By Andrew Byrd
Note: I want to make something clear right off the bat: as of this writing, I have never seen combat. No one has ever for-real shot at me. I cannot speak for the countless service members around the world who have experienced those things and more, so please don’t think that’s what I’m trying to do here. The thoughts and opinions in this article are my own, and do not reflect those of the U.S. military, Department of Defense, or other government entities.
Seriously, I’m a nobody.
For the past few years of my life, I’ve been a linguist (cryptolinguist, if you’re nasty) in the military. By the time this article is live on the site, I will be well on my way to becoming a civilian once again. All told, I will have spent half a decade in the Army. That’s not a long time compared to full careers in the armed services, but it was enough for me to experience some major changes in my life and how I interact with pop culture. Changes like…
Military Movies Are No Longer Entertaining (In the Usual Way)
The biggest difference in my movie diet now compared to before I joined is the number of military-themed movies I can actually sit through. Prior to enlisting, I enjoyed all kinds of war films. John Wayne projects, Saving Private Ryan, Act of Valor…I sincerely liked most of them, and could at least pay attention to the ones I didn’t.
Enter the Army.
My first weekend in Reception (sort of a week-long “pre-basic training,” during which you get all of your immunizations, buzzcuts, and administrative paperwork filled out) happened to be a holiday weekend. That meant all of the civilian-run offices handling our processing were closed Friday through Monday, which in turn meant we had four days with almost nothing productive to do aside from “area beautification” (cleaning…everything. I swept leaves off a grass field in 30 mph wind gusts, man).
The solution they found for the situation was unorthodox: we were crammed into a room, all 200 of us, and shown Black Hawk Down on a crappy old TV at least twice a day, every. Single. Day. I had seen the movie and even read the book years before I enlisted. I thought it was a pretty good flick. But that many showings in one weekend is enough to make me hate any movie. I haven’t watched it since.
It’s not even necessarily the violence in these movies that affects me (though I do think the way our culture glorifies war is absurd). It’s something far, far more stupid: the uniforms. The freaking uniforms. If you’re watching a movie and someone on screen is in a military uniform, there is a 1,000% chance that something is wrong with it. Maybe their awards are out of order. Maybe it’s the way their hair is styled. Perhaps they’re standing outside without some form of cap or helmet on their head.
Whatever it is, you can bet that if I showed up to work with my uniform looking like something from a movie, I wouldn’t make it halfway through the parking lot before a dozen people began tripping over themselves to correct me. “But movies are fictional and there are bound to be inaccuracies!” I know that. But after years of having proper wear and appearance of uniforms drilled into my stupid brain, followed by years of drilling it into other people’s brains, I can’t help but be slightly irritated at the silly mistakes.
Now, I have always heard there’s a rule on the books somewhere that says if a movie wants to show uniformed military members, there has to be something wrong to distinguish the make-believe camouflage pajamas from real uniforms. I don’t know if that’s true, but if it is then I’m declaring a life-long grudge against whoever made that rule.
There’s pretty much only one way I can enjoy modern military films like Thank You for Your Service now, and that’s by mocking them relentlessly, like a USO version of MST3K. During the ad campaign for that movie, the national security part of Twitter dunked on it like Steph Curry at your local rec center. One quote in particular drew a ton of ridicule:
“Two Army Commendation Medals…an Army Achievement Medal…impressive.”
From an outsider’s perspective, that list of awards might genuinely sound impressive. However, there are soldiers who have never seen combat or even deployed who can match that resumé. I first saw that trailer in a theater full of soldiers, and as soon as that line was spoken the Roast of Miles Teller began. I saw it again when I was home on leave, and I was the only one who reacted. My friends were bewildered when I scoffed, and my attempt at explaining things only added to the confusion. It’s like wearing a permanent set of X-ray specs that allow me to see the silly crap underneath Hollywood’s idea of the military.
