There was a decent episode of The Unit tonight that dealt with SERE training: scary stuff, from all accounts, and training I simultaneously found myself grateful that I never had to do and at the same time very much wished I’d had the opportunity to try and prove myself in. I was a lowly non-elite active-duty soldier and NCO, but I had some opportunities to train with guys from the 1st of the 75th, and they and the 3rd of the 160th SOAR were a visible presence where I was stationed, and my friend Daniel was Special Forces. (OK, so all that makes me sound like even more of a wannabe. Guilty as charged.) Out of all of them, Daniel and the two Rangers who’d done SERE training were the only ones who didn’t have that JSOC swagger; who didn’t have that cock-of-the-walk strut. And it’s funny, because that swagger was so much what I wanted to have: when I was getting near the end of my enlistment and thinking about how much I liked books, how much I liked reading and writing and how appealing being in higher education might be, the one thing that almost made me re-up was when the reenlistment NCO told me, “Sergeant Ed, I can get you a Special Forces contract.” But I went for the books instead, and now — years later — I’m happy to be headed to West Point as a civilian professor. (With the occasional second-guessing of what I might’ve done.)
Though the show never uses the word, The Unit is of course about Delta. The show’s a David Mamet project, and his writing made the first episode’s dialogue particularly snappy and engaging, but in the succeeding episodes, the writers and producers have clearly done their research. With the focus split between conflict abroad and wives waiting at home, the show’s cultural and political ideologies are very much designed to appeal to a conservative demographic — but I’d argue, as a political liberal, that that’s not much of a reason not to watch it. The show focuses on the tactical rather than the strategic perspective, and in fact often uses the tactical perspective to question the strategic perspective, as many soldiers do. The proliferation of supportive wives is overdone and reinforces unfortunate gender stereotypes, and in some ways moves the representation of post housing a little bit closer to Stepford with each episode — divorced JSOC soldiers are plentiful, for obvious reasons, so why aren’t they represented on the show? — but also makes a necessary statement about all the difficulties that military spouses manage to endure.
And then there’s the flip side to the way that the popular media tries to thrill you with representations of covert war: “The Desert One Debacle.” The story is yet more impressive reporting from Mark Bowden, who wrote Black Hawk Down (forget the movie: if you want to know what really went on, read the book, and even the book is considerably sanitized). Read it all the way through, and you’ll see how stuff never works the way it’s supposed to in the military. People simply don’t learn that things never go the way you expect them to go. Nobody who’d been through SERE training ever talked about it much. They wanted those who hadn’t done it to not know, to not anticipate. And dive training? The first thing they do, we were told, is drown you. You’re held under water, at the bottom of a pool, until you take a breath, two breaths, more, and fill your lungs with water. They do it to get you over your fear of drowning, and then they rescuscitate you.
So I wonder, as I move from a deeply liberal civilian institution to a rather more conservative military institution of higher education: how might one ask a student who’s been drowned or gone through SERE to write the personal essay?