In more ways than one, the military has sometimes been an institution that change forgot. Some people refer to military life as living in a “bubble.” Some people have worse names for it. But for generations, the experience has remained the same: once inside that front gate — the one with an armed guard out front — it’s like entering a different world. What applies to the outside does not necessarily apply on the inside.
Visually, I picture it as an underwater setting. The civilian world exists loosely and without an anchor. Elements bump into each other and sometimes become one. The media changes parenting norms, and changing ideas about parenthood affect the marketing industry and how things such as food are packaged and sold. A movie star’s new haircut ignites a trend. New trends create new ideas about what’s acceptable and what’s not in public schools. Art imitates life and vice versa.
But the military is like an airtight container anchored to the ground. It doesn’t sway or bob. Things on the outside hit its windows, but it takes years of changing tides and salt water for the container to even realize something is knocking.
The obvious parallel is women in combat. There are few segments of the civilian world to which women don’t at least have access. While the women’s movement cheered, “You’ve come a long way, baby,” a few generations ago, that message has taken its dear, sweet time to reach the military.
The military is like a slow, careful grandfather who looks four times before crossing an intersection and always wears comfortable shoes. Sometimes Grandpa is deaf and losing his sight. It would take an act of Congress to get him to change his breakfast routine.
I mean, where else in society is it still permissible to regulate employees’ haircuts, right down to a quarter of an inch? Sure, civilian employers have dress standards, but the Navy’s grooming standards read like something out of another era:
[Hair] shall be tapered from the lower natural hairline upwards at least 3/4 inch and outward not greater than 3/4 inch. … The bulk of the hair shall not exceed approximately two inches. … The length of an individual mustache hair fully extended shall not exceed approximately 1/2 inch. … Eyeliner shall be shades of black, brown, blue or green that matches the individual’s natural eye color and shall not extend past the natural corner of the eye.
If you think the military doesn’t regularly inspect for infractions of the above grooming standards, you’d be wrong. While civilian industries are subject to “what’s fair,” the military largely continues to operate outside of traditional, civilian democracy. In fact, there is this common, half-joking phrase: The military is protecting democracy, not practicing it.
Sometimes, the outside world seems to simply give up hope that the military will ever change.
But for all the ways in which the military can be frustrating, even stifling, its insulation is oddly comforting and familiar on base. I know what to expect when I’m at a military commissary or exchange, even when that expectation includes an awareness that otherwise simple things, such as arranging a book signing, will be as difficult as if I were asking for top-secret clearance.
I have never felt safer than when I’m on a base. After Sept. 11, when our base at Naval Air Station Jacksonville in Florida was shut down for security reasons to outside access, I actually felt left behind. I wanted to be “trapped” on the base, not loose and floating in the less predictable civilian world.
The military base feels like a small town. As a child, when my mom had spouse club meetings or was shopping at the exchange, she let me play on the playground without her supervision. Bad things didn’t happen on base. We were all family there. And we were protected by the armed guard out front.
All of the above is why the shooting at Fort Hood hits military families in a vulnerable place. It gets us in the gut. It feels as violating as someone breaking into our home. It shatters everything we know about security.
Except, the shooters at Fort Hood — both in 2009 and 2014 — and the shooter at the Navy Yard was one of us, and that shakes us even more. In a place where change happens at a snails pace, relatively overnight, the military base became just as unsettling as the outside world.
People say that mass shootings are becoming the expected. It stuns us less and less each time we hear about a new one. It’s hard to believe it’s become that way, even harder to believe it’s reached the military. For all the ways in which the military has been slow to change, for all the ways it has been — for better or worse — impervious to societal change, I guess I had hoped that an institution that still measures mustache hairs and has been considering women for combat for years would be the one institution that would remain untouched, unchanged — forgotten — by this disturbing new reality of American life.
Maine author and columnist Sarah Smiley’s writing is syndicated weekly to publications across the country. She and her husband, Dustin, live with their three sons in Bangor. She may be reached at Facebook.com/Sarah.is.Smiley.