I keep trying to figure out what possessed me to join the military in the first
place. I guess I was drawn to the idea of being part of a group, belonging. I
wanted to be a part of what soldiers feel toward each other. When I got to boot
camp, I figured out that war is all a game, and mastering it became the greatest
escape of my life. I no longer had to be stuck being the same person every day.
It was all like a play, with the drill sergeant as an acting coach. I would wake
up in the morning on my cot, wiggle my toes, and there I was, the same old me.
Then Drill Sergeant Ballard would walk in wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses
to look like the Terminator, screaming, "Get the hell out of bed and into the
pit." As I did push-ups in the mud day after day, living out my drill's torture
fantasies, I would think about how great it was to escape from myself: no more
unpaid bills, dead-end desk jobs, family obligations. I was free! I was an American
soldier, the greatest acting role I had ever been cast to play. And I got to play
it over and over again. That's what I thought.
Survival and escape
. My private life at the time was, to paraphrase the army's slogan, "a disaster
of one." All of us who fell for the trap had what we thought were reasons. But
the reasons behind the reasons are another story about power and men, and finally
about being so goddamn young that the military looks like a home when it's really
a cage. Then someone leaked to Drill Sergeant Ballard that I was claustrophobic.
"I went to SERES, Private. I know just what you need." That's Survival, Evasion,
Resistance and Escape School, where they treat you like a POW in German and Japanese
prison camps for a week. It's like the dreaded Room 101 in George Orwell's 1984,
a torture room where one's worst fears are made real. During your incarceration,
they try to break you down by using a variety of torture techniques: sleep deprivation,
forced standing, choking in water, solitary confinement, humiliation, etc. It's
the "etcetera" that had me sweating.
Drill Sergeant Ballard's "claustrophobia remedy" involved stuffing the entire
platoon "nut to butt" into a medic transport truck that locked from the outside.
He proceeded to drive the truck around and around in circles. When he got tired
of that he stopped the truck, climbed on top and jumped up and down on the roof.
I lay between two privates in fetal position with my eyes closed. Mortified. I
don't know what the hell we were supposed to gain from his guerrilla psychotherapy
exercise, but it failed to cure my affliction. Standin’ tall and lookin’ good.
I should be in Hollywood. After basic, I was trained as an army propagandist.
I learned how to design "battlefield advertising" leaflets that we drop from planes,
gather intelligence from POWs and use a loudspeaker. All through training I was
looking forward to the day I would get deployed and do my job for real. This was
during peacekeeping time, when Bosnia and Kosovo were the deployments. Our job
"in country" was to flex our military muscle to keep the peace, educate kids about
land mines and fix roads. It was very Peace Corps-esque but with more perks: a
signing bonus, student loan repayment and the GI Bill.
I used to drive a Cavalier, now I’m humping all this gear.
Now I know that the army is a two-headed beast: Nation Builder/Death Machine.
The high school kids scraped up to feed the monster only find out the truth too
late. What I really did when I signed up was to put my Social Security number
into a lottery system. The winners are the ones who use the army for the benefits,
do their time and get out without permanent mental or bodily harm. The losers
are those whose numbers are called, who ship out and are killed or permanently
wounded for something they don't even understand or believe in. The grunts and
the dog-faces on the killing ground are like the ants trapped in my maze. They
may think that God and the Flag are over them, but it's only fear that fills the
sky. Still humming, I pull into a free parking space at Mailboxes Etc. I keep
searching for a lost Houdini chapter on draft dodging, but I know it doesn't exist.
There's no escape. I guess it's inevitable that the ants will get their revenge
and I'll be dropped inside the death maze, where I'll be at the mercy of a giant
superpower child that tries in vain to spread freedom by raising its huge fist
and then dropping the death blows of Shock And Awe on the sandbox of the world.
I turn the key to the box and find bills, student loan consolidation offers, a
Costco newsletter and a Pottery Barn catalogue. Phew. Looks like I've got another
week to plan my escape.