Alan Farrell on Soldiering

Ladies and Gentlemens:

Thanks for having me here to honor those who’ve served. I was a soldier. Then I was a teacher. Now I’m just a… well, a citizen, I guess.

A teacher. One day I’m dozing through a meeting of the English Composition section at the little college where I’ve washed up. My colleagues are selecting topic essays for a timed writing exam.  Idea is to give a common text, ask a couple of  saccharine questions, extort from students some kinda expository prose. Profs reading aloud timely passages to urge on the group. It’s the catalogue of the times: Acid rain. Urban crisis. Nuclear winter.  Violence in the movies. Campaign finance.  Some kinda owl.

I feel my chin sagging to my chest. Lids settling. Maybe drooling. I’m in a state of grace.  Through the cotton I can hear a voice reading out the first lines of a specimen essay by Paul Theroux:  “I am ashamed to be a man. Being a man means being unfeeling, obedient, soldierly,  stupid…”  Soldierly.  Stupid.

No. Hey. Now we’ve got the whole Faculty hammering out a new curriculum for our little college. Agenda item is the “problem-solving curriculum,” where we put… I dunno: “problems” before the students and they …whatdya figure… “solve” them.  One prof gets up to object: “Problem-solving? That’s what Kennedy and his advisors tried in Viet Nam. Problem solving. And look at the stupid solutions he came up with… enclaves, carpet bombs, Green Berets…” Green Berets.  Stupid.

No. Hey. I’m just outta the war.  Back on campus trying to go unnoticed. Snoozing through graduate courses, schlurfing beer, chasing girls. One afternoon, I lure a nubile coed into a yogurt stand where I spring for a carob bean cone. “You got drafted?” she asks between flicks of her tongue… “No.  I enlisted,” I say without thinking.  Pause. “That was stupid…” Enlisted.  Stupid.

No. Hey. It’s inauguration day for that Black Wall up in DC.  Civilians all mooing about it. I wander along its length, look down at the stuff laid along the Wall. Mementos: poems, six-pack of beer, flowers, combat boots, dog tags. A popsicle stick jammed in the ground with little banner glued to it catches my eye.  I stoop, pick it up. It reads: “Nomina stultorum parietibus haerent.” What? Figure it’s some kinda Latin tribute for the dead? You know: “Dulce et decorum…” “Here lie in in honored repose…”  Something like that?  It’s Quintus Horatius Flaccus… Horace, the Roman poet: “The names of stupid men appear on walls…” Dead.  Stupid.

Well, I was a soldier. 26 years, peace and war. And I suppose that if I’m not all those things just this minute—unfeeling, obedient, soldierly, stupid—I have been over time.

Long time.

I come from the fifties. Big screens. Big fins. Big mills. Big hips. Cheerleaders.  French fries.  Forty-five RPM records. Soldiers. I come from a time when everybody was a soldier.

I was born in the New Hampshire mountains where my family’s been growing corn on granite since 1692. I ate supper—that’s suppah—in a clapboard farmhouse under portraits of a great-grandfather killed down to Antietam Creek, a grandfather who fought in France, a father who served in the Pacific. It was pretty clear whose picture was going up next on that wall.

My teachers from that time—men and women—were all soldiers, sailors, airmen.  Most had gotten over it. There were few professional veterans in those days when everyone served. And few strangers, seems to me, from a time when every man had had to surrender his private identity and learn to live and cooperate with strangers, learn to trust his bunkmate, like him or not, and to live up to the expectations of other men. And take risk. Or simply put up with nothing more serious than discomfort. Deprivation. Boredom. In the name of the Republic. And among her citizens. They hadn’t all seen war, but they had all seen duty.  And like it or not, they’d done it. 

I loved them. Men and women who, when they were violent or arrogant, had earned the right. And served us well that way. Who, when they were tolerant and patient, had learned that in common effort and common struggle. Who, when they became obsessed with  accountability, detail, fact and number, had come by that obsession through knowledge of the consequences of carelessness and laxity. Who, when they spoke of fear, did so with the memory fresh of ordeal suffered with others and for others, for us. Who, when they spoke of victory, had something to show. I loved them. I enjoyed their company. I swallowed their stories. I admired their scars. I envied their victory. Still do.

And I tell you without bitterness… I’m not so sure the word citizen carries the same weight now that it did then, in my mind or in theirs. 

