open letter home

This entry contains extremely disturbing and graphic language. Use caution, and if you find yourself offended, please stop reading.

You have asked me to take notes. I had assumed this would be almost entirely electronic, but my assault pack is now packed in such a way, with the computer locked in the Pelican case and various bits of charger tucked into every odd nook and corner, that the idea of putting it all back together frankly wearies me. I am writing on a yellow legal pad, in a noisy hangar full of bored, overfed soldiers. We have been here for hours — our flight has been delayed because of mechanical problems, and a team was dispatched to Seattle during rush hour to get the needed part. No one expects it to arrive anytime soon, and supposedly the commander has ordered pizza for 500, but the USO has been providing sandwiches and hot dogs, and there is an unlimited supply of free Girl Scout cookies. Out of boredom I’ve already eaten a box and a half.

The night before we leave, Andy’s shaving his head in the latrine. I’ve just come back from Feast. I help him get the back, though his clippers are shitty and broken and I’m afraid I’m going to cut his scalp. Afterward, when he’s cleaning the clippers, I say, “Wanna see something cool?”

I pull the ring box out of my pocket and open it. The face of the ring is suprisingly large, an oval of white enamel over an inch across, lettered in gold:

قد بدئت من الله
ورجعت اليه منقطاً
عما سواه ومتمسكاً باسمه
الرحمان الرحيم

which means, in my own translation,

I have begun with God
and I return unto him, detached
from everything save Him, clinging to His name,
the Merciful, the Compassionate.

“It’s a Baha’i burial ring,” I say. “I got it at Feast.”

He looks it over and chuckles. “Thanks, guys….”

“No, no,” I say — “I bought it myself.”

Andy shrugs and hands me the ring back.

“I’m looking at this deployment mythologically,” I say. “As a journey into the underworld. You go and hopefully you come back, too, but symbolically you have to prepare for death.”

“Okay,” he says, and gets into the shower.

Marching from the squadron HQ to the motor pool where we’re catching the bus to the airport, some soldier starts singing:

“M-I-C… K-E-Y…”

And someone else chimes in:


The first guy says thoughtfully, “Whenever we’re marching with our weapons, I always think of that scene.”

Full Metal Jacket?”


The scene is at the end of the movie. The Marines, after killing a wounded teenage sniper in revenge for her bloody work, hump it slowly back through a ruined and burning landscape. They sing the Mickey Mouse Club theme, neither to cheer themselves up nor out of any sense of irony, but just because it’s the first song to pop into someone’s head.

The story we hear over and over again on our way to Kuwait:

Some soldier, part of a colonel’s personal security detail, had his vehicle searched at a checkpoint in Kuwait, and a female MP found his copy of Maxim. Now he’s spending 18 months in stir. So if you’ve got any porn, or any “men’s magazines,” get rid of them now.

I don’t know if this story is true; our first sergeant claims this was just a few weeks ago, but then there’s the story everyone hears in Basic — and this always happened “last cycle” — about the female soldier who froze up with a live grenade in her hand and the drill sergeant having to break her hand to get her to let go of it.

If the Maxim story is a fiction — a boogeyman story to keep privates in line, or at least clever about hiding their porn — it’s a well-crafted fiction. Almost every element works to maximize the overall effect: the soldier was traveling with a colonel (proximity to rank won’t help you), the vehicle was searched at random (searches are happening all the time and you can’t avoid them), it was a female MP who found it (women in the military aren’t quite your friends, and they’ll dime you out for acting like a man), it was Maxim that caused the incident (it doesn’t have to be porn, per se — anything sexy could get you in trouble), the guy got 18 months (they completely overreact here, and we can’t help you). Every aspect encourages maximum paranoia and, perhaps not incidentally, a high level of adolescent sexual guilt.

But if the story is true, the military is sending completely mixed messages, because the PXs in Kuwait sell not only Maxim and Stuff but things that look an awful lot like plain old porn, too. There’s some debate about this — one member of our platoon maintains that there’s no “actual nudity” in these magazines; Maxim minus the articles. But at this point we’re surely splitting hairs; on the cover of a magazine called Coco, a woman with her back to us spreads her legs exactly 180 degrees, pushing her buttocks together, and only a tiny, electric blue lace thong saves us from “actual nudity.”

It’s too easy to hate soldiers. You as a civilian can appreciate what it does to your opinion of soldiers when a few assholes decide to make naked detainee pyramids, or to cover up rape and murder. You can’t help but wonder what kind of degenerates our volunteer system has dredged up — how many people have joined the Army or the Marine Corps to obtain a license for their brutality?

