Antipodes: Before War

What follows occurred during the earliest years of last decade’s American-led incursion into Iraq. If any need judging, it’s not those who fought but the chickenhawks who sent them into unnecessary combat.

Maybe it was coincidence but the Iraq War removed Argentina from the service academies no-go lists. Who knew one existed?

Common sense said future military officers weren’t going to tour potential adversary nations like Russia, China, or Iran. Unlike civilian institutions, service academies aren’t bereft of common sense. Trips to any suspect destination would’ve landed the cadet or midshipman in the crosshairs of so many intelligence agencies the cumulative headings atop those resulting files might’ve resembled bowls of alphabet soup.

But Argentina? I’m guessing because of the South American republic’s late 20th century history, its “Dirty War,” the Falklands, wise heads saw prudence in dissuading future officers from the first’s contamination and the second’s likely insulting Britain. The West invading Iraq didn’t restore Argentina’s vacation spot desirability. After the longest, just the passage of time cleansed the pampas.

Besides, in the early 21st century America had rabid-dog terrorism and rebellious former client states to put down. Why not reopen a forbidden part of the world to young regimented men and women in order to distract them momentarily from the inevitabilities ahead?

Almost as if by right and might, the several West Point cadets who easily established themselves in the Shamrock’s focal point would’ve stood out anywhere in that saloon. Situated as the young men were merely emphasized, no, confirmed, alpha dog status. I bet theirs wasn’t a conscious decision. Just one that had come naturally after nearly four years of being indoctrinated to lead.

Know what provides the best analogy? A nature program, one earlier generations saw on Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom or iterations thereof current viewers can watch on PBS.

Regard the cadets as top of the line predators. Sated momentarily, exhausted from hunting and having fed, lazing under shade at the nearest watering hole. Patrons around them represented potential prey, thirsty yet hesitant to slake their thirsts because of the clear danger presented.

Male contemporaries inside the Buenos Aires bar gave the cadets wide berth. No point-to-point straight transverses through them but loops around these men. Same-age women looked upon the assembled desirously. However, the men exuded such presences, the women there hadn’t quite yet formulated how to approach them. They might be welcomed. Then again given the cadets’ apparent fatigue, they might’ve been greeted by irritation.

Because in the animal kingdom, isn’t it the male who initiates these contacts?

My speech revealed my nationality. I either chatted up some chick or shot the breeze with a guy. After I’d either gotten shot down or the confab ended, one of the cadets asked if I were an American. Once I confirmed my nascence, he asked whether I’d ever served.


Rarely now at 60, but up until my late 40s I got asked that question a lot. It flattered me.

If my answer disappointed my questioner, his reaction was imperceptive.

My then-employer had always done a decent amount of work for the military and prisons, among other money-tossing clients. It helped that the boss was a retired army colonel. Doubtlessly a lot of trade entered our office after golf rounds and trading rounds of drinks while bullshitting and taking the measure of the men – and being measured by them – he was among
And yeah, then it was always men. No exceptions. Not sorry.

Let’s get this straight: certain echelons are occupied by hard, decisive guys. Not necessarily well-rounded and thoughtful, but surely driven and compelling. By their natures military and prison careers have plenty in common. Both demand attention to details, conforming to hierarchal structures, and demand minds which can become crucibles under life’s most intense pressures.

Lack of these traits could result in failure. That might lead to fatality or maiming. Even possessing these qualities, being successful, might still result in death or injury. So the tasks employing them aside, though often quite cordial and engaging, they maintained noticeable edges absent in salaried or hourly workers not involved in the arts of war or penning criminal elements.

Never having been a member of either brotherhood, it behooved one to quickly pick up signs and signals which if these didn’t ingratiate closed as much distance as possible. Fortunately I already had the physical presence. Thankfully having a father who served, being surrounded by men throughout my formative years who’d shared his experiences, prepared me by observation, proximity, and absorption.