I see people on the street now who, when they are violent or arrogant, are that out of self-indulgence and contempt. Who, when they are tolerant and patient, are that largely out of indifference. Who, when they become obsessed with accountability, detail, fact and number, have come by that obsession through greed and ambition. Who, when they speak of fear, mean fear of growing old or fat, of losing privilege or property… or hair. Who, when they speak of victory, mean someone else’s… and they speak of it meanly. They had no national mandate to answer, so they didn’t. They went straight on to life. The smart thing to do.  To do anything else would be… well, stupid.  But somehow, I just can’t love them.  And I don’t enjoy their company.  They don’t have stories. They don’t have scars. I don’t necessarily blame them for the life they’ve chosen. I just can’t  love them.

I dunno why soldiers—those who serve—seem  stupid.  Maybe because so many of them are so young. And uncritical. Maybe because so many of them lack education. Or because so many of them seem to embrace a service, a misery, a sacrifice which they could plausibly elude and from which they derive no gain. But somehow, the moniker has stuck. And I hafta tell you that sometimes it’s a blessing to be stupid. So you can tell yourself that this kid died for something.  So you don’t see yourself like that, on the ground, in the widening pool of dark dust. So maybe you don’t really see the big terrors in the fight. So maybe you don’t count the time you serve away from civilian or professional ambition.  Or maybe don’t notice the little slights back  home.

Of course, a lot of the soldier’s life can seem stupid. Soldiering is, after all, a traditional profession. And tradition amounts to no more than continuing to do certain things in the same way, for old times’ sake, long after any original purpose has faded away. And that’s stupid, I suppose. And trusting complete strangers, often enough with your life? If that’s not stupid, I dunno what is. 

But there is, Lord love us, a sense in which soldiers are stupid, or at least subscribe to a code or ethos that is irrational, non-linear, unreasoned… stupid in the word an outsider might choose. The values of the soldier’s world—and I say “soldier” because that’s been my market in the fair, but the values are those of all who serve, in blue or white or green or now random computer-generated pixel camouflage—are necessarily limited but for that reason intense, and they are revealed values, not intellectual. They are, oddly enough, the values that education indicts or erodes because they  aren’t analytical: loyalty, endurance, faith, honor, courage.  And, I admit, they’re dangerous… allthemore so back in the social circle from which us stupid soldiers got exiled by the multitude in the name of the multitude. It’s order, tension, calculus, measure that holds this mess together out here in society.

Out there and very quickly, soldiers bond—you’ve heard the word—but to each other and not infrequently with profound disdain for the society that tossed them out… and tossed them  together. And sure enough, you wind up dying not for the Free World Military Assistance Effort in Viet Nam, Republic of, but for some lemon from New Jersey, some jerk from Alabama, some butcher’s son from Idaho, some surfer from California, some derelict from Iowa, some farmboy from New Hampshire. And that… that’s stupid.

But back here, back in the circle, I suppose we can seem like a fly between the window panes:  logy, distracted, slow, awkward, clumsy… stupid.

I was feeling thataway one mangy January afternoon few weeks ago, stumbled outta my office to stretch my legs, wander around Post, air out my head for a minute. First thing happened I bumped into a man who won the Navy Cross on Iwo Jima and shook his hand, looked into those eyes.  Not five minutes later I ran into another guy, shot the first day on Guadalcanal, and who gave me his hand.  Crossing the street,  I was hailed by a third who’d spent two years in a Korean prisoner of war camp.  On the way home, I bought ten pounds of roofing nails from a guy who’d spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton.  I had a cup of tea with a woman who’d served as a nurse in a military hospital in North Africa during the Tunisian Campaign.

Simple communions.  Everyday transactions.  Men and women on a little town street.    Maybe.  Maybe, though, such people are what James Joyce calls “secret messengers.”   Citizens among the rest, who look like the rest, yet who, unlike the rest, know prodigious secrets and a wisdom other, apart, but entirely useless here. Just seems to me that there might be other words for their… what? qualities, if I may.  Uncritical isn’t necessarily stupid.  Uneducated isn’t necessarily stupid.  Stoic isn’t, either.

Right now there’s a war going on, fought by a tiny fraction of the population of this great Republic.  Right now, somewhere around five percent of Americans have ever even served.  Among young Americans, that percentage drops sharply.  It’s just not smart to give up a life’s momentum, ambition’s edge, youth’s liberty to serve.  And who sets the example?  When I was a kid, a meeting like the one I had with those men and women on Lexington street  was only too common; now what struck me about it was that it was so rare as to be exceptional.

I read: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”  That’s a gentle translation of makarioi toi ptochoi tou pneumati. Beati pauperes spiritu  in the Vulgate.  The weak of mind.  The stupid.  I guess that’ll have to be our consolation.  That and assemblies like this one, which bring together friends and family and teachers and coworkers and those who have already served to celebrate that flag and the things—the stupid things—done in her name and the men and women—the stupid ones—who do those things… and who would again.

