Washington, D.C., Headquarters, U.S. Marine Corps, Aug. 26, 1986: "Over the past several months the Marine Corps has been progressively converting mess halls to civilian contract . . . ."
Another of the terrible predictions from "Player Piano," Kurt Vonnegut's frighteningly prescient 1951 novel about the world of the future, has come to pass.
First there was his prediction about credentialism, a world come to pass--as the Washington Monthly reported several years ago--when a Ph.D. in English who had successfully taught remedial reading for years couldn't get an elementary schoolteacher's certificate because her undergraduate transcript didn't show any academic credits in educational theory. Then there was his prediction that universities would be run by their sports departments, with academic departments reduced to mere adjuncts--in other words, a world as close as the nearest sports pages. And finally there was the fear personified by "Player Piano's" mighty boobah, Dr. Francis Eldgrin Gelhorne, whose "disorderly route to the top" could no longer be duplicated because the stepping stones had been eliminated. And now that, too, has become a reality, with a move whose significance would be particularly appreciated by Vonnegut, himself a World War II combat infantryman.
The Marine Corps is abolishing KP! Following the lead set by the Army a decade ago, the Marine Corps is beginning to phase out KP--kitchen police to the uninitiated, the military's incomprehensible euphemism for detail to the mess hall to serve as slaveys to the cooks. Now civilians will be hired to assist in preparation of the cuisine.
KP was a stepping stone to some mighty diverse careers. For Norman Mailer and Art Buchwald and Vonnegut it led to the world of literature. Henry Kissinger started there on his way to become secretary of state. And it was John Vessey's first step on the path that led to chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Teddy Kennedy and Walter Mondale hoped that it would be a springboard to the White House itself.
Impossible, you say? This just means that you haven't been to the Civil War battlefield of Antietam and seen the monument at the Burnside Bridge commending that illustrious 19-year-old KP, William McKinley of the 23rd Ohio, for serving food and coffee to the riflemen on the line. That demonstration of the "right stuff" twice got McKinley elected to the presidency of the United States.
But now this noble institution has bit the dust. And a noble institution it was, for KP was more than just ladling out chow and mucking about in dirty dishwater. It was a maker of men, a builder of character, a bedrock of all that we hold near and dear.
At least that's the way it was explained to me by my first sergeant almost 40 years ago, just after a brigadier general, with me in tow as Exhibit A, had stormed into his orderly room and demanded to know why a first sergeant, a veteran of two world wars, was so lacking in attention to duty that he let raw recruits wander around loose who couldn't even recognize, let alone salute, a general officer in the United States Army.
"Your character needs immediate attention," the first sergeant told me. "Go see the mess sergeant and tell him you belong to him until I tell him different." And, except for a slight tendency toward a relapse of dishpan hands every time I see a general, I must admit that those days scrubbing pots and pans did wonders for my moral fiber, and undoubtedly led to my rise from buck private to bird colonel in only 32 short years. But those days are gone forever. KP is no more.
Instead, a battlefield-tested substitute has been thrown into the breach. As Gloria Emerson observed, the staff officers in Saigon during the Vietnam War "were as jealous of their waistlines as a chorus girl," and today's modern mess halls (now more elegantly labeled "dining facilities") not only lay out the old-fashioned assortment of meat and potatoes, they also prepare a separate spread of salads, fruit and other delights for those who are counting their calories. And making that choice of chow lines, as every dieter knows only too well, is a character builder par excellence.
I can hear it now. "You really screwed up this time, Smedley," the first sergeant yells. "Your character needs immediate attention. Go see the dining-facility supervisor and tell him no more red meat for you! It's the salad bar until I tell you different."
It may work. But somehow it just ain't the same.