HAVING BEEN an enlisted man, it's not easy for me to work up any sympathy for a commissioned officer. After I gave him a snappy salute, an ingrate of a major once stopped me near the PX and barked: "You need a haircut."
I explained that my hair had been trimmed only a week earlier, but Biloxi's humidity tended to make it stick out from under my cap.
"Then get it cut shorter," he snarled. I promised to do so, again saluted, did a perfect about face, and began to walk away. He ordered me to halt and, in amazement, said: "You are wearing argyle socks."
I tried to tell him that I had arisen early to fend off any communist threat to the state of Mississippi. And in the predawn darkness, I had inadvertently put on my civilian socks rather than the military issue. It was a lie, of course. The truth was that they were the cleanest socks I had, having been worn only twice.
But he demanded my name, serial number and unit. Then he tattled to my commander, who ordered me confined to the barracks for a weekend. It turned out to be for the best, though, since I spent the weekend playing poker with some rustic barracks mates who drew to inside straights and lost all their money to me. Being a sport, I lent it back at 10 percent monthly juice.
Despite my distrust of officers, I find myself sympathizing with Gen. Michael Dugan, who has just been fired as chief of staff of the Air Force.
Dugan got in trouble with the White House because he told reporters that if fighting broke out, we planned to run Saddam Hussein out of Kuwait by having the Air Force blow the hell out of Iraq.
He said we'd blast Baghdad and various military targets and maybe drop a bomb on Hussein himself. It was also suggested that we might even zap Hussein's mistress.
This kind of talk angered Dick Cheney, the secretary of defense, who got President Bush's approval to fire Dugan. Cheney said that it was inappropriate for Dugan to be talking about who and what we might be obliterating.
But it doesn't strike me as being fair to fire someone just for talking tough, since this has evolved into a war of tough talk. Every time you turn on the TV news, there is Saddam's TV stand-in talking tough about all the mayhem Iraq will inflict upon the United States.
Why, Hussein himself threatened to pluck out some American eyes, and I wouldn't put it past him, although it would be a tedious way to fight a war.
And his TV mouthpiece has said that if fighting breaks out, America can expect terrorists to come after us. Which is a chilling thought. The curs aren't above going to Disney World and blowing up a Mickey Mouse.
At the same time, President Bush has done his share of talking tough. He even sent a tough-talk video to be broadcast on TV in Iraq. Although he didn't say anything about plucking eyes -- presidential dignity and all that -- he made it clear that we are prepared to smite Saddam's hip, thigh and mustachio.
The fact is, without all the tough talk, there wouldn't be much about the crisis to put on TV. You can only show so many planeloads of hostages flying out before the TV audience becomes bored and switches over to football, baseball or one of the movie channels for Rambo and some real violence. And once people stop watching Ted Koppel and his cast of Arab diplomats and think-tank mumblers, is a crisis really a crisis? America's thoughts might start drifting back to the S&L crisis, which would be a crisis for both political parties.
So I don't see what Dugan did that was so terrible. If anything, he stated the obvious. If fighting breaks out, it stands to reason that we'll bomb Iraq. That's what you do in a modern war, you drop bombs on the enemy. He would have sounded foolish if he had said: "Yes, if armed conflict begins, we will send up bombers to shower Baghdad with figs and dates and let them gorge themselves to death."
And the stories' mention of Saddam's mistress being a possible target may have been a sly psychological ploy. It is possible that Saddam's wife doesn't even know he has a mistress. Even now, she could be saying: "Saddam, you son of a one-eyed camel, you told me you were working late to practice your eye-plucking techniques, and all the while you were in the company of that hussy. Pack a bag and move to the Baghdad YMCA, and I hope that they drop a bomb on you and that home-wrecking slut. And I never did like your mustache. You're always getting yogurt on it."
Anyway, Dugan got the boot. But he won't become a street person. He'll receive a general's pension, which is sizable, and can probably find an executive or consultant job at a defense contractor.
And there are other benefits to becoming a civilian. Now Dugan can go without a haircut and wear argyles without someone like Dugan chewing him out.