Friday, November 29, 2013

Toy Soldiers

Every other day, at exactly 11:30 AM, a procession of toy soldiers marches down Buckingham Palace Road in London, England, just as they have for centuries. There are dozens of toy officers on horseback, a full marching band and scores of toy foot soldiers all stepping in unison to some music meant to glorify the British Empire and save the Queen. This nonsense takes 40 minutes and is called the Changing of the Guard.

The British are big on tradition. They still have a royal family, living in the same old royal palace, wearing the same old royal jewelry, frolicking at the same old royal vacation retreats, attending the same old pompous ceremonies and living royally off the fat of the land as if they were actually special people.

Hundreds of toy soldiers are employed by the British government to “guard” the royal family. They spend endless hours standing at rigid attention, along the fenced perimeter of the palace grounds, while tourists from Iowa snap photos of their grim expressions and try to make them laugh. When not on duty at their guard post, they are kept busy marching, polishing boots and shining various metallic objects on their uniforms.

Even in wartime, the British refused to stray from tradition. During the Revolutionary War, British soldiers, dressed in bright red uniforms, would march down the road or across the battlefield, side by side, like a bunch of slow moving targets lined up to be slaughtered. They were always led by a couple of musicians, usually a drummer and a piccolo player, flanked by some poor soul carrying a flag instead of a weapon -- three toy soldiers marching in the front row, shielding the real soldiers with the real guns.

It’s really hard to sneak up on the enemy in bright red uniforms while a drummer and a piccolo player are hammering out a tune. At some point, adhering to tradition becomes a form of insanity.

Unfortunately, America was built on many British traditions, such as the judicial system (12-man jury), the dual parliamentary system (the House of Lords and the House of Commons became the U.S. Senate and the U.S. House of Representatives) and the Dewey decimal system. We also inherited toy soldiers.

In spite of allocating zillions of dollars every decade or so to “modernize” the U.S. Armed Forces, we still can’t seem to eliminate the need for toy soldiers. Every time the President boards or disembarks a helicopter or Air Force One, there is a U.S. Marine stationed at the boarding ramp whose sole function is to stand at attention and salute the President as he passes by. Whenever the President enters the White House, there are a couple of U.S. Marines stationed at the door whose sole purpose is to salute the President as he passes by. None of these soldiers is actually protecting the President – you can’t guard someone if you’re standing at attention, looking straight ahead at all times. Turning a soldier into a useless human manikin is an insulting waste of manpower.

Every military installation of any size has a military band -- dozens of toy soldiers spending their military careers marching in parades.  There are many other military occupations that have absolutely nothing to do with defending our country as the military budget continues to grow far beyond reasonable necessity.

The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier has been "guarded" 24 hours per day, 7 days per week, by an active duty soldier ever since July 2, 1937. The absurdity of military tradition is a long history of pompous ritual nonsense and misguided human energy. It may be considered honorable, but it is also highly wasteful of human resources.

I was drafted in 1966, during the Vietnam Conflict. I spent two years at Third Army Headquarters in Atlanta working as a data processing analyst. I lived off-post with three other draftees. John Valentino from Chicago ran the post gymnasium where he lifted weights all day and made sure the lights were turned off at the end of the evening. Frank Berrnardi from Cleveland worked in the post library as an assistant to a civilian employee. John Ballas from Brooklyn was a lifeguard at the post swimming pool where he worked mostly on his tan.

The four of us were drafted because our country supposedly needed us in a time of crisis. While I was doing something of a military nature, basically shuffling paperwork, my three roommates were clearly wasting their time. Once a week we would be required to watch a training film, usually about the evils of communism or how to properly brush your teeth.

We weren’t protecting our country -- we were too busy trying not to go insane.

Let the British waste public funds on toy soldiers -- our military forces deserve to be utilized properly.

Quote for the Day -- "The average bright young man who is drafted hates the whole business because an army always tries to eliminate the individual differences in men." Andy Rooney

Bret Burquest is the author of 9 books. He lives in the Ozark Mountains with a dog named Buddy Lee and remains busy trying not to go insane.

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