And you don’t even live with them. Every time or some fool smashes liquor bottles in the parking lot or steals clothes from the laundry room it eats into my belief in the nobility and dignity of soldiers. You can see why our ancestors made sure they couldn’t be forced to quarter troops; soldiers are sacred overseas, but noisome thugs at home.

But both of these are examples of the Port-o-Potty Problem of Perception.

The American camp in Kuwait is miles out into the desert, far from the ocean or any oasis. Water must be trucked in and, correspondingly, waste must be trucked out. There are a few sit-down toilets, but mostly, we use port-o-potties. Soldiers generally only spend a few weeks in Kuwait, so perhaps they feel a need to leave their mark, but the graffiti in the toilets is multifarious, fascinating, and depressing. In particular, it offers some worrying insights into sex relations in the military, or at least in the minds of soldiers.

To be fair, there’s quite a variety. Some sexual graffiti is polite and generous in its construction, if not its actual language:

Females — please give everybody blowjobs or handjobs and a reacharound.

(Although either he doesn’t know what a reacharound is, or I don’t.)

Other writings seem deliberately hurtful:

What will you do when we go back home and you’re ugly again?

The majority are some combination of lewd and vicious. But this is the one that made my blood cold:

If I find you
I will rape you
I will cut off your tits
I will put bugs in your asshole
I will pee in your pussy
I will put my shit in your mouth

Not to go all Silence of the Lambs dimestore psychoanalytic about this, but why, in a neatly printed poem of unbelievable sadism, full of foul language, does he scruple at the word piss? Why the childish “pee”? I think in some way he must still be in awe of the vagina, afraid to go too far in threatening it, in a way that he is not afraid to threaten the other body parts.

To be fair, other soldiers had scribbled over this things like “I will kill this asshole — God” and “This faggot needs to die.” But I still find it frightening and repulsive that these are the people I work with. Somewhere out there, in my Army, is a tit-cutting, mouth-shitting sadist.

Other graffiti is disappointing for different reasons. Not long after we landed, this showed up in one of the port-o-potties right by our tent:

M________, your so hot I want to fuck you in your tight ass pussy. Mmmmm….

I know the girl he names, if only by sight, and she’s in the MI company, which means, if he’s been harboring this fantasy, he’s probably in military intelligence, too, or at least works with them. And I found myself, not just irritated by the crudity directed at someone I actually know, but profoundly saddened that one of my MI brethren didn’t know the difference between “your” and “you’re.”

But it’s interesting that all these graffiti are written in the second person — they’re clearly intended to be read by a specific audience, often female. And there’s a tremendous amount of begging for sex, some of it kind of sad:

Are there any females who give handjobs?

And underneath that, cruelty:

Yes, but not to you.

One of my favorites, for its sheer desperation, is actually between two men:

I love cock in me.

Me too. Want to get together? Leave a time and place.

2100 Nov 3, here.

Nov 6

Nov 7

Stand on the left hand side of this latrine.

Nov 10

Nov 11

Nov 13


You can come away from these reading sessions depressed by the state of our young men in uniform. (For brevity, I haven’t even gotten into the racial stuff.) But I think this is a problem of self-selection; the people who are thuggish and nasty towards women are, perhaps, also people who think nothing of defacing a public toilet, and who think other people ought to be exposed to what goes on in their minds. Or, to put it another way, all the people out there in the armed forces who are thinking noble and uplifting thoughts are generally the people who also think it’s rude to write on walls.

Sure there’s the guy who wrote some of the St. Crispin’s Day speech next to the toilet (presumably that’s not the kind of thing you have time to think of on the urinal side), but he’s the exception. The vastest majority of port-o-potty graffiti is straight up mean, and almost all the rest is at best neutral (Chuck Norris jokes, drawings of naked women and sometimes men).

In this, perhaps, Nixon was right. There is a silent majority. The vast, great majority who do not commit atrocities, who do not steal or litter or deal drugs from their training room, and who do not write vicious things about women in the port-o-potty. Perhaps it is even easier for you on the outside, who don’t live with the rotten few, to see this. Myself, I find I often need reminding.

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2 Responses to open letter home

  1. Pingback: how i became a socialist and signed up to fight communism in the same week « Fighting Commies For Health Insurance!

  2. Pingback: more about fighting commies, less about health insurance! « Fighting Commies For Health Insurance!

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