Perhaps, if we can’t manage to build us a community worthy of their sacrifice, we can discover ways of using their hard-bought experience and those uncritical qualities they acquired in our service … and then–if we can’t find an epithet better than stupid–at least make a virtue of it. Thanks for listening and the Lord love the lot of youse.”

Comment: This is an SST reprint from 12 November 2016. Seems like ages ago. Alan Farrell is a freaking treasure… and a soldier through and through. Below is my comment from 2016.

That stupid old soldier sure can write. He writes of a cornerstone of our society, of how worthy old men pass down the tenets of honorable living to younger men. And he did it in a way that this stupid old soldier can understand and appreciate. Soldiers. I love that word dearly. It holds so much more sacred meaning than that over used term warriors that is thrown around so widely today.

I remember some of those men. Father James F. O’Dea was the only parish pastor I knew while growing up. He was a Navy chaplain in the Pacific during WWII. For eight years I served mass with him as an alter boy once or twice a week. Mr. Grey, my language arts and literature teacher in eighth grade was an OS2U pilot on a cruiser in the Pacific. I remember his story of evading a Zero by diving to the sea and slowing down to nothing as he leveled out above the waves as he watched the face of the Zero pilot as he dove straight into the sea. He liked us to sing the song “Goober Peas” to him. He taught us the intricacies of the true causes of the Civil War. It was a lesson quite out of place in a New England grammar school. He never told us, but I think he grew up in the deep South.

Later in life, I received the finest military education imaginable from such soldiers as Al Rivers, Chuck Clayton and Doug Miller. All three were former MACVSOG recon team one zeros. And I cannot forget my first platoon sergeant, SSG Livingston and MSG Dimas, my weapons platoon sergeant. They were rocks in guiding the development of a young infantry lieutenant. God bless every one of them. And God bless Alan Farrell.


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16 Responses to Alan Farrell on Soldiering

  1. F&L says:

    From a scathingly humorous Russian channel Город Глуповь – The City of Stupidity – which really hit them hard on Nov 7. Those of you old enough will remember this like yesterday. I don’t post it to gloat, by no means, the opposite in fact. (Those feeling superiority of US vs USSR would do well to remember Vietnam). What struck me was Oct 7th in light of this huge technological and military supremacy described below. Stunning. And that despite the despicable Hamas attack, that the US and Israel have managed within a short space of time to convert what could have been a huge psychological and moral victory into an abysmal loss and a strategic one at that – by means of their ongoing horror show of unremitting war crimes in Gaza. Whether or not Hezb or anyone else does or doesn’t sink a US naval ship, the ship of Israel and it’s ally in Washington DC has taken a mortal broadside and is capsizing in full view of the world. And the beauty of it, a sinister beauty if beauty at all in some people’s outlook, is that they didn’t and don’t need Disney, MGM or any multibillion dollar media and entertainment sector to pull it off. They’re using our own devices to do it.
    ​I want to tell you a story from forty years ago. And how it relates to today’s events.
    The action took place in Lebanon, Syria was defeated, but in fact it was a real war between tiny Israel and the great Soviet Union.
    Every time Israel crushed the Arabs, armed with the latest Soviet technology, the fat-butted generals had two universal excuses:
    1. It was necessary to supply more Soviet weapons. Soviet means excellent.
    2. Yes, these non-Russian chumps, you know, don’t know how to fight at all. We would show them.
    And then everything came together. And to hell with weapons. And Soviet officers.
    The mighty USSR gave the Syrians weapons worth 28 billion dollars. Thousands of Soviet officers were at all levels of control of the Syrian troops – from batteries and companies to the Syrian Ministry of Defense.
    Almost all Syrian air defense forces were controlled by Soviet officers. Three dozen anti-aircraft missile systems “Kub”, S-75M “Volga” and S-125M “Pechora”. We don’t even count all sorts of “Shilkas” and MANPADS.
    Such a dense concentration of missile and artillery air defense forces has never been seen anywhere in the world.
    The main purpose of the air defense was to cover Syrian troops in the Lebanese Bekaa Valley, where about 600 Syrian (Soviet) tanks were concentrated.
    All this splendor was led by Lieutenant General Grigory Yashkin, who was subordinate to Lieutenant General Sokolov, Deputy for Air Force, Lieutenant General Babenko for Air Defense, and Major General Ulchenko for Electronic Warfare.
    Elite elite. Front-line soldiers. We’ll show them now.
    And so on June 9, 1982, little Israel decides to strike at this splendor. A lot has been written about Operation Medvedka 19. It is being studied in all military academies in the world. By the way, there was the world’s first combat use of drones.
    I won’t bore you with technical details; I’ll go straight to the results. The Israeli Air Force destroys 29 of the 30 Soviet SAM batteries stationed in the Bekaa Valley. Syrian air defense in Lebanon ceases to exist. About 350 aircraft are involved in air battles on both sides. It was the world’s largest air battle since the Korean War. The results of the battle are 82:0.

