On the fringes of most American towns of more than fifty thousand inhabitants lies an odd no-man’s-land. Rarely more than a few blocks long, this zone—identical in every region of the country—sports a complement of gogo bars, topless clubs, pawn shops, liquor stores, a video arcade or two, check-cashing joints, and barely disguised houses of prostitution. Bisecting this sector, always, is a broad avenue leading to a military base. The zone’s denizens are uniformed young men and, lately, women, most barely out of their teens; its permanent residents occupy their time coaxing dollars from these soldiers’ pockets. Resident and visitor view each other with the former suspiciousness of East and West Berliners. The attitude runs deep, and it has old roots. Civilians and soldiers nurture a reciprocal mistrust based on fear, often manifested, even in these heady days following the Persian Gulf adventure, in open contempt of the one for the other.
There is a third class of citizen, neither quite civilian nor military: the children of the warriors, known in the argot as “Army (or Navy, or Marine, or Air Force) brats.” Their experiences are quite unlike those of their civilian counterparts. Like young people in our embattled inner cities, most never enjoy the carefree condition of childhood that is our supposed cultural norm. They are a band of gypsies millions strong, and until now their existence has been scarcely acknowledged.
Mary Edwards Wertsch’s Military Brats is a long-needed corrective that goes a long way toward explaining to civilian society the demands it places not only on its soldiers but on their offspring, unbidden servants to the nation. Through that youthful bondage, we brats—my father, as did his father, was graduated from West Point and served for the better part of three decades as an Army officer—attain a culture like no other American minority’s.
As Wertsch writes, we bear the long memory of uprootedness, separation, alienation. Almost without exception, we spent a part of our childhood without fathers, for they had been called away to war or other assignments where their families could not follow. We moved often—in my case, 18 times in my first 13 years—and in the process learned to form and abandon friendships instantly, to adopt to every sort of social situation, to be the new kid in school every few months. Most of us spent at least a few years overseas, while our fathers patrolled the forests of the Fulda Gap or the airspaces over northern Japan or the Caribbean.
On the positive side, Wertsch rightly notes, this migratory way of life lent us a quickness with languages, strong social skills, a tolerance for foreign ways, and, thanks to the multiethnic character of the Armed Services, a notable lack of racism. When billeted in civilian schools, we sought to distinguish ourselves by wandering to the margins: we equally dominated the honor roll and the ranks of juvenile delinquency, in either case expressing a darker aspect of our characters, a constant recognition of class hierarchy and need to set ourselves apart from the sons and daughters of the unindentured. Raised in the vast theater that is the military, where personae are donned and doffed as the situation demands, we became consummate actors.
These attitudes, Wertsch writes, carry over into adulthood. Few military brats have many close friends; in the words of Pat Conroy (the Marine brat who wrote The Great Santini, that talismanic novel of childhood inside the Fortress), “we put down not roots but vines.” Even those who turn away from the military, as so many of my generation did as a result of Vietnam, continue to embody many of its traits: a cultivated seriousness, an obsessive attention to detail, a precision that breeds compulsive perfectionism, and an unconcealed dislike for the indecisive types who, it seems to us, fill the higher echelons of civilian society. We follow our parents’ charge: Me and my Mission against the world. Many of us, as Wertsch points out, refuse to follow normal careers, valuing independence over the regimented order of our early years.
In preparing her book, Wertsch interviewed hundreds of military brats, men and women in roughly equal proportion; the best part of her book lies in the revealing anecdotes these veterans have to tell. Anyone who grew up in the military will recognize and easily identify with their stories of dislocation, of separateness, of yearning for some sort of stability; those who did not will likely finish reading Military Brats in a state approaching combat fatigue.
Wertsch is herself an Army brat, the daughter of a general whom she portrays as an alcoholic, abusive disciplinarian capable of only the rarest moments of tenderness. She tends, regrettably, to universalize from her dysfunctional family’s experience, to make it emblematic of that of all warriors’ children. In truth, while the rigors of living in a constant state of combat readiness—and in a caste with a rate of alcoholism three times that of civilian society—have left their mark, most of us managed to enter adulthood with few psychological scars, the happy products of loving and, given the circumstances, “normal” fathers and mothers. Wertsch is also distressingly reliant on now-outmoded varieties of Freudian psychoanalysis. She may be one of the few students of human personality to continue to take the notion of the Oedipal complex seriously.
For all that, Military Brats “is a mirror for those who have as our ethic the warrior’s motto, “Prepare yourself, for you are the only refuge you can rely on.” Anyone who waved the yellow ribbon a year ago will find in Wertsch’s study myriad reflections of the price of true patriotism. Pier book merits a wide audience on both sides of the no man’s-land.
[Military Brats, by Mary Edwards Wertsch (New York: Harmony Books) 452 pp., $20.00]