In Phoenix’s 110-plus degree summers, my husband survived high school football practices where coaches sometimes withheld water or made players run laps without stopping until they puked. When he told me about it, I was bewildered. “Why didn’t you just walk off the field?” That’s what high-school-me would have done in a similar situation. Then as now, I didn’t conform much, I didn’t push myself too hard physically, and I hated being told what to do.
My parents raised me with these traits, along with an animosity toward the military. I respect the men and women in the services now, but I’m still a somewhat unlikely reader for Craig M. Mullaney’s The Unforgiving Minute: A Soldier’s Education. The book’s title comes from a line in “If,” the famous Rudyard Kipling poem which ends, “You’ll be a Man, my son!”
A bookish kid and a decent wrestler, Mullaney goes to West Point primarily to make his disapproving working-class father see him as a man. His strong idealistic streak leaves him vulnerable to West Point’s rhetoric about courage, honor, and duty. After his first bayonet practice, it also leads him to visit the campus priest with moral qualms about fighting, but in the end, he wants to protect and serve his country. I can understand the motivation, even if I’m cynical about how it’s likely to turn out.
Mullaney must have kept detailed journals throughout the time covered in the book. The writing is vivid and full of memorable details, like how his gray uniform trousers at West Point were “so abrasive that hair didn’t grow on my thighs for the next four years.”
I came away with a deep understanding of how much West Point sucks—or it least, how much it would suck for me to go there. In fact, in a few spots, I got tired of hearing about yet another dehumanizing exercise or grueling ordeal. Mullaney maintains a dry sense of humor about the ridiculous extremes of West Point culture, and also points out that learning to pay attention to small details can be vital in combat.
Ranger school is even more brutal, and our guy makes it through despite a bad shoulder that becomes dislocated at inconvenient times, such as when he’s crawling on his belly through a swamp or hanging from a rope off a cliff. The physical and mental toughness required to complete the program astounded me.
Mullaney gets a Rhodes scholarship and goes to Oxford, where he somehow earns a Masters degree or two even though he seems to spend all his time traveling to different countries, drinking with friends, and looking for a wife. He tries to flirt and is endearingly terrible at it. Soon he falls ridiculously, romantically in love. She’s a Hindu woman from New Jersey, bound for medical school, who is not at all sure about this Catholic musclebound nerd. Incidentally, she gives him the book A Suitable Boy, which is on my to-read list, and Mullaney shares a huge spoiler for the end of that novel. Boo.
The author frequently relates his failures and weaknesses, which of course makes him all the more likable and admirable. He feels things deeply, and he’s overwhelmed by a sense of responsibility to the men he will lead.
There are limits to his sensitivity. It doesn’t occur to him that referring to unattractive women as “mingers” is a bit shitty (yes, I know some people use it in reference to men, and that’s shitty, too.) He doesn’t know that referring to a stripped-down Humvee as a “ghetto sled” is not really funny.
Mullaney suffers a deep blow in his personal life right before he gets sent to the village of Gardez, Afghanistan, where the platoon can’t tell who is friendly, indifferent, or hostile. A superior once advised Mullaney: “Be polite. Be professional. Be prepared to kill everyone you meet.” Eventually, Mullaney and his men are sent into the area where there’s heavy fighting, and that’s when things really get gut-wrenching.
Near the end of the book, on a day when the platoon has planned to take it easy, they challenge one another to boxing matches like morons. Our guy fights someone who’s been making fun of his Oxford education and his Hindi tapes, thus earning the other man’s respect. It’s all so stupid. Mullaney acknowledges that he was “boxing with his father.”
Maybe that’s what my husband and the other high school boys on a furnace-like football field were doing: proving themselves, if not exactly to their fathers, than to a patriarchal society that expects boys and men to be stoic and violent. No doubt the Taliban and al-Qaeda assholes Mullaney fought against were driven by some of the same ideas of masculinity.
I admire valour, honour, and heroism, and I also wonder if they cause more trouble than they’re worth. Maybe people do more good in the world by living quietly and being nice to their neighbors and to their daughters and sons.