The Posse has given some additional thought to Pvt. Scott Thomas Beauchamp’s writing exercises. It is still too early to determine if they are fact or fiction, but one thing is clear: he wanted to be a writer and he saw being in the Army as the path to that goal.
Not that there is anything wrong with this. We will freely admit that we have done many things simply to have done them. Not all of them make a good story, but they did provide life-experiences.
People can be quite complex, and what looks like cynicism or opportunism often masks internal conflict. We believed this to be the case with John Kerry and we think that Pvt. Beauchamp has a similar dynamic.
In our experience, there have always been people like Pvt. Beauchamp. Whether in the military or some other organization, there are people who voluntarily join a group, and then hold themselves aloof from it. Pat Conroy documented this in The Lords of Discipline, his semi-autobiographical take on his years at the Citadel.
On the one hand, there is the pressure to conform, to be part of the group. Membership in the group confirms several kinds of benefits, ranging from camaraderie and the sense of belonging to the absence of abuse for being different from everyone else. The flip side of this acceptance is of course the loss of the self, the sense that one is not different but rather “just another cog in the machine.”
Team-based institutions – and this can include sports teams, marching bands, some types of businesses and of course the military – are based on the concept of self-sacrifice for the greater good. At its core, military basic training does two things: it breaks you down and builds you up. Other teams follow a similar pattern, albeit with less severity.
The “breaking down” process is about teaching that the group’s success is more important than the individual’s comfort. Having a great batting average or a high individual sales rate doesn’t much matter if the baseball team loses every game or the company goes bankrupt and lays everybody off. Thus, the breaking down is about eroding that sense of individuality, showing that the one is nothing without the many.
The “building up” portion then teaches that by being a member of the team, the individual has actually increased his own worth – that he has become more than he was before. The great battling average is now combined with stronger fielding, meaning that the team will win more games; individual sales successes coupled with support of others means that the whole company can grow, with more money for everyone. As a byproduct of this, the individual’s gifts can allow him to become a leader, someone who combines his personal strengths with the power of the group.
It can be a life-changing experience, and often is. This is why many veterans, even those who served in peacetime, retain a strong loyalty to the institution of the military. They are bonded, and share a common culture, a common experience of being broken down and built back up.
Of course not everyone has a positive experience in these environments. In the case of a creative personality – particularly a creative writer – this process of amalgamation to the group can be terrifying. So instead of accepting full membership, the individual in these cases resists it – and often gets much grief as a result.
The result is a sort of double-think: one is part of the group but outside of it at the same time. Outwardly, one is a full-fledged member. In military parlance, he would have the ID card, uniform, know the culture, draw the pay and have passed all of the qualifications. Yet in his mind, he is not a soldier because he is different, very much unlike the “savages” or “simpletons” who have fully joined the group.
Yet there is also a sense of pride in being within the group. He has passed the rituals and, to a certain extent, knows that he has been accepted into the culture of the group. The military is very physically and mentally demanding – particularly for those of an individualistic bent. Many of these people come from comfortable, affluent backgrounds and the rigors of basic training aren’t something they are used to. Their friends and family may be impressed that they accomplished what they did and – though they may hate to admit it – they also like the fact that they are part of an institution that is accorded respect by most of the country. They may hold the “flag-waving rednecks” in contempt, but they still like the respect they are now accorded. Pvt. Beauchamp explicitly has made this point with his “chicken hawk” denunciations of non-Iraq serving veterans. He hates the military, comes from an anti-military background, but knew that once he had the “street cred” of having served, he would get respect even from those he disliked.
That is why people like him will denounce the military with one breath and then express their pride in being in it the next. He isn’t necessarily a hypocrite, he truly is conflicted.
To people like this, the tension is often very difficult, because the strain of being deployed, and the very culture of the military helps build friendship and trust. One is torn between contempt and affection for one’s fellow-soldiers who could, on a moment’s notice, save one’s life. That jerk in the cot next to you who prefers console games to reading, holds simplistic political beliefs and snores may be the one who pulls you from that burning Humvee. It is a sobering and disturbing thought.
What makes it worse is that artists, particularly creative writers, hate relying on others. They are the ultimate individuals – they control their text absolutely. They speak on the page with the Voice of God. The fact that a high-school grad with no ambition other than humping a ruck for the next 20 years outranks you because he is a better soldier is the ultimate insult – and proof that the military is truly a worthless institution run by simpletons.
Of course there is another way, the way of acceptance. A lot of great artists served in the military and learned discipline, the value of teamwork and how to be an individual without becoming an utter jerk. The choice is not between being Private Joker or an anonymous grunt, it is between doing the job one signed up to do and growing in the process or being a half-ass about it and reaping (at the least) a great deal of internal conflict and at worst, the contempt of the group one once joined.
Pvt. Beauchamp is now finding this out. If his stories turn out to be true, it will go poorly for him and his unit. He will be asked why he did not report it up the chain of command, what role he had to play in what he saw and he will reap the hatred of those he turned in – without the virtue of having done so to preserve the honor, discipline and good name of his unit, the Army and the United States.
If his writings prove to be fictional, he will have embarrassed himself, his wife’s employer, and will have smeared the good reputation of the fighting men and women around him all in the name of a little passing notoriety.
There are no good outcomes for him at this point, only less awful ones.
The final piece of this tragedy is that Pvt. Beauchamp is a lousy writer.