[Students at West Melbourne Christian Military Academy – Florida. Publicity photo. This is not the school referenced in this article.]
When I matriculated to a Prep school in 1974, I entered a military academy with a long tradition of combining war and kids. I will never forget the Library. It had very few books that I wanted to read but the volume after volume of dead soldiers and their heroic deeds transfixed me. The dusty tomes of vanquished soldiers from the Civil war to Vietnam were a virtual roll call of men who had faced a “proud death.” There were the Confederate dead who walked straight into volley after volley of round shot and mini-balls from Union infantry. There were the graduates who had dived on grenades or faced down machine gun nests to save their fellow soldiers in WWI, WWII, Korea, and Vietnam. The Purple hearts, Bronze stars, Silver stars and Medals of Honor piled up so fast I could not count them. I believe I read every volume. And, the volumes contributed to around half the Academy’s available reading. I couldn’t find a book by Mark Twain nor a Jack London collection but I could look into the eyes of these Academy graduates who needlessly gave their lives in war, distant in time and place. Little did I know, when I became a man, I would face the same choices.
If one counts all the private prep school military academies, public school JROTC programs, junior college military academies and college military academies in the United States, the number is around 92. And, believe it or not there is a kindergarten military academy.
The tradition of the Academy I attended was a no different. It has been around since before the Civil War and the students during the Civil War became a combat unit. I remember reading that almost all those kids perished in the war. The few left after the war never came back to the Academy. They went home.
After my parents enrolled me in the Academy, I was immediately shocked at the stringent culture of military control. I was 14 and scared to death. I was a boot or a plebe and anyone new has to undergo the trials of hazing. Hazing was a rite of passage. That’s what I was told by the upperclassmen. Eventually, I ran away from home and the Academy. When my parents located me and flew me back to the Academy, I knew that I was in for trouble. The first two days and nights were surreal. I was hogtied, legs bound and throat cinched, (a southern thing) and whipped with coat hangers. I was water boarded, pissed on, and even, well, sexually assaulted with a line of cadets who masturbated in my presence. So, you see why I ran away.
When this tradition was over, I came to the tradition of the belt. The officers wore Sam Browne belts and if you were caught at the canteen then over the rail you went. I was beaten with these leather belts and just sitting in history class became a struggle. For over a couple of months, I endured this terrorism merely because I didn’t want to admit defeat and because, at home, there was a different kind of terrorism waiting for me. I kept thinking about those books with all the heroes in them. I wanted to be a hero as well. So, after some time, I acquiesced and became a proper, if not rebellious cadet. I shined my brass and shoes. I ironed my uniforms. I took the punishment and didn’t complain, frankly, due to the chain of command, there was no one to who I could field my complaints.
Over time, I was indoctrinated. Even now, the time I spent at the Academy is hard to express in a proper, realistic sense. The Academy versed us all in military science, a combination of words that escapes me. Map reading, enemy identification (Vietnamese), weapons training, rappelling, and fast roping, radio transmitting, patrol, light, and noise discipline Some of us were sent to a kind of Ranger school where we were trained by Vietnam veterans. A couple of kids, younger than me, were injured and one died during the training because of the trainer’s mistakes. They gave us a Ranger patch for that one.
When I became an upperclassman, I have to say that I was no angel. I did not participate in the hazing directly but I tacitly approved it. One kid was beaten until his lips were split. We, I, encouraged him not to reveal the truth. He eventually claimed that he simply fell. Not that any instructor would have made a big deal out of the incident.
Not only did the military science instructors teach us to kill or evade capture or identify your enemy, they even taught us how to have sexual relations with the female students—a problem that the real army had over many years. Really, I am to blame here as well. I can remember one girl who was sleeping with the primary instructor. When the whole affair was exposed, she was sent home. No one ever saw her again. But the instructor, a combat veteran, was still there, still instructing us. He was the same instructor that caused the death of that young Cadet. One night as I was exiting the girl’s dormitory through a back window (there were foot holds worn into the brick over time) I saw that particular instructor exiting her room. We both sat on the window sill and stared at each other. He shrugged his shoulders and we both hopped off and away. Now that I think about it, how the hell did these adults get away with all that? And now, what is the Academy like for the kids. I certainly hope it’s not the same as it was for me and my classmates.
