149. Boot Camp

It’s Armed Forces Week again, that time of year when any questioning of the military is taken as a slap at servicemen or veterans. Citizens who have the temerity to say, “Wait a minute, let’s talk this over,” are seen as unpatriotic. When I was in the military, those people were called commie-pinko wimps. I was one of them, but they drafted me anyway. I’ve told that story in 42. The Other Veterans. I also told the flip side of the story in 43. S. L. goes to War and 44. S. L. in Occupation, which detail my father’s WW II experiences. There are times when a man has to stand up and defend his country. There are also times when a man has to stand up and tell his country to back off.

The military has no use for patriots, because patriots think for themselves. In combat, a soldier who shouts, “We must not do this,” is likely to get himself and his teammates killed. He has to go on, following orders.

So how do we turn patriots into yes-men? Boot camp. That’s what it’s there for.

Boot camp is not seen as something important, or morally debilitating. And, I suppose, compared the things that happen later in the field, it isn’t that important. But . . . without boot camp to turn patriots into soldiers, those later events could never happen.

This isn’t about me. I went through boot camp in neutral mode, observing, remembering, and trying not to feel. I wan’t always successful, but I was successful enough to survive intact. I was changed, of course, but by my own experiences, not by pre-programmed manipulations.

This also isn’t about the eighteen year old children who made up most of the recruits, who were eager to follow the path their elders had set, and ready to go over and kick some commie ass. This is about one young man, and those he represents. He came into boot camp a patriot, ready to serve his country, full of love and compassion, but ready to do his duty. They broke him. I can still see him standing in the barracks before lights out, talking to his friends, saying, “This isn’t right. I joined up to fight for my country. Why are they treating us like this?” His friends laughed at him and told him that this was nothing, it was just getting him ready for what was to come.

It wasn’t nothing, but it was getting ready for his life to come. That was the point.

I never talked to him. There was nothing I could say. He was learning in front of my eyes what I had learned years before, at other hands, under other circumstances. But I never forgot him.

Boot camp is what in Anthropology we call a liminal experience, one that tears down an old identity in order to build a new one. The folks at boot camp are really good at this, even in mild boot camps like the one I experienced at the San Diego Naval Training Center. We could see the real thing across the fence at the Marine boot camp, and we thanked God every day that we weren’t Marines. While I was there, a Marine recruit who could no longer take the daily abuse ran off and stowed away on a jet liner at the civilian airport just over the fence. Hours later the jet landed at his home town on the east coast and he fell out of the wheel well, frozen, asphyxiated and dead. The Marines said good riddance. We worms (as Navy recruits are called) laughed. Learning to laugh at the death of others is part of the boot camp experience.

It was all choreographed indignation, play-acting inflicted onto a captive audience. They said that if we didn’t keep our barracks clean enough or our socks rolled tightly enough, the Trouble Shooters would come.

“You worms have been given socks to roll! That’s all we trust you with now! How can we trust you with nuclear bombs once you’re on an aircraft carrier if you can’t roll socks now!”  Every word was delivered at a shout.

Of course, the Trouble Shooters came. They always do. They came in the night, screaming in manufactured rage and tearing the barracks apart while we stood at attention in our shorts at the foot of each bed.

Near-naked, helpless, frightened into immobility, knowing that the only way to survive was to  let the insanity happen. Civilian identities dying; new, military identities growing.

The making of a Navyman. You could put it on a poster.


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