I’m wrapping up a five-week stint here at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, so now seems as good a time as any to discuss something I’ve been wanting to discuss for awhile now, but never quite found the handle on.
Preface: This particular blog post has its roots in a comments discussion over at Larry Correia’s web page. And it’s something Mike Kupari and I were discussing on Facebook with some of his readers. And it’s something that’s come up while discussing a similar topic with Michael Z. Williamson and some of his military friends. And it’s a topic that’s come up with one of my best high school friends, who is now a senior officer at the USAF base near where I live in Utah.
The root question is: who gets to be an “Operator?”
Explanation: for those who don’t walk in U.S. military circles, the word “Operator” seems to be one of those internal U.S. military phrases that migrated from a very specific sector of the U.S. military, out into the popular American culture via technothriller fiction and video games, then back into the U.S. military as a whole. Its general usage now connotes “pointy end” experience and/or skillsets. Ergo, the “Operator” goes where the shooting happens, to do some shooting himself.
Sounds pretty straightforward, right? Only, no, because this is not an MOS nor is it a skill badge. It’s a slang title being adopted (both officially and unofficially) by an increasing number of people who are all too eager (to my eyes) for the credibility they believe this word will lend them — even if they may not precisely be a “pointy end” person by trade.
In other words, “Operator” has become one of those familiar U.S. military butt-sniff words used by people to distinguish “real” military personnel from “POGs” — the latter being the post-9/11 variant of REMF, which was a Vietnam-era acronym for rear-echelon mother fucker; someone decidedly not on the “pointy end” of things. General infantry are using the word “Operator” now. As are F-16 pilots, did you know that? MPs and Combat Engineers? Explosives Ordnance Disposal? Armor too? And so on, and so forth.
Now, there’s obviously bragging rights involved in this kind of talk, and if you get any two dozen self-labeled “Operators” from across the U.S. military — of various MOSs — and you put them into a day room with each other, you’re probably going to have a fair amount of disagreement about who gets to “own” the word, and who doesn’t. To include pool cues being used as blunt instruments, and a lot of harsh language.
My thing is, how come the people (whom I have met, with a lot of actual combat experience) don’t necessarily go for this word, and why has this word become so sexy for people who might not necessarily have a lot of combat experience? Maybe, none at all?
Cards on the table: Larry Correia teases himself for being a “cake eating civilian” but really, I am right there on the couch with him, pounding down donuts. And in point of fact, Larry is far, far more of an “Operator” than I will ever be because Larry literally has thousands of hours of practical hands-on small arms experience. With a variety of different weapons and ammunition. Often in professional tournament environments that make the Army’s standard M16 qualification ranges look like child’s play. “Cake eating civilian?” Larry, please, pass me the knife, the fork, a paper plate, and a glass of milk. I am going to help myself to the baked goods.
See, I’m a cake-eating civilian most of my time too, and only serve as a part-timer: U.S. Army Reservist. I’ve been in 12 years, through 3 different units, and no deployments. Yup, you read that right. No deployments. I am also a paper pusher by MOS — Chief Warrant Officer Paper Pusher, to be exact. So I won’t waste anybody’s time trying to put my hand into the “Operator” cookie jar, grabbing at crumbs. I am a civilian at heart, and I know it, and I am glad for it.
Still . . . I didn’t just step off the bus at Reception. I’ve been around. To include a bit of time overseas, albeit not in a war zone. I know a little bit about soldiers and soldiering.
Opinion: being a serviceman isn’t just about “pointy end” tactical ninja strikes on al-Qaeda strongholds in Outer Buttfuckistan. Being a serviceman means standing in front of a flag, raising your hand, and writing your country a blank check that has the words, “. . . up to and including my life,” written on it. At which point they fucking own your ass. You are a commodity. You will go where you are told, when you are told. Whether you, your family, or your civilian boss, like it or not.
Not an arrangement to be entered into lightly. And not something I’d recommend for people averse to environments with lots of crazy rules, crazy bureaucracy, crazy hierarchies, and crazy structure. You make a very specific kind of commitment when you take that oath in front of that flag. A commitment that will invariably take you far away from your home and your spouse and your kids, to places you don’t want to be, where you will be made to do things you don’t want to do, by people you’d rather not wake up to every morning. Whether it’s in training, a stateside posting, out on the boat, or somewhere out in the big wide world. Peacetime, wartime, Guard, Reserve, or Active Component. It doesn’t matter. Past a certain basement level of experience, all of us are cut from the same cloth.
So what’s the value in separating ourselves out? Beyond chest-beating and dick-waving?
Now, to be fair to the actual “Operators” reading this, POG is as POG does, and I definitely agree with the idea that if you have to wear your “Operator” status on your sleeve, you’re probably trying a little too hard. Speaking from my own personal interactions with people who’ve been places and seen some very real fighting, the actual “Operators” kind of ooze their experience on a subliminal level, and don’t have to talk about it much.
