Thursday, January 8, 2009

IN THE EARLY MORNING RAIN (excerpt)

IN THE EARLY MORNING RAIN:

A Military Memoir By The Worst Infantry Trainee In The History of Mankind

INTRODUCTION:

I can't, right now, remember my arrival at Fort Benning, GA in March of 1985 for Infantry Basic Training. I had been recruited by the Army National Guard unit in Syracuse, NY, although my lack of aptitude for or proficiency at anything vaguely military was phenomenal. And I should have known better. But at that point in my life, I felt at a dead end, unappreciated, and was chafing for some vast, transformational experience that would kickstart my existence and help me move toward some more fulfilling destiny, and I guess I figured what the hell. The military had been a vital, life altering crucible for many before me, and I seemed to be otherwise trapped, so why not?

I'd find out why not.

Still, as I say, I can't remember actually arriving at Benning. I remember bits and pieces of the plane rides down there, of the Atlanta airport, and I remember quite well the first barracks I was put up in, with a bunch of other equally uneasy new recruits, still in our civilian clothes and civilian haircuts, thinking that the way the reception sergeant had chivvied and herded us around that afternoon and evening was kind of brusque and rude, and wondering how much worse it would get. Wondering if this would, indeed, be some major turning point for my life, or just turn out to be a prodigious, incomprehensible mistake.

I believe, the morning of that first full day there, they actually got us up at six a.m. I'm sure that whenever they got us up, other guys in my intake group grumbled about it being too early, and I wasn't thrilled about it, either, but even then, I was pretty sure that actually being allowed to sleep until six a.m. wasn't something we should get used to.

I clearly remember how quickly hierarchies seemed to be set up in the process... not just regarding the actual rank structure, but how fine and distinct the gradations between intake groups immediately became. Guys who were three days or so ahead of us, but who already had their uniforms and equipment and Army haircuts, seemed infinitely more experienced and knowledgeable in the lore of the system than I did. (This was to remain a constant throughout my training, as I would infrequently come into contact with training groups farther along in their cycles than I was, and to me, they always seemed like ancient, weary veterans, sophisticated and informed by a dreadfully won acumen of just how things worked, footsore and world weary travelers of a dreadful road that still lay before me, and that I myself would inevitably have to traverse myself, whether I wanted to or not.)

In fact, it's worth noting at this point that one's 'willingness' to be in the military is really only valid as a moral argument, once one arrives and military indoctrination begins. Sure, there is no draft and we were all volunteers. Yet we were all also, nearly to a man, completely unaware of the realities of what we were getting into when we signed that piece of paper and took that oath. We'd seen a few movies at that point and thought we understood, if only vaguely, the mysteries of drill and discipline. We felt we had a grasp on what would be expected of us, and obviously, we all felt we could handle it; we all knew other guys, whom we considered peers, who had gone through it and survived.

And none of us, not one, had even the slightest real idea what we would be going through, and none of us, not one, would have stayed past the first week of real Basic Training if we'd been allowed to quit.

(When I say 'none of us', I am exercising a deliberate poetry, because in point of fact, there was one fellow in my intake group who knew more or less exactly what he was in for, because he had deserted from the Marines, and for some idiotic reason, had joined the Army under a false name, perhaps thinking he wouldn't get caught and could have a chance to start over. He honestly seemed to like the military, or at least, he seemed to prefer it to whatever else he'd had. It took them a few weeks to process his fingerprints, but eventually, they figured out who he was and took him away. As with anything else in the military, though, it happened inefficiently, and he was under company arrest and assigned to work details and CQ duty for a few weeks before they finally came and got him. On one occasion, when I was doing my laundry, I overheard him talking to another guy, and I remember him saying plaintively "Yeah, I don't know what guys complain about. This isn't that bad." For me, it was plenty bad, and going to get worse, but still, it was a relief to hear someone say that.)

