Friday, September 14, 2007

The Warmonger Within -- Part 1

The first thing I noticed about boot camp was the sterility. No garbage anywhere on the grounds; grass neatly cut, sidewalks trimmed; barracks painted bright white with no visible blemishes. Stepford clean, as were the drill sergeants in their pressed fatigues and mirror-shined boots, displaying erect postures and crisp gaits. The moment we trainees got off the bus, we were sucked directly into this sterile world, not making a single move without permission.

At first, I was startled and a little afraid. I was 19, and had never experienced such stark, aggressive conditions. And the drill sergeants were very aggressive from the start, in our faces, practically daring us to change our blank expressions. Eventually, they would let up, each establishing his own barking rhythm and pace. But for that first week, they were a solid wall of sound, breaking down our civilian minds and attitudes in preparation for years of receiving and executing orders.

Once I got past the initial shock of wondering why in hell I enlisted, I began to really enjoy Army life. Even the 4:30 AM two-mile run before chow didn't faze me. I loved feeling my body gaining strength and stamina; and I repeated with gusto the various cadences our drill sergeants yelled out to keep us all in sync, whether we were running or marching:

I wanna be an Airborne Ranger
I wanna live a life of danger
I wanna go to Vietnam
I wanna kill some commie scum

Those last two lines perplexed me ("commie scum" was sometimes "Charlie scum"), since the Vietnam war had ended a few years before. But 'Nam was still very much in the air, since many of our drill sergeants were combat vets of that imperial assault. Still, I shouted that I, too, wanted to go to Vietnam and kill commie scum. The whole thing electrified me. I was definitely into being a soldier.

As basic training went on, I sank deeper into my new persona. I became proficient with the M-16 and M-60 machine guns. I loved firing LAWs and throwing live grenades. Even when we were exposed to tear gas without masks, I enjoyed the burning in my eyes, nostrils, and mouth, and there was a contest between a handful of us to see who could hold out longest before throwing up, which many of us did. All the while, our drill sergeants pushed us, encouraged us, made us feel like warriors. It was a real high.

I can see why taking this and more specialized training into an actual war zone would bond you with your fellow soldiers. I wouldn't call it brainwashing, but it's awfully close. For us, however, there was no war waiting on the other end of basic. Yet, we trained for one anyway, complete with bivouac and night maneuvers. During one night patrol, which came around 2 AM, our unit crept outside of a mock Vietnamese village leftover from the war period, looking for enemy movement. We were in a dense wood, slowly advancing, when I hit a trip wire.

"Private Perrin," my drill sergeant said, "you are now a casualty of war."

"What happened, drill sergeant?"

"That trip wire is connected to a claymore mine, which has just blown your chest open. You are dead."

My afterlife was a waiting area near our camp, standing around with other dead soldiers from different patrols. I was pissed off and embarrassed to have died. I didn't even get a chance to fire my weapon! It was all very frustrating.

The remainder of boot camp was a downhill run. (It was funny to see new recruits come into camp, their nervous postures and expressions a reminder of our first days.) As we neared graduation and our individual paths to active duty, we were Total Army all the way. I got to know one of my drill sergeants a bit more personally, a guy who trained with 101st Rangers and could climb a rope faster than any human I've ever seen. He was a recovering alcoholic and bar room brawler who found solace and direction in the Army, his one regret being that he enlisted too late to fight in Vietnam, and he clearly desired a war of his own. He predicted (hoped) that Cuba would be the next front, and mentioned a few countries in Central America that I had never heard of, one of which, Nicaragua, had just experienced a leftist revolution. He was direct, to the point, honest. He suggested that I become an officer, that I would do much better there than as a mere enlisted non-com. I was flattered, but didn't see myself wearing bars. Still, I liked him, and it was he who taught me how to shoot. I'm still a pretty good shot, which I say not to brag, but to show how those lessons remain over a quarter century later. He was perhaps my first real mentor. I never saw him again after graduation.

The fist-pumping, chest-thumping pride I felt as an active duty soldier dissipated over time. Thanks to the direct exposure I had to officers from various U.S. client states at a training school where I worked, my young mind was slowly opened to what was really going on in Central America. There were Honduran officers who casually joked about killing insurgents and the peasants who housed them. The same was true of Salvadoran officers. Since we were all on the "same side," they felt no reason to candy-coat the mass killing and repression that was then underway in that region, and their desire to murder anyone they deemed communist had a delayed but very serious effect on me. That's when I began reading about Central America. And the more I read (from sources across the political divide), the more I lost that militarist feeling. When my enlistment ended, I left the Army, moved to New York, and dove deeper into leftwing politics.

Somewhere, that young, gung-ho soldier remained in me. I would see him from time to time, in my dreams, in random thoughts, standing at attention on a busy Manhattan street corner, looking directly at me before vanishing into the crowd. He's in me today. But his most dramatic appearance came a few months after 9/11, when my beloved New York was attacked. I was living in Michigan by then, yet geographical distance didn't matter. I knew too much about the city for that terror attack to be an abstraction, plus, I had a few friends who were directly affected by the Towers' collapse. So it was extremely personal, and before long, that young soldier fully re-emerged. He not only wanted war, he wanted it to be punishing, cruel, merciless. He wanted it for his adopted home town, where he became an adult. He wanted it for his old drill sergeant, who missed out on Vietnam. His outer-body was too old to personally fight, but inside, he was picking off jihadists and laughing at their demise. It all came back, like it was yesterday. The insanity began.

NEXT: Afghanistan, my lefty friends, Hitchens, and near-support for the Iraq invasion.