I went into the military when I was 18 years old. It was the worst decision I ever made.
This isn’t to malign the military as an institution, or the people in it. The Coast Guard is a great service, and is capable of doing good things. Many people thrive in the military—I did not.
But I did, at first. Basic training at the Coast Guard Academy was known as Swab Summer. I loved it. I loved the screaming and yelling, I loved the physical discipline, I loved shining brass, shining shoes, and buffing decks. Huge amounts of fun. And the reason it is fun is because being in the military is a license to be a jackass. My entire fourth class (freshman) year was all about being a jackass, yelling and goofing around and pranking people and stuff like that. I really have great memories of it. And I did a lot of push-ups. 2,000 in a single day, one time. My chest was sore for weeks.
But once you get past the basic training and the indoctrination, it starts to be not as much fun. Then there are politics, and the politics start early. A service academy is a strange creation—you see, the cadets basically govern themselves, with supervision from company officers, who are generally lieutenants, and around 28-30 years old. The company officers are off playing their own political games, so most of the time it’s Lord of the Flies. It’s cadets enforcing rules on other cadets, but cadets don’t take kindly to their classmates enforcing rules on them. So a caste system develops where 10% of the cadet corps enforces the rules, and the other 90% resents them for it. At the end of every semester you would fill out a survey on “interpersonal effectiveness,” where you rank order all your classmates in your company from 1 to 36. I always finished at or near the bottom of the rankings. That’s a tough pill to swallow when you’re 19 years old, that people don’t like you. But I was principled. I was a third-generation cadet, and I wanted to honor the traditions of those that came before me.
I should have just minded my own business.
And that, you see, is the problem. If enforcing conduct isn’t “cool,” there will be no one left to do it, and standards deteriorate over time. And from what I have heard, they have deteriorated significantly. But I was talking about this with one of my Academy pals the other day—if I were to do it all over again, I absolutely would have minded my own business and focus on my grades. I would have been a lot happier.
The other thing you need to know about the military is that there is a strong anti-intellectual streak in the culture. People believe in might makes right. A cadet from the Class of 1995 wrote on his yearbook page: “What kind of place is this where a smaller man can tell a larger man what to do?” By that logic, The Rock should be Commander-In-Chief. Nobody was particularly interested in learning, especially when it came to squishy subjects. The Academy had something resembling a basic philosophy class, called Morals and Ethics, which we were all required to take. The professor was an effete Ivy League snob with a chinstrap beard, and the cadets used to bully him remorselessly. Too bad, because that was one of the more useful classes that was offered there.
My experience was that a lot of the kids that were attracted to that place were very immature as high school students, and had a subconscious desire for structure and to be told what to do. Myself included. People self-select. It’s impossible to run a controlled experiment, but I imagine that if I had gone to my preferred school, Worcester Polytechnic Institute, I would have become an alcoholic of the hopeless variety, partying every weekend, skipping classes and getting Ds. There’s a part of me that thinks I needed that structure in my life, and deep down, I think I did. You can’t sleep in at a service academy. Reveille goes off at 0600, and most people get up before that.
There is also a culture of physical fitness—everyone plays sports, and those that don’t play sports, run or hit the gym religiously. I was the latter. I had never been a runner, but I decided to start. There is nothing worse than starting running, but after a while, I was running 6-minute miles over long distances, and was down to about 8 percent body fat. I also was lifting weights like an animal, and at one point was bench-pressing 325 pounds. I was a specimen. Then, after a while you learn that the only sensible purpose of the body is to carry around the brain, and about halfway through my tenure at Lehman, I halted the exercise. But it was great to be in shape, if only for about 12 years of my life, and there is no way I would have done it without the social pressure that was present at the Academy. To repeat: nobody was making me work out. It’s just what you did.
Did “military discipline” make me who I am today? Not really. Today, I set the alarm for 6:30 a.m. and roll around in bed for another half hour. I wear jeans and t-shirts. Walking is my idea of exercise these days. But I will say one thing about the military—it makes you very efficient with time. You have a million things to do, and somehow you have to fit it all into 24 hours. People wonder how I can write all these books and newsletters and do radio shows and podcasts and DJing and grad school and teaching and everything else—that is what I got out of being in the Coast Guard. I am better at time management than anyone.
There is one other skill I learned in the military that has come in handy over the years: functioning at a high level under sleep deprivation. I can’t tell you how many all-nighters I pulled at the Academy. A couple of times, two all-nighters back-to-back. Standing 1-in-3 watches on the ship with boardings and drills. From 1992 to 1998, I averaged about four hours of sleep a night. From 1999 to 2000, I averaged about two hours of sleep a night. That’s not a typo. Now, I can go out to a club until seven in the morning and just carry on about my day with no side effects whatsoever. Sure, I get tired. I’m not Superman. You just learn how to function while you’re tired, instead of turning into a useless blob.
It wasn’t hard to tell that I was never going to be Admiral material. Too much of a free thinker, and not very good at managing relationships. I might have done well if I stayed in the intelligence track—I was a star analyst in my second tour, and could have gone on to get a Masters in Strategic Intelligence, done an OPS tour on a 378-foot cutter, and then got command on a 110-foot patrol boat. My future was laid out for me. But Wall Street sounded like a lot more fun. And staying in the Coast Guard was not realistic—I was married to a woman who was an academic, and getting transferred every 2-4 years was just not going to work. I was willing to make those sacrifices, but I couldn’t ask her to.
But yes, going into the military was a mistake—for me. I’m not a sailor, and I’m not even a trader—I’m an artist. I’m a writer and musician. I’m not a tough guy. But for 9 years of my life, I was. And think of all the things I got to do—I sailed across the Atlantic. And climbed the mainmast, and kissed the pennant—148 feet above the ocean. I got a date with a girl in Dublin. I went to firefighting school. I learned how to shoot M-16s. I flew in a helicopter. I carried a gun and boarded suspected drug smugglers. I was in a boxing match (and lost). I got to play around with top secret classified stuff. I boarded fishing vessels in the Bering Sea. I went to Dutch Harbor. I got drunk in every port up and down the West Coast. I partied hard in San Diego—several times. I won medals and awards—my shadowbox is hanging up on the wall next to me.
I have memories. Not all good memories, not all bad memories, but they are memories. I lived more in 9 years than most people do in a lifetime. Sure, with hindsight being 20/20, I wouldn’t have done it. But it made me who I am today.
Go fuck yourself,
Music Recommendation: Underworld – Dirty Epic. Continuing on the Underworld theme, this is one of my favorite Underworld tracks. It’s about sex. I thought about putting the lyrics in The Daily Dirtnap one time, but they’re borderline not safe for work. Listen to the words—it’s pure poetry.
P.S. We’re Gonna Get Those Bastards will always be free. Please forward to whoever you like.