January 08, 2005

Hero Worship

I read a lot. I quite literally cannot remember a time, in the last thirty-five years, that I haven't been reading a book. I'm reading a really, really fun one right now, one that I'd recommend to you in a heartbeat. I'd like to post a scene from it, if I may? Just so that you actually get some decent writing on this blog, and also to illustrate for Mister MacFarland exactly why Neal Stephenson just got put on my improbable-famous-people-I'm-allowed-to-fuck-if-they-show-up-on-the-doorstep short list:


He reports, as ordered, to Marine Barracks, Washington, D.C. It's the Corps's oldest post, a city block halfway between the Capitol and the Navy Yard, a green quadrangle where the Marine Band struts and the drill team drills. He half expects to see strategic reserves of spit and of polish stored in giant tanks nearby.

Two Marines are in the office: a major, who is his new, nominal commanding officer, and a colonel, who looks and acts like he was born here. It is shocking beyond description that two such personages would be there to greet a mere sergeant. Must be the Navy Cross that got their attention. But these Marines have Navy Crosses of their own - two or three apiece.

The major introduces the colonel in a way that doesn't really explain a damn thing to Shaftoe. The colonel says next to nothing; he's there to observe. The major spends a while fingering some typewritten documents.

"Says right here you are gung-ho."

"Sir, yes sir!"

"What the hell does that mean?"

"Sir, it is a Chinese word! There's a Communist there, name of Mao, and he's got an army. We tangled with 'em on more'n one occasion, sir. Gung-ho is their battle cry, it means "all together" or something like that, so after we got done kicking the crap out of them, sir, we stole it from them, sir!"

"Are you saying you have gone Asiatic like those other China Marines, Shaftoe?"

"Sir! On the contrary, sir, as I think my record demonstrates, sir!"

"You really think that?" the major says incredulously. "We have an interesting report here on a film interview that you did with some soldier* named Lieutenant Reagan." *A deprecatory term for a fighting man not good enough to be in the corps.

"Sir! This Marine apologizes for his disgraceful behavior during that interview, sir! This Marine let down himself and his fellow Marines, sir!"

"Aren't you going to give me an excuse? You were wounded? Shell-shocked. Drugged. Suffering from malaria."

"Sir! There is no excuse, sir!"

The major and the colonel nod approvingly at each other.

This "sir, yes sir" business, which would probably sound like horseshit to any civilian in his right mind, makes sense to Shaftoe and to the officers in a deep and important way. Like a lot of others, Shaftoe had trouble with military etiquette at first. He soaked up quite a bit of it, growing up in a military family, but living the life was a different matter. Having now experienced all the phases of military existence except for the terminal ones (violent death, court-martial, retirement), he has come to understand the culture for what it is: a system of etiquette within which it becomes possible for groups of men to live together for years, travel to the ends of the earth, and do all kinds of incredibly weird shit without killing each other or completely losing their minds in the process. The extreme formality with which he addresses these officers carries an important subtext: your problem, sir, is deciding what you want me to do, and my problem, sir, is doing it. My gung-ho posture says that once you give the order I'm not going to bother you with any of the details - and your half of the bargain is that you better stay on your side of the line, sir, and not bother me with any of the chickenshit politics that you have to deal with for a living. The implied responsibility placed upon the officer's shoulders by the subordinate's unhesitating willingness to follow orders is a withering burden to any officer with half a brain, and Shaftoe has more than once seen seasoned noncoms reduce green lieutenants to quivering blobs simply by standing before them and agreeing, cheerfully, to carry out their orders.


Cryptonomicon. Great book. Run, don't walk.

Posted by Queenie at January 8, 2005 11:59 PM

read that and loved it. am reading a new one of his now, a little harder to stay into.

Posted by: lg at January 9, 2005 01:00 AM

You just *now* found that? My copy is a first edition the Pub. Lib. threw out because I, among others, had read the pages loose. I mean, man, a novel with equations. Among which is the one equating Waterhouse's horniness with the efficacy of the entire Allied cryptanalytic effort. Oh, that's right, you have a life, and kids, and all. Sorry!

Posted by: Justthisguy at January 9, 2005 02:04 PM

What planet is Alabubba on?

Posted by: Sam at January 9, 2005 04:05 PM
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