Privates in basic training navigate an obstacle course as a photographer waits for the worst possible moment to snap a photo of them. US Department of Defense photo by Glenn Fawcett.
Privates. The United States military would crumble without them and somehow manages to not crumble despite them. Their lack of experience, whether that be in the military or in life in general or both, is often a cause for headaches among their leaders. They are the butt of many jokes with a recurring theme: Privates are dumbasses.
Now, don’t get us wrong. Not all privates are dumbasses. Some are actually pretty sharp and worth their salt; however, many of us at Coffee or Die Magazine have been privates ourselves and know from experience that a smart private is a unicorn, much like a warrant officer at work or a second lieutenant who has successfully made it back from a land navigation course. But we digress.
The face you make when you "lost your grenade somewhere over there." Screenshot via legendary YouTube video.
The point is, there is a stereotype that all privates are dumbasses, and that’s just not true. It’s important to draw a distinction between privates who are good and smart and privates who are as dull as a bag of hammers. That is why we threw together this quick, comprehensive checklist of five dead giveaways that your new private is a dumbass.
A note from the author: Please keep in mind that checking one or two of these boxes doesn’t necessarily guarantee that a fresh boot is dull as a bag of hammers. Also: This list may be used to discern whether any service member of any rank is a dumbass. You’re welcome.
This one is backed by science. The prefrontal cortex — the part of your brain mostly responsible for executive functions like decision-making, problem-solving, and self-control — is not fully developed until the age of 25. That’s right: The part of the brain that’s absolutely critical for adult life is nowhere near ready for service members who enlist right out of high school. They still have about seven years to go. That’s rough, but now you have a slightly better understanding of why privates make such terrible decisions. It’s science!
Army Private Doesn't Know Why His Gun Isn't Shooting This army private can
For most people, being thrust into the brutal reality of adulthood with roughly 13% of their brain still cooking equates to little more than a shitty tattoo, a crazy ex, or getting a degree in something pointless like journalism. However, for your average boot in the United States military, this underdevelopment usually results in privates making classic yet life-threatening mistakes, such as buying a car at a 21% interest rate, talking to the commander with their hands in their pockets, or making direct eye contact with a senior NCO.
Back when I was a kid, I used to love helping my grandfather out with his workshop projects. One day, he asked me to grab a specific tool, a speed square, off his workshop table. I walked over to the table, saw nothing square or fast looking and returned to my grandpa scratching my head. He then told me that it's the only thing on the shop table, so I walked back over to the table and yelled out, “Is it underneath this weird triangle thing?”
My grandpa laughed for a solid five minutes.
The point of that story is, in any given trade or profession, there is insider knowledge that only those experienced in that field would know — like, for example, that speed squares aren’t actually squares. That being said, some things can be deduced with just a moment of thought, regardless of your experience level, and those who fail to do so are a little more than inexperienced — they’re just dumb. If you’ve got a private on your hands who actually fell victim to the classic Boot Scavenger Hunt prank and went looking for chem-light batteries, exhaust samples, or a box of grid squares … well, you’ve got a pretty thick boot on your hands.
“Don’t be That Guy.” That was the warning that just about every drill sergeant and cadre member gave us before we went to our first duty stations. Don’t be that guy who goes out and gets a DUI his first weekend at a new unit. Don't be that guy who goes out and buys a new car on a private’s salary. Don't be that guy who goes out and marries a stripper he’s just met. (Pro tip: You should know a stripper for AT LEAST a week before asking for her hand in marriage.)
There isn’t one safety brief in the United States military that goes by without warning troops to not be "That Guy" — as in, the guy who does the wrong thing despite reason, logic, safety, and his chain of command telling him not to do that very thing. Not being "That Guy" is really easy. So when a fresh private shows up and disregards every single word of wisdom he's heard from his superiors thus far and goes and earns himself the moniker of "That Guy," it's a telltale sign that that specific private is a dumbass.
Don’t get us wrong, there’s nothing wrong with being on social media. Sharing pictures and videos of yourself doing cool shit in uniform is cool. What's not cool is posting photos and videos of yourself doing pretty much anything else. This is especially true if you have only been in the military for a few days. You've got to earn the right to do those goofy-ass TikTok dances, Private. These jokes are pretty good, though.
Talking shit, demanding respect or special treatment, talking down to civilians, or otherwise acting like a complete asshole on social media is something that you’ll almost never see a seasoned service member do. They usually know better. What you do on social media is public, and many service members have gotten into deep shit for things they’ve said or done on various platforms. If you’ve got a fresh boot who likes to act out on social media, congratulations; you’ve got a dumbass. Have fun in the first sergeant's office tomorrow morning as you try to explain his “my commander is a dick” post on Twitter.
Is your new private a private? Chances are high that he's a dumbass. We’re kidding (sort of). Always keep in mind that, although they are green as hell and usually lost in the sauce, privates and other fresh boots are still members of the same team and deserve respect just like those of any other rank. That same boot who you just sent out to find chem-light batteries might end up being the same boot who has your back in a firefight, should you end up downrange.
It’s also important to keep in mind that a junior enlisted service members are often a reflection of the quality of their leadership. If your Joe is making the same mistakes over and over again, or you find yourself spending more time making fun of him for being a dumbass than teaching him how to not be one, then you, my friend, are the real dumbass. Now quit making fun of that private and go find me some turn-signal fluid.
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Eric Miller is a former Army Combat Medic from Parkersburg, West Virginia. He holds a bachelor’s degree in history and has worked with homeless populations and veteran services throughout the state. He is an avid outdoorsman and has recently become interested in woodworking.
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