One great example was a guy from my Warrant Officer Candidate School days. His name was George. He’d been an enlisted Marine infantryman who went to Iraq, then he’d come back and gone over to be an enlisted infantryman in the National Guard, and been sent to Afghanistan. None of us (in the cycle) really knew much about this until it came time to put our greens on (the old Class A uniform, before the Army brought out the new ASU, or Dress Blues) and George was a veritable Christmas tree: ribbon rack for days, and all kinds of other sparkly goodies — the sort of stuff they make heroic recruiting posters out of. Only George had worked hard to keep that close to his chest during WOCS, eschewing his Combat Infantry Badge and other ornamentation on his ACU — and no, First Sergeants of the universe, there was no rule in 2009 that forced George to wear that stuff. When I asked George why, he said it was both because he didn’t need the TAC officers singling him out any more than they’d already been singling him out, and also because (in his own words) for the purposes of WOCS, he wanted to just like the rest of us. No more, no less.
I re-injured my bad knee in WOCS. Could barely walk on it, much less hump a ruck on it. Hobbled around the final week. Managed to drag my ass back without being disqualified in the field. When we were all flying out after graduation, George came to shake my hand in the airport, and he saw me struggling to get up. He said, “Man, you don’t have to stand on that thing for me,” to which I said, “I am absolutely standing up for you my friend!” At which point we said our goodbyes, and both George and I vanished back to our respective units of assignment, as freshly-minted WO1s.
Why do I think all of that’s important?
Simply this. The lesson I learned from George was: be who you are, not who you think you should be, and not who you think others think you should be.
As I noted before, I’m a paper pusher — and I am damned happy as such, because my tactical abilities are piss poor, and I was never going to be an infantry rock star, even if I had tried. Which I did not. My objective was humble: following 9/11/2001 I merely wanted to participate (however I was able, to the extent of my limited abilities) in the defense of my great nation. That was it. To pass through the initiation crucible of Initial Entry Training, and serve. Thus far, my career has allowed me to enjoy my civilian life and see and do some pretty cool things while in uniform; to include meeting some pretty cool people — like George.
A lot of this pays off for me with my fiction because I can write military science fiction (Mil SF) from the “inside” to a degree I never could have done, when I was writing stories before 2002. But I am not chained at the ankle to an endless series of PCS relocations (nor my family chained with me) nor do I have to deal with the brain-dissolving idiocies of military life on a full-time basis. By choice.
So I don’t make anything more of myself than what I am. And I don’t think any less of myself for not being an “Operator.” I will even go so far as to self-deprecate with the self-labels of POG, or even REMF. (Though if you call me either of those things, we’re liable to get sideways in a hurry. And if I have to explain how that works then you’re not nearly as military as either one of us thinks you are. Copy?)
But back to the main question — who gets to be an “Operator” and who doesn’t?
To me, a special designation only has real military value if it connotes actual practicing competence in a given specific expertise. Something I wish the Army would remember, and at which I think the Marines get it right, because too many times the Army’s various badges, patches, and tabs, have little or nothing to do with whether or not the person wearing them is present-tense proficient in the manner the badge or the patch or the tab ought to signify present-tense proficiency. More often than not these tend to be trophies: you went to a place and you did a difficult thing and you got the Boy Scout award for it.
But when everybody starts having these things on their uniform, just as when everybody starts identifying with and using the word “Operator”, the word (and the badge, and the patch, and the tab) sort of loses its meaning. Because when everybody is an “Operator” basically nobody is an “Operator.” Copy? And as much as I think people who have been down-range and seen fighting have a right to feel set apart from the rest of us POGs in that regard, I also think a big thing driving the urge to stick hands into the “Operator” cookie jar, is that lots of people are tired of being looked down upon and/or treated like second-class troops just because they aren’t “Operators.”
I am probably hoping in vain when I hope that “Operator” quietly goes back to the Special Forces community (or wherever it truly originated from) and that we (as a whole military) can spend a little more time focused on actually being good at our various jobs, and respecting one another in our various roles, without feeling the need to drop our zippers and hang our military cred out for comparison. Yeah, okay, so maybe this kind of shit is inevitable when you get a bunch of jock-minded people together. So what? No matter how awesome you think your cred is, someone down the line is going to have bigger, more impressive cred. And that guy you were laughing at because his cred’s maybe smaller than yours . . . in a few years (often through little choice of his own) he’s going to have way more cred than you, or more rank, or both — and won’t you feel stupid if/when you see that guy again?
My personal policy is much the same for military as it is for writing: the big tent. It takes lots of different people to make the military world go round, and it’s far easier to admire my military brothers and sisters for what I think they do well, than to trash-talk them or become engaged in cred comparisons. Maybe that stuff had a degree of attraction for me when I was still a new enlisted man and hadn’t seen or done much myself. But after I passed the decade mark and had spent I don’t know how many cumulative months away from home — that whole one weekend a month two weeks a year thing is bullshit — I concluded that posturing and dick-waving was for people who had something to prove. Which, after making CW2, honestly didn’t matter to me anymore. Not giving. And definitely not receiving.
“Operators?” My hat is off to the men and women charged with doing dangerous jobs under dangerous circumstances, period. My job? My job is a comfy job. It’s awesome because I basically get to smile and help people, and everybody loves Chief, no matter what branch or rank. The folks doing dangerous stuff, even if it doesn’t involve direct combat, I think they’re doing something special. And I can respect anyone from those MOSs and those roles who does that work, and doesn’t let it go to his or her head, and can be under the big tent with me at the end of the day.