Strangely, I met this instructor one more time. He had retired from the Army as a Sergeant-Major. I had enlisted in the Army and was posted with the 5th Infantry Division at Ft. Polk. He was selling life insurance to current active duty soldiers. He spoke about the Academy as if it was yesterday but I didn’t want the life insurance and he quickly went to the next door step. He was still making a living off death and suffering and I felt livid that this senior soldier had spent his life exploiting the weaknesses of cadets and now active duty soldiers. I didn’t mention his girl and he didn’t mention mine.
In my senior year at the Academy, I went on the school sponsored trip to The Virginia Military Institute and discovered that through all the trials I had wandered through at the Academy, nothing could compare to a real service Academy. No way, no how, was I going to attend another Military school. But, after a few years of traveling the islands, I enlisted as a Private First Class in the real army. I wanted an education and that was the only means available to the Have-nots. So, ignoring the painful lessons I had learned at the Academy, I began a new round of “training”.
I graduated from the Academy in 1979. I should have been an officer by then but I believe I was the only remaining sergeant in my class. I rebelled too often. I was caught drinking and smoking and chasing skirts. This garnered me so many demerits that I wasn’t sure I would graduate. But, at the graduation ceremony, I won the basketball, soccer, and history awards and read a poem by Robert Frost. Go figure. No one, not even the worst student-cadet was held back. Every able body had graduated. Some went to liberal arts schools and many joined the ROTC programs, some of the brightest went to service academies to become officers and some joined the services as enlisted soldiers. Nearly all of us, whether in colleges or service academies, or in the army proper, were conditioned like Pavlov’s dogs by the Academy. Even now, the people that I keep in touch with from the Academy are overwhelmingly right-wing hawks and do not ever question the government’s use of offensive weapons and strategies over the world. They are effectively blind to any other political thought and see war as a given. I must say that there are a few of us that I can count on one hand that question the status quo or question the need for all this military spending and glorification of the services. So, there are some of us still rebelling and looking for the truth and I must give them their due. I find myself drawn to them and we exchange thoughts that at the Academy were certainly taboo and never shared.
I have no way of knowing the exact number of students that are in militarized Kindergartens, Elementary schools, Prep Schools, High Schools, Junior Colleges, ROTC colleges, and service academies. Our total number of students at the Academy fluctuated yearly but the count was around 200 Cadets at any given time. Some JROTC schools and ROTC schools have many more cadets. The service academies like West Point or Virginia Military Institute have over a thousand cadets enter each year. Ascertaining the number of students attending the military prep schools is difficult as well. Since there are so many militarized schools in the US, coming to a reasonable number of Cadets as a whole is beyond me. But, I have no doubt that a realistic figure is in the hundreds of thousands.
Military Academies are as old as organized war. Nearly all countries I investigated have at least one Academy for developing professional soldiers. The ancient world of Egypt, Greece, and Rome, all had and has service Academies today. The need for soldiers has grown exponentially so the proliferation of militarized schools and the number of Cadets in these institutions is certainly growing. Many institutions today offer students a college education if they simply join the ROTC program and then serve at least 4 years in the military.
