Here's a cliche that pops up during conversations about military boot camp: "It may seem bad, but they're only breaking you down so they can build you back up."
Just typing that almost makes the top of my head blow off.
Who died and made the Defense Department a destroyer of selves and creator of
new ones? I speak as someone who went through this gross transfiguration. Am I
speaking as the me that has been built back up? Or as the me that was broken
down, but never built back up?
Or did I emerge unscathed from the crucible, my old self intact, so that I alone survived to tell you? I hope, by carefully examining my remaining memories of basic training, this narrative will answer that question.
From a reasonable point of view (a peculiar angle from which to discuss this topic), basic training would be, first, the State's first opportunity to thank you for your sacrifice, including the timeworn, euphemistic "ultimate sacrifice."
The State would convey its gratitude by making sure you were treated with the dignity you deserve and that your health -- both mental and physical -- was their highest concern.
From there It would prepare you for winning whatever war it had currently gotten itself into. There would be no time for anything else, not when our nation's freedom is at risk. And if you survived your service, the State would treat you like royalty upon your return, regardless of the physical and/or emotional damage you suffered on its behalf -- and that treatment would go beyond dishing out empty praise during political speeches.
But I found out the State isn't quite that thoughtful.
Here's how basic training (hereafter "boot camp") welcomed me to America's largest fraternity (Sorry! No Greek letters on your fatigues!) and helped me do my part to win the Vietnam War, ensuring that the Viet Cong would not ultimately be popping up in the cornfields of Iowa.
(We weren't ladies, actually.)
Then we had only a few minutes (fifteen, I believe), to cram ourselves into a shower with 49 other guys, shave, evacuate our bowels (sort of in unison, as it turns out), put on our fatigues according to regulation, then clean and store our toiletries.
The war effort was further aided by our marching to the chow hall and, while waiting in line, practicing our saluting in front of a mirrored wall, while our training instructor (aka "TI," same as an Army drill instructor) yelled helpful profanity-laced tips directly into our ears.
We witnessed warm camaraderie and esprit de corps when our TI would cross paths with another flight's TI. Our guy would say to the other, for example, "Fuck you, Sgt. Hempson," to which Sgt. Hempson would reply, "It'd be the best piece of ass you ever had!"
We were yelled at as we received our food trays. The airmen filling those trays were only a few weeks farther along than we were, but they took great pleasure in luring us into talking so we'd get yelled at some more. For example, "Mornin,' airman. Where ya from?" Me, like an idiot: "Florida." My TI: "WHO THE FUCK IS TALKING IN THIS GODDAMN CHOW LINE?"
During one breakfast, I learned why many young men decided to serve their country even in wartime, even if they weren't drafted.
Nathan, a scrawny black kid from one of Philly's poverty pits, once told us while we were complaining about the shitty Air Force food, “What you fussin' about? This the first time in my life I ever had three squares a day.”
Some of my other flight members had never been to a dentist or optometrist. So they decided to risk Vietnam in order to savor, for a while at least, a better life in the land of opportunity.
I learned that immaculate, fussy tidiness was crucial in winning the Vietnam War. From time to time, our TI would surprise us with an inspection:
Here are some things he inspected:
Did our buttons, our shiny belt buckle and our zipper all line up perfectly? If
not we got "gigged" (a gig was like a demerit and after a certain
number of them, you'd eventually catch some sort of hell), hence those three
perfectly aligned things were called the "gig line."
Could you bounce a quarter off your freshly made bunk? And were there 45-degree hospital corners where the linen was tucked in? Just to be sure, the inspector would actually bring a protractor.
Were your shirts and underwear folded in such a way their width was exactly 6 inches? The inspector brought measuring tape.
Was there any hair or leftover soap suds on your soap bar or soap dish or on the blade of your razor?
About that last one: We strongly suspected that our first drill sergeant, a weary Nam vet named Tech Sgt. King, told our flight leader to put all our used toiletries in the ceiling and keep only the unused spotless ones in our foot locker.
Our flight leader, a gung-ho former hippie named Zacchaeus Richardson who thought he was in a WWII movie, never admitted that King gave him that advice, but he must've done. Of course, this made it even more obvious that the whole show was a sadistic game, signifying nothing.
If anyone consistently failed these inspections, not only did he catch all sorts of shit from the TI, but the TI would say to the rest of us, "You better get this maggot's shit in working order or you're all gonna pay for it."
This leads us to two additional features of basic training: the blanket party and the Section 8: The first, perfectly depicted here (can't believe it begins with a L'Oreal commercial), was a harsh form of physical punishment administered by the airmen to one of their under-performing brothers.
Everyone had to agree to it, so no one could snitch with impunity.This, of course, helped us bond with our brothers-in-arms the way we would need to bond in combat, while simultaneously, like barnyard chickens, pecking the weak ones to death.
Let the reader decide whether this was tearing
us down or building us back up.
There was a blanket party in my flight, but I wasn't invited because it took place in the other bay (in our dorm, each flight was divided into two squads separated by a cinder-block wall that reached almost to the ceiling. Twenty-five of us were on one side, the same amount on the other). This particular assault aimed not to correct a messy gig-magnet but a compulsive masturbator or chicken-choker or yank-cranker or willy-whacker or the oddly alliterative and tautological onanising your ownanism, or whatever term you find most tasteful.
Even from our side of the wall, we could hear the appropriately named Johnson's cot start squeaking shortly after lights-out as he began methodically jerking off, and then we could hear his bay mates, first humanely pleading, then yelling insistently that he "leave [his] fucking pecker alone and let [them] get some sleep!"
