Does the Military Really Instill Discipline?
By Susan Van Haitsma
As my military veteran colleague and I arranged our literature table near the high school cafeteria with materials about alternatives to military service, the armed police officers assigned to the school were our first customers. They glanced at our brochures, gave us a look that said, “You people mean well, but get real,” and launched the D-word argument we’ve come to expect wherever we go.
“D” is for discipline, and it has become a central talking point for us, also. Step away from the notion of discipline as enforced order and punishment, says Thomas Heikkala, a Vietnam veteran in our counter-recruitment group who is keen on exploring deeper meanings of the word. Recall the Latin roots, which derive from the verbs, discere: ‘learn’ and docere: ‘teach’. Only when the word entered the English language did it come to mean ‘maintenance of order’. The three synonyms for discipline listed in my Random House dictionary are chastisement, castigation and correction.
Discipline means paying attention, Thomas explains. Attention is energy. You know how you can feel the energy level wane if someone with whom you are talking lets their mind wander? What one pays attention to in life is a discipline, a course of study. Thomas wants young persons to understand that a healthy, functioning society depends on people developing their natural gifts in many disciplines. As he told students during a recent campus rally, his experience in Vietnam showed him that “becoming a soldier short-circuits one’s life.” The military takes away the would-be “farmers, bakers, plumbers, teachers, bus drivers, caregivers, students, and all the other nonmilitary life-sustaining skilled persons who are sorely needed everywhere.” The institution charged with protecting our way of life is actually destroying it.
Another friend, a teacher, describes the learning process this way: “The truth is already in the student, so we don’t pound anything in there, we only draw it out.” If what the military pounds into soldiers really leads to well-disciplined lives, why are military bases surrounded by pawnshops, payday lenders, strip clubs, brothels and bars? The hyper-regimentation of military life can paradoxically lead to compulsive and addictive behaviors that are major obstacles to disciplined self-control.
I have heard veterans speak about discipline enforced in the military as a form of institutionalization that creates dependency on the system and leaves them feeling stranded upon their return to the civilian world. They cite challenges with money management, job retention and family responsibilities. “I was a robot,” said one Army veteran I spoke with recently. Sometimes the truth within soldiers becomes so suppressed they lose touch with it altogether. Suicide is a very real danger among soldiers who no longer recognize themselves. When Thomas talks to students, his concern for them is palpable. He wants each of them to realize their full potential, for their own sake and for the sake of the community of which they are a crucial part.
My own community, my immediate neighborhood, provides inspiration for the well-disciplined life. My next-door neighbor is a professional musician whose daily practice I have come to appreciate not only for the music but also because of the reminder to attend to my own disciplines. When I asked my neighbor how much he practiced his instrument, he replied, “Two hours every day. if I miss, I lose ground. When I am gearing up for a performance, then I get closer to 3 hours a day. The way I see it is two hours is good to keep growing a little at a time. One hour a day and I am declining. Three hours a day and the growth is more rapid and pronounced.” He has been practicing this way for 25 years.
My other neighbor happens to be a Zen Buddhist center. I observe the walking meditations, the work retreats and daily sittings that begin before dawn. The practice of mindfulness is the essential discipline. Breathing, eating, walking, working – every experience is its own end, to be experienced fully in the present. Deep listening can lead to deep compassion. Seeking healing from the trauma of war, many combat veterans have been drawn to the Zen discipline of attending to the present moment. There’s a difference between paying attention and standing at attention.
US Representative John Lewis spoke in Austin, Texas recently to keynote a Civil Rights symposium celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Apparent in film clips and his own vivid account of the famous march he led across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama in 1965 was the dignified orderliness of those who walked, two by two, facing mounted police who wielded clubs and teargas. Lewis emphasized the discipline required in the practice of nonviolence. In striking contrast, the uniformed civil servants upholding “law and order” were the perpetrators of mayhem and destruction.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.” He knew that peace isn’t simply the absence of war, as he knew that justice is more than fairness. Peace and justice both require the daily practice of brotherly love. It’s a discipline of mindfulness, of deep listening and enlightened self-control that cannot be pounded into us. It’s a discipline that can transform our self-indulgent, short-sighted society, and each of us must determine the hours necessary to progress – rapidly, or a little at a time.