'Volunteering' for the military, for the vast majority, is an act of utter ignorance, encouraged by recruiters with quotas who are very aware that if they tell you what you're really in for (systematic anti-humanistic degradation and humiliation designed to break down most overt, learned behaviors, and virtually all sense of individual identity not connected with your military unit, in order to replace them with the sort of ingrained discipline necessary to turn the product of a civilized society into, not simply a killer, but a trained, focused killer who would, hopefully, kill only on command and in the 'appropriate' context), you won't sign up. The system is equally aware that the vast majority of young sheep herded into it by recruiters want no actual part of the actual military; therefore, they make it extraordinarily difficult to back out of what you will have, almost as a matter of course, foolishly and unwisely decided to embark on, and will quickly come to see as a colossal error in judgement.

And so it was that, played like a violin by a maestro of a recruiter, I found myself in a barracks in Georgia, still in my civilian clothes, bemused by the thought that military food wasn't really as bad as I'd been led to believe and awed by guys a few days further along in their own cycles, who already had the uniforms, the equipment, and the haircuts. Although they knew barely more than I did (the couple I'd seen around the induction barracks were, at that point, waiting a few days to be assigned to a training company) they seemed nearly lordly in their apparently far greater experience.

However, the military moves fast, except when it doesn't move at all, and before the end of that first full day, we'd all been crammed into a bus and taken off for mass inoculations. While being moved around, our induction sergeant tried to instill in us a little basic sense of marching and formation, but without any of the murderous, vicious haranguing, verbal abuse, and quick disciplining through push ups and other humiliating physical tortures that would be used to enforce obedience and punish errors once we arrived at our training platoon. I tried to listen, and when it seemed tolerated, to ask questions, as I was feeling desperately insecure and grasping after any kind of reassurance that additional knowledge might have brought me. However, everyone who might actually know something about what was in store for me was vague, which I found maddening at the time, but looking back now, can see simply came from the fact that I had no vocabulary in common with the people I was asking my questions of. They couldn't tell me what it would be like in any adequate way; you could only really describe it to someone who had been there... or at least, that would have been the problem of the average non-articulate Army soldier. Clearly, I hope to do better.

There was also the fact that, even had anyone described clearly what I was in for, it would only have scared the shit out of me. Much later on, while my company was running through a particular obstacle course on a rather swampy, muddy training range, one of the drill sergeants (not one of my platoon's) who had generally shown himself to be comparatively friendly and accessible, and who apparently chose that moment to resent the fact that many of the recruits in his platoon seemed to perceive him that way, dropped everyone in his eyeshot, in ankle deep mud, for an apparently endless series of pushups. "You people seem to have mistaken me for someone who cares about you," he bellowed out over the chaotic, bobbing, panting array of shoulders, helmets, and asses in mucky camouflage. "I'm not your mama. I don't love you."

That attitude is a typical one, or at least, it was, when I went through Army Infantry Basic Training. It's obviously and honestly not true, of course. Most drill sergeants are relatively decent human beings and, just as in the movies, they do tend to form some sort of bond with their recruits. It's human, and you can't help it. (Some drill sergeants, on the other hand, are genuine sonsofbitches and a few are out and out psychotics, but in my experience, they're in the minority.) However, they're taught to act cold and uncaring, so that when they threaten you with imminent bodily harm, curse at you, tell you you're worthless, and act as if they're about to kill you with their bare hands, you'll believe it, and be motivated by their scorn, and their anger, and their contempt.

Beyond that, being a drill sergeant means being cruel, and for most human beings, cruelty is part of our nature. Compassion, empathy, kindness, consideration... the notion that other people have feelings too that are just as important as ours... these are things that seem to be, for the most part, learned social responses and behaviors. Babies don't feel them, and a child who isn't taught to feel love and gentleness and kindness fairly early often won't learn at all. On the other hand, no one seems to need to teach even the youngest kids to be cruel and mean; that seems to be something that simply comes naturally. I suppose this is all a product of the essential and inescapable solitude and loneliness of the individual human condition, but whatever the case may be, the vast majority of human beings have cruelty and mean spiritedness somewhere within them... and when one is a drill sergeant, one is not merely allowed, but actually encouraged, to be an utterly evil prick. In fact, one is told that in this particular context, being an utterly evil prick is more than simply one's job, but one's duty, and that in fact, by being an utterly evil prick, one is not only serving the abstract concept of one's country and one's military branch, but you're also actually helping the poor schmucks you're being a complete bastard to.

