Turning in My Card

“How many Vietnam vets does it take to screw in a light bulb?” “I don’t know. How many?” “You wouldn’t know. You weren’t there.” In the American military, identity is an enduring obsession. Long before debates swirled through cultural institutions about the value of hyphenated American identities or the relative fixity of gender-based pronouns, the American military had already determined that identity supersedes individuality. Within the ranks, the individual means little, he or she exists as a mere accumulation of various organizational identities — your rank, your unit, your specialty — all of which stand in service to the collective. This obliteration of the individual begins in training, on day one, when every new recruit is taught a first lesson: to refer to themselves in the third person. You cease to exist, you have become “this recruit.” And you are taught, among the many profanities you might hear in recruit training, that there is one set of slurs that is most unforgivable of all: I, me, my.  This doesn’t last forever. I served in the Marines and one of the first privileges the Corps granted me on the completion of training was the privilege to again refer to myself in the first person. Except that I was no longer the same person. I was now 2nd Lieutenant Ackerman, my military identity had eclipsed my civilian one. This new identity placed me firmly within the military hierarchy as a junior officer, and from this position I would over years further build out my identity — and thus my authority — within the organization. I would pass through training courses that would give me expertise. I would go on deployments that would give me experience. And I would gain in seniority, which would give me rank. When in uniform, I would literally

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