Did anybody really ever enlist in the Civil War on the opposite side from the one he intended? I almost did in the Rutgers basketball scandal.

The first news mention I heard told of Coach Mike Rice throwing balls at his players’ legs and heads and showering them with verbal abuse. I thought a war I wanted to fight had just broken out. I thought softness, a harmful partner of political correctness, was damaging America, and I wanted to join the cause of the tough coaches and beat back the caterwauling mollycoddlers.

By the time I got to the battlefield, though, I realized that Rice’s toughness was not my kind of toughness and his language was not my kind of language, so I didn’t sign on. But as long as I’m up I may as well fight anyhow.

For decades now we’ve been throwing out the mouth with the mouthwash. When I was inducted into the Army it hadn’t been that long since the cadre – the NCOs who train new recruits – were allowed to hit the trainees whose beds weren’t properly made, whose shoes had scuff marks, whose marching and drilling skills were sub-par, etc. The older soldiers thought the elimination of physical abuse was the end. “Thank God World War II is over and we won it,” went the beer talk. “The Mama’s Babies have taken over the Pentagon!”

Whatever the cadres missed by being unable to hit us was more than compensated for by the escalation of their verbal abuse. It wasn’t anti-black or anti-Jewish, or anti-gay. It was strictly anti-anybody who hadn’t been in the Army as long as they had. The most afflicted were the cadre-men who’d fought in Korea and returned stateside to train us. They’d been trained in a harsh military culture, then fought a tough war, and now returned to an army they considered something like the Boy Scouts. One of our sergeants got so upset with our performance on the drill field he went berserk. It took other cadre-men – six of them – to restrain him and get him to the post hospital!

There doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the training of, for example, Navy SEAL Team 6. Or the rest of America’s existing military. In the all-volunteer military, those who choose it take it lap it up and throw it back. So we have a small number of well-trained defenders and many millions of young men and women totally clueless to military discipline. History will tell us if ditching the draft was smart.

I thought our treatment as new U.S. soldiers was barely civilized, but over the years the harshness and verbal abuse and harassment did its job. What was its job? Occasionally, a friendly officer would explain “The Plan.” “The Army wants to break you – rip apart your individualism, your pride, your self-esteem, all of that – and reduce you to a blank slate upon which the Army and the Army alone will write its message!”

The Army is, after all, a fascist organization assigned to defend freedom. We’ve long ridiculed the German army’s maniacal fixation on “obeying orders.” Misplaced derision. One reason for our victory was that we turned out more troops better capable of better obeying more orders. So, you lose a little self-esteem now to boost your chances of surviving on the battlefield. That calls for harshness and some anger.

What’s Rutgers’ excuse?

It was not pleasant being remolded into military discipline. But it was fascinating watching it turn young Americans from a mob into a disciplined fighting force that could out-militarize the bad guys. Life goes better when the good guys are the strongest.

You should have been there. The Army drafted “gang member” kids from the toughest streets of the big cities. “Oh, no!” they’d shout when the compulsory haircut came due. “Ain’t no (multiple-expletives) mother gonna touch my hair!” The Army started with two holding him down during the haircut. If needed, as in the case of the berserk sergeant, more and more backup could be mobilized. The great part was 12 weeks later watching that same defiant street thug – now a gleaming, polished soldier – holding down the new “tough” kids who “waddn’t gonna get no damn haircut from no damn …” and so on.

I felt mistreated in the Army, but for a purpose. Defending America is a purpose. It’s a purpose higher than playing better basketball. It may take a while, but hatred of Army harshness usually mellows into gratitude. I completed basic training in early 1953. If, God forbid, disaster descended upon America, I would today be of more value to my family, my neighborhood, my city and my country than if I’d never undergone that “mistreatment” known as tough military training.

American generals have had nicknames like “Howling Mad” and “Blood and Guts.” I can think of famous coaches who were firm, who were tough, who were disciplined.

I can’t think of any who were famous for being angry.

I don’t long for more Americans who long for more territory, curse other nations with ethnic slurs or cry continually for military retaliation. I do long for more Americans imbued with military discipline.

John Dos Passos nailed it when he wrote, “The war wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t for the army.”

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