But the kid continued his intense romantic relationship with his imaginary lover for about a week before his bay-mates blanket-partied him so fiercely that his libido shrunk to the size of a dehydrated blueberry.
Later, the men in white coats came to take him away, and Johnson got the Section 8 he was pulling for and was sent back home to practice his art in the privacy of his own room or to find some other creative outlet for his relentless urge to purge.
(New lesson from that: When the enemy is firing away at you, you don't want to be caught with your pants down. And another: Sublimate your autoerotic impulses into rage against the North Vietnamese.)
So I'm not sure Johnson was either broken down or built up or neither.
And speaking of Johnson, what a meat grinder we were all being forced through those first few weeks. Probably nuns go through this, or used to anyway, when they marry Jesus and are forced to give up their birth names and all the experiences attached to those names. We wondered sometimes if our pre-boot-camp lives, before this new Mother had abducted us, were merely false memories our brain tantalized us with in order to increase our present suffering.
All of us could echo Charles from John Fowles' French Lieutenant's Woman, "I am infinitely strange to myself." I could neither recognize nor understand my reflection in the mirror. Whoever I saw in there, I didn't like him.
Some nights, after lights out, when not immediately overcome with fatigue, I would look at the red EXIT light at the end of the barracks and reflect that within just a few weeks, I had gone from being the almost-hippie editor of a college newspaper, a careless, goofy, naïve student living at home, happily wasting time and skipping class to play basketball; and from there to being a newlywed living in an attic apartment in Lake City and owning my first car, a slate-blue ‘63 Ford Galaxy 500 that always ran hot, and having my first grownup job – a writer for the Lake City Reporter – yes, had gone from all those simple songs of innocence to this concrete inferno, my hair shorn, my wife 1200 miles away, my freedom gone, and a deranged drill sergeant for a mentor.
Adam, Eve and Mr. Hyde
There is some irony, surely lost on the creators of basic-training hazing, that a major part of their "breaking us down" consisted of making us less messy, more neat, more obsessive about tidiness, more fussy and more delicate about our surroundings, more likely to strive for a clean and orderly . .
Wait a second! That sounds like conventional woman's work. Watch any Japanese movie, and you can see this in action when the tired businessman husband comes home, takes off his clothes and drops them on the floor for his wife to pick up, then brusquely orders her to "start my bath," while he settles himself on a tatami mat and torches up a cigarette. Or watch Mad Men! Or most families today!
According to the indisputable codes of the Universal Sex and Gender Role Department of Conventions (USGRDC), men are naturally messy unless they are Felix from The Odd Couple or they just don't give a damn if they stray from the conventional image of masculinity.
So during those dainty white-glove inspections, the State was breaking down the sloppy male, while building up the Martha Stewart within. We would assault our enemies with brooms, dusters, mops, buffers, measuring tapes and protractors!
The American military obviously derived this transformative process from two models: The Book of Genesis and Robert Louis Stevenson's Dr.Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. In Genesis' second version of the creation, the "Lord God took one of [Adam's] ribs, and closed up the flesh instead thereof; And the rib, which the Lord God had taken from man, made he a woman."
In boot camp, the TIs reached into our chaotic, unfocused, unsanitary maleness, then extracted a rib from which they made a separate, more feminine being, someone punctilious enough to create hospital corners, keep hair off his razor, and fold his State-issued white boxers with a 6-inch width.
Likewise, our bellicose superiors understood, like Dr. Jekyll, that the good man must have his bad side removed, separated, so that virtue might be unencumbered by the temptations of the flesh, while the sinful shadow may go on about his savage earthly pursuits without an endless nagging conscience to dilute his pleasure.
Some time after the State began plagiarizing this paradigm, some confusion arose.
Once they had turned Adam's rib into a woman, they killed her. Every single insult hurled our way in boot camp either expressed contempt for what was perceived as effeminate or included a variety of obscene terms for female genitalia.
To see this mis-homoerotic,* misogynistic routine depicted artfully and accurately, take another look at Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. The cold, stark, deep-focused, symmetrical first half is not only the best depiction of boot camp on film, but a veritable orgy of verbal cannonballs smashing down the gates of femininity. This all-out assault on the Woman, of course, is what makes its ending, ass deep in irony, so satisfying.
I admit that I was once directly affected by such language. The end of boot camp was only a couple of weeks away, but I was about to hit a psychological wall, meaning the madness was threatening to overwhelm me. I was talking to my friend Miller (who referred to himself as a "Chinese brother") and I asked him if he sometimes felt this was all too much.
He was sitting on the stairwell in our dorm spit-shining his combat boots. I
was leaning against the railing next to him. Not looking up at me, but rather
looking for his reflection in his boot, he said, "Are you shitting me?
This is a pussy outfit. This ain't nothing. This is easy."
He was so certain of this that I believed him, and I cruised through the remainder of my time in that foul Texas armpit. I was not a pussy. Maybe Miller helped me see that the Air Force had succeeded in its mission to "kill the Woman within."
And they did it by first removing the female rib from my side, then beating the living shit out of me with it.
And when the State furtively laced our chow with Jekyll's potion, our broken down best selves were indeed separated from our worst, and the Air Force kept the latter, kept the weed, not the flower; built it up, watered it with degradation, intimidation and humiliation, fertilized it with mountains upon mountains of bullshit, and our now purely masculine selves, free from desires for kindness, compassion or nurturing, were clothed in the armor of war.
That was the plan, anyway.