Despite feminism and its belief more boys should adopt a lighter masculinity as they grow into men, there’s plenty good to be said about the best men having been boys whose templates included strong male figures. Weak men are not ideal models for growing boys. Boys need dominant males who possess character to pattern themselves after. Merely vain, boisterous, bluff, preening guys are certainly in ascendance today. However, beneath the veneer what is there? Who are they truly?

A lot of them can’t answer that.

What worked then and even today are basic postures. In the animal kingdom we humans inhabit perhaps using them may be the equivalent to dissuading a predator and making it choose prey less likely to defend itself or its territory.

Away from the watering hole in social situations, eye contact and conspicuously gauging the speaker start the leveling, if not outright disarming. Defer, certainly, when necessary, but never be obsequious.

Bowing and scraping usually produce contempt. What one desires is respect. One often receives what’s extended.

My interlocutor and his fellow fourth-year men were at the Shamrock to engage in their last bouts of “sanctioned irresponsibility” before graduating and receiving commissions as United States Army second lieutenants. This bunch idled like men enjoying respite from constant scrutiny.

They shed pensiveness slowly.

Of course continuous evaluation determined whether them worthy of entering the war profession. Is there any civilian career asking similar analysis? Unlikely.

A civilian, I only ever saw the United States Military Academy peripherally. Even on its grounds I never could’ve gotten more than a superficial sense of what the place might’ve been to inhabit.

Quarropas, my New York hometown, offered easy access to the USMA by ferry and auto. Growing up, my parents thought nothing of spending a day sailing along the Hudson, debarking there or at Bear Mountain. In high school, the academy hosted important track meets. In all instances, this having been America, where openness was once prized, visitors and participants had loose rein to roam the grounds.

I hope we were appreciative, not awed, nor overwhelmed, being amid still tangible American history, particularly that of our Revolutionary Era.

Then later once job requirements returned me to the Palisades, especially early after the attacks, watching insertions and extractions – the Black Hawk helicopters churning above the heads of that day’s guests – who among us prescient to suspect those stalwarts ultimately practiced these maneuvers for old, scared men preparing to sacrifice them for their own belated glory, military-industrial profits, and score settling rather than national security?

Talking to the cadets, I voiced the youth’s muzzy experiences at West Point. I excised from our conversations an adult’s skepticism that came decades later.

I didn’t opine and none of the cadets asked my opinion about our misguided entry into Iraq. The subject was surprisingly easy to evade. They didn’t raise it. I followed their lead. But to our military’s credit, one of them volunteered the academy was not a cocoon. New York Times subscriptions allowed the pertinent outside world entry. All knew the likelihood of where he’d be stationed next spring.

Before being defrocked as a journalist, the expected follow-up should have been my asking any and all their thoughts on his future. But without an ink-stained wretch card, I lacked any impulse to grill them. Besides, wasn’t this an occasion to decelerate, not be confronted?

Instead I did the right thing. I flagged a server. I fronted her enough pesos to buy several rounds of beer. Not Quilmes, through which imbibers arrive gradually at inebriation. But Warsteiner.

Hoof in the head suds.

Brewed under license in Argentina, I’d had more than several bottles of Warsteiner in das Vaterland. Like most German hops concoctions, it was a credit to Reinheitsgebot. If any diminishment in quality and taste existed, my Yankee palate flat-out missed it. Yet leave it to a German national I’d once met inside the Shamrock to quibble.

His ultimate judgment? While the ersatz Argy stuff sufficed, it remained inferior that brewed in Germany. Said Herr Säufer who sat before a table blackened by dark empty Warsteiner bottles.

And those were sizable Warsteiners, too. Longer and wider than tall boys, they filled mortar shell-shaped bottles. Enough of them doubtlessly delivered the same effect as mortar shells.

So Warsteiner for imminent warriors.

The cadets’ futures, fates, were inexorable – as all ours are. The futility of their anticipated errands, my inability to query them regarding that, both frustrated me. As the Iraqi folly lengthened, I occasionally wondered about members of that evening’s cohort. Had they beaten or averaged the percentages?

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