September 12, 2010 12:12:00 AM
In 1970, soon after pilot training equipment issue, I took my helmet into the bathroom and locked the door.
Standing before the mirror I put on my gleaming white helmet with the oxygen mask dangling to the side. Surveying this improbable view for a moment, I slowly hooked the oxygen mask across my face. After a frantic moment trying to find the flange on the end of the hose to allow air into the mask (momentary breathless panic), I stood before the mirror again. Here I was, former college party boy, appearing as a dog-fighting aerial ace sneering at danger, an envied hero among men and desirable hunk among women.
Then, the final affectation, I twisted open the visor lock on the top of the helmet and lowered the dark filter down snuggly against the oxygen mask. Behold, Starship Trooper, 1970 version! I asked myself if I could really be transformed so easily into a mythical hero among men, an American avenging angel bound for the war zone in Vietnam. Could the Viet Cong possibly resist the overpowering coolness of Starship Trooper?
As I discovered, to my dismay, the Starship Trooper self-image had no effect, by itself, in the real world. It did give me a potent dose of self-importance, but one that my first flight instructor quickly deflated as he held his face in his hands in disbelief at my total ignorance of engines and things mechanical (I was a history major, after all. I didn''t know a carburetor from a crankshaft).
The allure of this inflated self-image persisted, however. Even as a senior C-5 cargo pilot, I would catch my reflection in one of the cockpit side windows when the sun was shining directly on my face, svelte boom mic to my mouth and sun glasses again displaying me (to myself) as an ultra-cool man-among-men doing daring, heroic things.
I am reminded of such foolishness as I ponder the image of current American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan. They shame the relatively sloppy image of Vietnam era soldiers with sleeves rolled up on baggy jungle fatigues.
Today''s war heroes have trim helmets topping closely tailored, computer designed, camouflage uniforms. There are a myriad of pouches and pockets on the trousers in the best outdoorsman fashion; the torso is covered in form-fitting armor plate with all sorts of grenades and implements tightly attached; and, of course, the M-16 rifle held at the ready to mete out Starship Trooper justice to anyone the Trooper deems worthy. Add to this dark, alien-looking goggles, or protruding night vision gear, cameras and helmet lights, and you have a space creature of formidable proportions.
This visage appeals to outdoor camping/hunting enthusiasts and is captured in a form reminiscent of football uniforms. How could any young, red-blooded, American male resist the offer to become a Starship Trooper, an instant hero among his peers with his pick of women? I couldn''t, and I don''t expect the current crop can resist it either.
Unfortunately, Troopers have bought an image that has little to do with an unspoken reality: They must be prepared to kill other human beings, and to have other human beings try to kill them. As they will soon discover, Starship Trooper outfits provide no protection against copper-plasma-tipped roadside explosive devices or the ground when your plane crashes in to it at 500 MPH.
Starship Trooper regalia also does not make you right, or righteous. You might be righteous, but that has nothing to do with the Trooper image, although the two are often confused. How could someone who looks so absolutely, terrifyingly, cool, be wrong?
I think the army will always be able to meet their recruiting goals -- their advertising agencies will see to that. With terms such as "Army strong", "The few, the proud..." and spiffy uniforms to convey gravitas, they will always have young men searching to validate their manhood by dressing up as a Trooper.
Recruitment posters showing the new Starship Troopers standing astride the adventurous sands of Arabia, and proclaiming that they are fighting heroically for freedom, should bring forth another American generation of volunteers to fight their war as my generation fought ours. Alas, however, the Starship image will have nothing to do with the righteousness of the cause, or the eventual results of the conflict.
Jay Lacklen is a retired Air Force Reserve pilot, who flew missions in Vietnam and Iraq. Presently he is simulator instructor at CAFB and is writing a book about his experiences in the Air Force.