    Once again EIGHTY TWO – ZERO.

    To say that it was a rout is to say nothing. This massacre would later be called the “Bekaa Valley Turkey Shooting.”
    But the most interesting thing is the reaction of the great Soviet Union. On June 11, 1982, Moscow radio briefly reported that Syrian troops in the Bekaa Valley had successfully repelled an enemy attack. A TASS statement dated July 16 already speaks of 67 Israeli aircraft shot down, including the latest F-15 and F-16 fighters. “With the help of Soviet missiles, attempts by Israeli aircraft to fire at Syrian positions were successfully repulsed. These data indicate the quality of Soviet weapons and their capabilities, and that the Syrian personnel demonstrated proper training.”
    Lieutenant General Yashkin will be promoted to colonel general in a few months for this defeat.
    But in the Kremlin, of course, there was mourning. The Soviet Union, tearing all its veins, produced huge quantities of expensive weapons, which already at the time of production were obsolete for a whole generation.
    The technical race was lost. And everyone understood this. The need for change has become obvious even to fools. The disastrous results of the “Turkey Shooting in the Bekaa Valley” pushed the USSR to begin perestroika, which finally buried the great Soviet Union.
    PS And now about how this relates to today. Despite what they tell you on Russian television, there is mourning in the Kremlin today. The technical race is lost. And everyone understands this. Possessing tenfold superiority in tanks, aviation, artillery, air defense, etc. The Russian army did not complete a single task assigned to it.
    The need for change has become obvious even to fools.
    Dmitry Chernyshev

    • leith says:

      F&L – Nice catch.

      I thought it was higher than 82, but my memory often fails me. Were not the 29 SAM sites taken out with US Wild Weasel tactics & technology developed in Viet-Nam? Although I’d guess the IAF improved it a bit.

    • English Outsider says:

      There’s a veritable industry of Russian expats predicting Russian defeat and economic disaster. I see them quoted respectfully on various sites. They find an eager market in the West.

      They give comfort to Russophobes, of whom we have a surprising number in Europe. But they also mislead them as to the true military and economic strength of the country. They tell the Russophobes what they want to hear rather than what they need to hear.

      That’s one of the reasons why there is, as far as I know, no realistic discussion in Europe about what we should do after our defeat in Ukraine. We most of us don’t know there will be one.

      I looked for other material from this source.

      His predictions in 2014:-

      The ruble will collapse. Hyperinflation. Goods will disappear from stores.

      He then moves on to the current SMO.

      “”Before the war in Ukraine, I wrote that from a political point of view, the invasion would be suicide, also economically and militarily … ”

      Then a more upbeat prediction:-

      ” I have no doubt as to Russia’s future. We can tilt the world in our direction so that all the money will come to us. Look at Ireland or Austria, which have become great places for investment. If we create comfortable circumstances, they will come to us.””

      But that only if there’s a successful rebellion. Otherwise, disaster:-

      “It (Russia) will not even survive this year, because this war and the sanctions are a blow that without changing one cannot recover from.”

      So he’s peddling bullshit, secure in the knowledge that it’s the bullshit most in the West want to hear.

      He police interview was hostile and he says that even his children were threatened. A serious enemy of the state, therefore. But then they let the man go abroad to continue his activities. Not a desperate scramble across the border. A normal flight out. Doesn’t add up, unless they were pleased to see him go. I think they probably were.

  2. leith says:

    General Farrell has a genius for the written word, poetry as well as prose. I still cite his prize winning poem about that piece of shit M-16 that got many Soldiers and Marines KIA or WIA in Nam. I send it to friends and acquaintances who have become black rifle junkies.

    Theroux was overrated.

    • drifter says:

      So just to be clear, you are saying that the US military should have retained the M-14 rather than transitioning to the M-16 family of combat arms based on the .223 cartridge.

      • TTG says:


        I only used the M-14 in ROTC. I liked it. The only thing the M-16 had going for it was that it is light. I used many M16A1s and never had a problem with them although I did break one in two when i took a 250 foot helo rappel with a 200 foot rope. An M-14 probably would have broken my back.

