Visualizing a Battlefield, Basic Training, and the Warrior Ethos

Kayla Williams, “How to Prepare for Deployment in Iraq” (Love My Rifle More Than You) – a list
Brian Turner, “What Every Soldier Should Know” (a poem)
(Anthony Swofford, Jarhead)

These are the pieces that discuss “Basic” training. Is it enough? What’s its purpose? [How] does it create the Warrior Ethos?

The Kayla Williams piece is my favorite, I think. I imagine this will be what many people pick, frankly, because it is short, readable, and poignant. But it’s painful. It reminds me of Lorrie Moore’s self-help because of the 2nd person POV, the instruction giving, but I presume this is non-fiction. A collection of essays (do research, check this out for sure??).

How does this inform me, my understanding of the war?

It seems satirical, but not in a polemical way. It’s sounds more like someone wanting to be seen, but too angry to be plaintive. Desperately snarky, without, necessarily, any hope that things will improve upon this lot. It’s clear that this is a woman, or involves a woman’s point of view because of the emphasis on gender imbalance and the vulnerability of nudity. (Not to say that a guy can’t be sensitive to a woman’s plight, but let’s just be really really honest about that… Also, technically the subtitle is “Young and Female in the U.S. Army.) I definitely can’t deny the dark humor in this, though. “For atmosphere.” “Just in case.” Those short sentences punch up the tension and call extra attention to the “dark” part of the dark humor. The emphasis on “proper” and “correct” are so at odds with what they describe.

Brian Turner, “What Every Soldier Should Know”

This seems like a solid comparison piece for Williams’s “How to…” because it, also, aims to prepare soldiers for what is essentially unprepare-able. The element of fun is gone in this one; it’s solemn. It also gets much more personal, pointing out the people with whom the soldier will be in conflict with, actually depicting those “enemies”. Yet, irony here, too, serves a purpose. “Stop or I’ll shoot” is less useful Arabic than “Good Morning,” and that order dictates a peaceable approach is necessary but not what we’re giving them. (This is also implied by Mirzoeff’s essay.)

The second stanza piqued my interest because it seems out of context (“Always enter a home with your right foot;/the left is for cemeteries and unclean places.) What other places do they enter? There is darkness in the layers of that line. If a soldier enters a home, is it for chai? Is it to search for a target and possibly kill? Will it still be a clean place? Or a cemetery? Does respecting a home with the right foot negate the ill borne, otherwise?

The emphasis on language and cultural understanding here crosses the line into the Other. Not especially deeply, but it examines how the soldier should be aware that he is in someone else’s domain, another culture. Despite how much I want to think this poem encourages crossing the border of us-them, it really carved out the fact that people would be trying to kill you, even the civilians wouldn’t frown if you died. So what is the point of that, I wonder? To try and get someone to hold the two contradictory ideas in their head? Should the soldier yield to that force and submit? Is that the meaning of the epigraph?

There’s nothing here that implies war is a good thing, not in any of these readings.

[Though I’m supposed to focus on no more than two, I would like to point out the stark difference in “preparation” that Williams gives compared to Swofford’s. Swofford definitely points out the fucked-upness of warfare and what it does to American soldiers, but he also doesn’t shy away from the drive for it, the desire for it that some soldiers felt. Is this because Williams is taking it from the perspective of a returned soldier, a warning? Because Swofford’s Jarheads are still green and don’t know what it will really be like? Swofford does imply that war is a good thing for some, by this excitement and fervor. There is a counterpoint, the almost voice-over like quality of the raconteur, however, that grounds us in a POV that is rueful and strained.]

All three of these pieces feel like they’re saying it’s impossible to prepare for this: Swofford because he shows his wrecked post-war self before showing how he and others actually prepared; Williams because the methods she outlines are outlandish and would be outrageous if performed in the U.S.; and Turner gives us a few phrases and asks us to fight off all the possible murders with those words. If this is how we prepare, they say, do you really want to go through with this? Are you prepared to live this way, to do these things? And they expect you to say, “No.”

Or do they? Swofford makes an interesting point. These seem anti-war, but are they anti-war to the soldiers who will go on? When I was younger, bootcamp–supposedly one of the great gatekeepers–was one of the most exciting things, something to look forward to. (That would get me onto the topics of the new mud race obstacle courses, though. Another blog post entirely.)