Developing a “Nerdism” is Inevitable
I’ll be the first to admit that I joined one of the nerdiest, most socially-inept job fields in the military. The idea of learning a new language and culture seems to draw a certain type of person; go figure. That being said, I never really had what one sergeant I knew described as a “Nerdism”: something that you love and obsess over, be it anime, sports statistics, MMORPGs, or classic films. Sure, I enjoyed Spider-Man and Half-Life in high school and college, but I wouldn’t say I was comic book nerd or gamer. Likewise, I’d watch local sports teams and could talk halfway intelligently about what was happening, but I wasn’t a superfan.
It was in my second year of service that I realized I had a “Nerdism.” Some coworkers were talking during lunch and someone mentioned Azrael, traditionally known as the archangel of death in Abrahamic religions. Instead of adding an interesting bit of information about shared beliefs across cultures, I said the following:
“Oh, Azrael? We talkin’ Smurfs? I freaking love the Smurfs, man! Pretty cool that Azrael is Death, and that’s what they named the cat who’s always trying to kill the Smurfs, yeah? Oh! He and Gargamel also had the same voice actors as Dastardly and Muttley!”
My colleagues were less than impressed at my knowledge of classic animated characters. Surprisingly, Hanna-Barbera cartoons aren’t exactly a pillar of modern military social circles. As time went on, I also developed an affinity for arcade games. I found a glitch in the local movie theater’s racing game that allowed me to get first place and win a free race every time. I can walk up to a Pac-Man or Ms. Pac-Man cabinet at a barcade or theater and have a pretty good chance at setting the high score on it. I once punched a Contra machine in a pizza parlor. I think a large part of my affinity for older arcade games has to do with the simplicity of the controls – I suck at most of the PC and console games I’ve tried, but even I can manage a couple buttons and a joystick (ladies). There’s something therapeutic about being able to shut off my mind and eat some virtual pellets. Which brings me to my next point…
Movies Can Help with Problems (Even Ones I Didn’t Know I Had)
Looking back, my first few months after basic training were pretty rough. Not “surrounded by people who want you dead” rough, but I wasn’t in a great place. Building new friendships had never been near the top of my to-do list, and all my close pals were back home. In addition to being somewhat of a loner, I also have a tendency to be stubborn beyond all reason and refuse to admit I need help. I was facing all of my challenges and stressors by myself, which happens to be the exact opposite of how new soldiers are supposed to deal with problems.
It wasn’t until I sat down and watched Gravity that I discovered something was seriously wrong. Right around the part where George Clooney disappears into space (uh…spoilers, I guess), I started having what I now know was a panic attack. That had never happened before. The idea of helplessly drifting into the abyss while knowing there’s no chance of rescue terrified me. When I could finally move again, I slowly realized there were some things in my life that I needed to address and doing it all by my lonesome wasn’t going to cut it.
On a slightly lighter note, Big Hero 6 quickly became one of my favorite movies when it was released. I missed being able to hang out with my siblings (the military looks down on giving its younger members wedgies, for some reason), and the Hiro-Tadashi dynamic perfectly mirrored that of my brother and me. The thought that the worst could happen to me and leave my family back home to deal with it really bothered me. After I saw Big Hero 6, I decided to start writing goofy horror stories for my brothers. It might seem silly, but knowing they’d at least have something tangible to remember me by helped alleviate some of the stress I had been feeling.
The More Things Change…
Even with the changes I’ve experienced regarding my pop culture intake, some things are destined to stay exactly how they were before I joined the Army. Major League remains the greatest sports comedy I’ve ever seen, hands down.
Portal 2 will probably always be my favorite game that’s caused me to scream “Are you kidding me?” at an inanimate object. I still believe Lamb by Christopher Moore has some of the most biting, hilarious commentary on religion I’ve read. Max slapping the possum mascot in A Goofy Movie still sets me off on an incurable giggle fit.
I guess the short version of what I’m trying to say is this: my time in the military may have altered how I interact with media, but I will always, always embarrass you at dinner parties.
You can follow Andrew on Twitter, and we at PopLurker want to continuously thank him for his service.
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