Part one of a series of articles on masculinity and the military mind: Sheepdogs and Wolves.
In a recent interview with USN EP-3 Aries II pilot Lt. Shane Osborn, described the sequence of events that occurred leading up to and during the collision. The PLA F-8 Chinese fighter plane had collided with the larger E-3, shattering the inside starboard prop on the American plane and explosively decompressing the E-3's cabin. At this point in his narrative, Osborn recollects:
I lost my airspeed indication... and I wasn't quite sure of the rest of the damage at this point. We shut down the engine and could not hold altitude at 15,000 ft. It took until about 10,000 feet until it started holding altitude... we weren't sure that we may be able to ditch, but we weren't sure. SO, at that point, I called for the emergency destruct plan. I can't go into any more detail than that.
Many of you may be thinking how horrible this must have been. Thousands of miles from home, two and a half miles up in space, your aircraft damaged to an unknown extent, cabin decompressed, spinning out of control, 24 lives in your hands, as well as the possible welfare of your homeland. The pucker factor was high, 10 out of ten. You most likely couldn't have pulled a pencil out of the pilot's ass with a pair of linesman's pliers. He was terrified. He was also wrapped inside his own little version of heaven.
Let me explain. I'm the same age as the pilot. I was Army ROTC in college. I grew up in an America where we were raised to be ready for "nuclear combat toe-to-toe with the commies." I was waiting for those Russian paratroopers to float gently from the sky and perforate my social studies teacher with a belt-fed weapon. I would be liberated from the structured nightmare of high school, no longer forced to escape into books and hobbyist sabotage. Instead, I would paint my face with lampblack, under the new moon I would creep down from my mountain fastness and garrote Soviet sentries with the piano wire cannibalized from my grandmother's piano.This is the essence of growing up male in Reagan American and buying what they sold.
We were looking for that Hemingway moment of "grace under pressure". Doodling Soviet Armored Personnel Carriers in my Spanish notebook (the foreign language I would need for the coming war in South America, as the communist menace crept north towards Fortress America). We were all waiting for the moment when we would be weighed in the balance and not found wanting
It takes something special to serve in the military. I respect the patriotism and warrior ethic that compels anyone to place their body between their homeland and danger. But there is a self-serving aspect as well, a hero complex in search of a defining moment that will set them apart from the rest of humanity. It's almost as if people are willing to subject themselves to all manner of humiliation, deprivation, and underutilization of their potential humanity in order to purchase those most seductive of lines: "You weren't there, so you'll never understand. For those who have risked everything, life has a special sweetness."
Was Lt. Shane Osborn gripped with fear? Of course he was. Maybe he made a mistake by landing at Hainan island. But when everything nets out, when he found himself in the middle of his "metal on metal" moment, he didn't choke. He got the aircraft wings-level. And when the moment came, his life's work culminated when he uttered the words, "Activate the Emergency Destruct Plan."
In his flight mask, the debris settling around him after the aerobatics, did he feel the thrill of those words as he spoke them into the intercom with his flat military affect?
I called for the emergency destruct plan.
Those were the words he daydreamed about saying in his Spanish class. He dreamed of his hands in a deathgrip on the yoke, fighting the beast until the machine bent to his will. Then, knowing the dire truth of the situation, he would get to say the words, "activate the emergency destruct plan." It was his dream, and to that extent I'm glad he got to live it.
Nobody gets the say these words in civilian American life. We see cartoon sequences where the bad guy activates the emergency destruct plan. We see movies where our intrepid soldiers and sailors call for the emergency destruct plan. We don't ever get to do it ourselves. I knew a guy in high school that screwed a bulk degausser to the side of his pirate warez BBS. He had even gone to Radio Shack and wired in a safety cap switch. He would say with glee, "When the Secret Service kicks in the door, I flip the self-destruct switch and it's all over." The Secret Service was never going to raid this guy's house. It was the thrill of even the remotest possibility of flipping that switch that thrilled him with glee. That eventuality set him apart from ordinary people.
In Lt. Col. Dave Grossman's deeply insightful book On Killing, he quotes from a Vietnam veteran who outlines his worldview:
One veteran I interviewed told me that he thought most of most of the world as sheep: gentle, decent kindly creatures who are essentially incapable of true aggression. In this veteran's mind there is another human subspecies (of which he is a member), that is a kind of dog: faithful, vigilant creatures that are very much capable of aggression when circumstances require. But, according to his model, there are wolves (sociopaths) and packs of wild dogs (gangs and aggressive armies) abroad who are biologically and spiritually predisposed to confront these predators.
It is this feeling of separation, of a privileged understanding the "real world" that I want to explore in this series, in hopes of excavating some of the engines which can drive men to desperate action.
NEXT: Sheepdogs and Wolves