To see the transformation of a child into a soldier, one need only observe the men and women who are in the military active duty boot camps. After only four months of basic training, one’s mind is transformed from small town innocence to an overwhelming, stultifying manner of aggression. For instance, and this only my experience, I and nearly all of the trainees that I was in boot camp with were pushed beyond a sense of empathy or sympathy. I can remember vividly an instance where the instructors filed us into an auditorium for “hate training”. The drill instructors worked us up into a frenzy of aggression with chants and screams. Then after we were thoroughly bubbling with aggression and tired of sitting in the auditorium he paraded an unknown soldier on stage who wore the uniform of a Cuban officer, stating that he was captured. They wanted to show us the enemy. We rushed the stage to a man and nearly got to the man. We were all out of our minds and so indoctrinated that we tried to attack a man and kill him simply because that’s what was expected and what the instructor wanted. They had to usher the actor out of the building before we could get our hands on him. We were delusional. There were no second thoughts, no hesitation, only a blind acceptance or faith that to wound or kill is a desirable act. This is the mechanism in its extreme.
The militarized education of younger pubescent, and in some cases, prepubescent students that creates the student-soldier and eventually the adult conformist or formal soldier is much less transparent and much more time sensitive. The purposes of militarized educational institutions are to produce fear in the student, regiment their behaviors, control the thought process, and introduce them to violence as a means to solve problems. This ultimately creates a pool of hawkish citizens that are more likely to join the military or simply, tacitly, support state sponsored violence. The idea that we live in a perpetual state of war is not as likely to disturb a citizen with this education. There is nothing deranged about state-sponsored terrorism unless it’s another state. Even then, this well conformed, regimented, militarized mind will remind him or her that this is the natural order of things and merely think of how we can retaliate with violence.
This process, subtle and unobtrusive at first, is not so obvious. Indoctrination into this regimented, jingoistic, and romantic club of militarism takes time. The natural behavior of free thinking social interaction is not easily broken. Hence, these military institutions are strong, forceful guides for the student into a formal, unnatural class system. One’s rank is determined by how well he or she conforms to the militarized way of thought and how they exhibit this behavior in their day to day life. I and a few of my friends were able to somewhat mitigate this regimented process of militarization simply because we were naturally rebellious and influenced by one or more parents. And, nothing determines your politics like your families politics.
The Academy’s main walk way is covered with red bricks. It leads directly to the main administration building that has been there for many decades. On nearly each of those bricks is carved an ex-cadet’s name. Some names are dedications to classes and many others are dedications to those who walked this path and are no longer with us. Many of the bricks recall fallen soldiers who attended the Academy and died in war. When, in 2009, I went to the 30th anniversary for our graduating class I waked that passageway and perused the hundreds of dedications. There were dedications to fellow classmates from friends. There were sad recollections of our dead classmates and instructors. There were the ones that had died in combat. And, many who simply disappeared and were lamented for their absence. I noted that a surprising number of my fellow cadets were missing from this world and I wondered how I, who had served in the military and faced the obscenity of war, had made it to the reunion and they hadn’t. I thought about those thick books of the “heroes” and wondered if about the present students and if new names would fill another binder.
There is almost no chance for student-cadets to escape the mind-set that the Academy instills in them. Many parents, unknowingly, send their kids to these schools in order to discipline them and watch proudly how their sons and daughters transform into mindless conformists. They marvel over their uniforms and achievements. Others send their kids to The Academy simply to rid themselves of the responsibilities of parent-hood, transferring their own filial duties to an institution of which they are wholly ignorant. And, many place their kids into this alien world which they cannot fathom only to forget them. All of these kids, from kindergarten to the service academies are doomed to carry on the aggressive and painful lessons taught to them by bullying upperclassmen. They endure instructors who are oblivious to the needs of needy and poorly socialized student-cadets and prey on them. And, the subtle and often no so indoctrination does its magic—turning good, decent, human kids into warriors and right-wing hawks, who in many cases cannot think critically or rather cannot imagine a world without violence. And, to emphasize the pull and strength of these institutions of the war-child, still to this day, I am so indoctrinated, that I am torn between The Academy and my objective self who knows that violence and the teaching of violence is wrong. I feel an irrational regard for The Academy, so much that I cannot name the institution in this writing.
JP Miller is a writer and journalist who lives in the Outer Banks of North Carolina. He has published stories in The Greanville Post, The Literary Yard, The Southern Cross Review, and Potent Magazine.