        I’m with Leith on the M-16 and other black plastic rifles. They do nothing for me. I have absolutely no desire to own one.

        • drifter says:

          So just to be clear, you don’t own, possess or or otherwise have immediate access to an AR-pattern rifle chambered in .223….

        • English Outsider says:

          TTG – had to read that twice. Didn’t add up at first. Well it still doesn’t, from a Health and Safety point of view. What happened next?

          The only comparable survival story I’ve heard is that of a man who ejected from a Phantom. Due to an unfortunate combination of circumstances he was at 150 feet and upside down. As he explained it he was therefore fired straight into the ground with little time for the parachute to break his fall.

          What happened next was that he spent several months in hospital. Was that your lot or was there a well placed haystack?

          • TTG says:


            This was a helo rappelling demonstration in front of 700 Oahu Cub Scouts. The helo hit an updraft and rose 50 feet as i was descending the rope. Landed in the grass on my ass. Shattered a femur, pelvis in four places and cracked my lower back. Also broke a wrist and collapsed a lung.

            What saved me from further damage was that I was in top shape at the time as I was training with three of my NCOs who were preparing for Delta Force selection. My chief instructor, a MOH holder from MACVSOG, assumed a protective position near me as the medevac bird came in from Wheeler Air Field. I think he was having a flashback.

      • leith says:

        Drifter –

        My understanding was the .223 was a logistician’s choice. Perhaps a smart decision but the implementation was done stupidly.

        As for me I would have preferred an M1 like I had trained with and shot expert at the rifle range with four years in a row. In a platoon I served with in Nam, the Lt looked the other way when each squad had an M14 or two. They were bartered and one I know of was recaptured from Charlie who had probably captured or stolen it from the ARVN.

        The -A1 improvements to the M16 that TTG mentions solved the problem of the earlier model. But that took several years and many lives before it was fielded.

        I wouldn’t have one in my house. I’m happy with a 12 gauge and my elk rifle, although I don’t get out in the woods anymore. And I don’t begrudge farmers for using a black rifle on varmints.

      • leith says:

        Drifter –

        PS – Here is a link below to Alan Farrell’s award winning poem about the godawful first fielded M16. For those not interested in clicking the link it starts out with: “That piece of shit M-16 we fuckin’ tol’ you wouldn’t work didn’t. And Tomorrow we’ll fuckin’ plant Waziscowicz, L J, 042 36 3842, who we found deadern’ a mackerel cleaning rod slammed down the barrel of his piece no spent brass nowhere so he like didn’t even get off round one before the Dinks popped him”

        I and thousands of other vets of that war also called it a piece of shit. It got too many good men killed until they finally fixed it. But the worst thing about it was that the designers and the pentagon tried to pin the blame on poor maintenance by the men that died.

    • Fred says:

      His book of poetry “Expended Casings” is a wonderful read. His intro to the topic of poetry is something I wish I had read in high school. His movies reviews were wonderful, too.

  3. F&L says:

    The young woman in this fascinating TikTok video is wearing a hijab. In some of the comments people tell her she looks just fine in her hijab. I don’t know where she’s from. I’m pretty sure she’s a member of or was born into the Muslim faith. She’s doing her thing to the tune of Doja Cat’s smash hit ‘Paint the Town Red.’ I hope people understand that not all Muslims are goat herding untermenschen, and that among the over 4,400 children butchered in Gaza by Israelis there are and will continue to be beautiful little creative children like her, groovin’ to the latest trends online. Good luck with your karma, Israel, because oh are you ever going to need it. Maybe time to brush up on that law of Isaac Newton’s about there being equal and opposite reactions.
    Those of you who know how to work TikTok can find her main page easily by clicking on the circular icon holding her image. It is a shame that Colonel Lang is no longer with us. He may never have had the opportunity to think over the likely evolutions of the regions, language, religion and culture he knew so intimately as regards our information age.

    • F&L says:

      Now this below is more in line with what you’re used to seeing. And I maintain that through long overexposure to images like these we’ve become conditioned to them and desensitized to the criminal horror of what goes on. That’s why it really pays to look at the children as above – as they really are – as little kids simply being children – and then ask yourself how you can possibly tolerate something so awful happening to them repeatedly and in huge numbers. Too many years of wars and too violent a mass culture. You’ve gone mad and actually don’t know it.

  4. rick says:

    Yeah I got nothing to add except that as an oldbie to SST, Allan Farrell is a contributor whose contributions I miss.

    Thanks TTG.

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