I mean, you can't beat that deal with a stick... you get to be a total asswipe, all day, every day, to a bunch of hapless twits who are utterly dependent on you... and you get to feel proud of yourself for it, too.

The best drill sergeants I knew... Sgt. Dennis, Sgt. Aguirre, Sgt. Lozano... seemed to be able to rise above it, and although they certainly simulated uncaring brutality well, there was an ephemeral line I felt they never crossed, and I never got the feeling that they truly relished and reveled in their power to humiliate and their authority to degrade. Deep down inside them, I felt, they still retained a certain respect for the innate humanity and dignity of their charges. They did what they had to do, and I'm sure they felt justified in doing it; I have no doubt they thought it was their duty, and would someday even save the lives of some of the men they trained.

I'm sure the worst drill sergeants I saw there... Sgt. Robbins, a truly vicious prick in Fourth Platoon named Sgt. Collins, and others whose names I can't remember right now... told themselves the same things. But those guys also undeniably enjoyed their authority and they liked making people crawl in a way that Dennis, Aguirre, Lozano, and most likely Sgt. Laffey, our company's Senior Drill Sergeant, and Captain Lambert, our Company Commander, simply didn't have in them.

Yet enjoy it or not, a drill sergeants job was to establish and keep authority through brutality, an utter lack of empathy, and a constantly maintained façade of ferocious contempt and vitriolic hostility. In some, the façade was thinner than in others, but they all had to do it, and would do it, and did do it... otherwise, they wouldn't have been there.

All of which means that, if any induction sergeant early on in the process had had the capacity to clearly articulate what lay ahead for the group of saps and chumps he was in charge of for a few days of outfitting and initial orientation, he still most likely wouldn't... for the good and simple reason that it's terrifying. Basic Training is at its most fundamental level a season in hell, and a primary element of that hellish experience lies in the fact that the authority figures you are given no choice but to rely upon expend an enormous amount of energy behaving as if they not only don't care about you, but on many occasions, actually despise you and would like nothing better than to see you suffering or dead. And some of them mean it, too.

Much later, Sgt. Aguirre, who was a drill sergeant for Third Platoon, after I'd been through weeks of training, would confide to me in an off guard moment, "There's a reason for everything we do". While I doubt that that's true... or if there is, the reasons are things most drill sergeants don't even know... I'm sure that there is indeed a reason why drill sergeants are trained to behave at all times as if the only emotions they feel for the confused young men suddenly thrust into their care are scorn and disgust. In fact, I'm sure there are many reasons, some of which I've already mentioned. Nonetheless, it's a terrifying thing, to suddenly find yourself in an utterly alien place, surrounded by people you don't know, and where the authority figure you are forced to trust and rely on tells you every day, through explicit words and implicit behavior, that he thinks you're worthless and wishes you were dead.

To me, memory is rarely a linear thing for very long, but generally functions as an associative mosaic. Therefore, since I don't have anything like a journal from this time period, and have mercifully forgotten many details of my Basic Training, this account of my season in hell, undergoing Army Infantry Basic Training as a member of Second Platoon, Company C, Sixth Battalion, First Infantry Training Brigade, at Fort Benning, GA, will be meandering and disjointed, as I move from one topic to another, writing everything interesting I can think of on each. That's how I remember my time there; as a patchwork quilt of vivid images and emotional snapshots, and as a seemingly endless, suffocating nightmare. Hopefully, I'll be able to convey at least the essence of the experience to any readers this account may one day have.

One last note: the Army experience does not so much embrace profanity and vulgarity as it is simply immersed completely in it; words like 'fuck' and 'shit' and 'goddam' and various sexually charged insults like 'cocksucker' and 'motherfucker' are as inescapable in nearly every spoken sentence in Basic Training as they are in any fifth grade public school boy's lavatory. Therefore, I've chosen to include such language in this account. There may be members of my potential audience who will be shocked and even offended by this. If so, don't read any further.

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