Did you do the thing?

When I was young, we only had two TV channels. On one of those channels, they were running a repeat of an old TV show from the Seventies, called “The Good Soldier Švejk”. It’s the story about a Czech soldier going through various adventures in the Austro-Hungarian army during World War I. Soldier Švejk distinguishes himself by being almost absolutely useless. He always seems well intentioned and eager to please his superiors, but somehow always fails, because of his dumbness and clumsiness. By acting that way, nothing can be held against him, but he avoids being tasked with any difficult, taxing or dangerous missions or jobs. All the while, you never know if Švejk really is dumb, or is only playing dumb.

While we were watching, our father said to us: “I want you to pay good attention to this, my sons. That’s how you behave in the army! If you’re too eager, not only will your superiors dump more work on you, but also your comrades will hate you for raising the bar for everyone. Keep your head down, don’t mouth back, and don’t show how intelligent you really are. The only thing to do differently than Švejk is to make no waves, positive or negative. Basically, make it your mission that on the day you leave the army, your superiors aren’t even sure who you are.”

That was great advice! I sailed through the army like a breeze (more or less). It probably depends on the type of army you are entering, but here in Austria, we have a general draft, so there’s a widespread culture of “let’s get this over with” among the recruits. If you voluntarily sign up for the US Marine Corps, for example, and want to make a career in the military, I would assume that a totally different strategy would be advisable.

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3 comments on “Did you do the thing?
  1. Magnoire says:

    We only had 2 channels when I was growing up. If the President came on, you were screwed for the night.
    Your soldier sounds like the old comic strip Sad Sack.

  2. Bruce Bergman says:

    Look up “Gomer Pyle, USMC” and see if that looks like the same thing in English. When you’re going to get drafted for a fixed period in peacetime and you know it, the advice is sound of “head down, do the minimum (no less, no more) and show basic competence unless extreme circumstances arise (like a real war…*)”

    (* = Once the bullets start flying you can unleash the cunning inner beast, because staying alive is Job One. Patton: “Your job is not to die for your country, it’s to make the other {redacted} die for his.”)

    Saying “It’s been done before” is a massive understatement. Movies, Television and Radio recycle ideas for settings and plot-lines constantly – the challenge is spotting the tropes and memes and seeing if/how they did it a little different this time.

  3. Bernd says:

    It’s true in the German army too, that if you are efficient at what you do, you just have to do more work. Unless you want a career in the military, keeping a low profile is the way to go.

    I was in a unit operating a battlefield surveillance radar mounted on an armoured personnel carrier. It was pretty neat piece of technology, able to detect vehicles and infantry soldiers in poor visibility. (It would also have been the easiest target for any radar-seeking missiles.) Those who did a poor job of operating the radar were “punished” by getting the heavy truck driver’s license, which could be converted to the civil license. They also to carry the lightweight Uzi, whereas the radar operators had to lug the heavy G3 around. Those who where were good at operating the radar (such as yours truly) didn’t get anything. In theory, for a service longer than 12 months, they would be promoted to “Hauptgefreiter” instead of “Obergefreiter” and get a tiny bit more money, but since the service only lasted 12 months, there was literally nothing.

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