through the unknown. We were known for taking the impossible and turning it into the mundane. We were the beacon of hope because of, not despite, our willingness to fight. I believe that John Wayne summed this up when he stated, “I’m not the sort to back away from a fight. I don’t believe in shrinking from anything. It’s not my speed; I’m a guy who meets adversities head on.” It is in this attitude that I believe our salvation as a nation lies.
Matthew Wadler is an OpsLens Contributor and U.S. Army veteran. Wadler served admirably for twenty years before retiring. His service included time as a paratrooper and two deployments to Afghanistan.