Dare to Tell – Day 38
It was November 1976. I had been sent to the coveted Tank Commander’s Course. I had been in the army for one year and this was my first chance to rise above the role of basic soldier.
It’s a difficult course. We had to learn each of the four jobs on the tank. We needed to be able to command the tank but also understand each of the jobs required to run the vehicle.
We were a group of between 20 to 30 soldiers. Our schedule was very full. It didn’t take long for me to recognize that I didn’t like the way I was being treated. We were clearly very small screws in a large machine. The behavior towards us upset me from the first day. It was like basic training all over again; discipline was more important than anything.
Guard duty was one of our tasks. We were 6 or 8 soldiers and we needed to stand guard in several booths around the army base. We had a special place where we could sleep when we were not on duty. We were the first level of response so we had everything ready just in case.
I had just returned from guard duty and found that my sleeping bag had disappeared. I quickly took the one from the bed beside. Later, that one disappeared too. I did a quick scan around the other tent until I found another sleeping bag and grabbed it. I ran back to my room, scratched out the name that was written there and wrote mine instead.
I was sitting on my bed when I heard someone outside looking for his sleeping bag. He was shouting around asking if anyone had seen it. It was on my bed, with my name on it.
Theft became the norm. There was no place for values, these were the rules.
It was a system that humiliates people. It was supposed to be a course to train commanders; a place where you get respect for being the best, for being chosen for the role. Instead there was more and more humiliation.
Two thirds of the way through the program we were told that the head of the company was due to visit. We were sitting on the ground in rows. He arrived and stood at the front.
How are you? He asked. There was no response. Nobody said anything.
I heard my name being called. I was to stand up. Speak, I was told.
I said, ‘commander, I want to tell you that I’m very disappointed. This is like a boot-camp, just another basic training session. We are not being given the opportunity to practice leadership. We are not being given the chance to demonstrate our knowledge and abilities.
I sat down. There was complete silence.
The backfire to this incident happened a few months later. I was told that I could only be put on standby for the Officer’s course that I had set my heart on. All the others were chosen first but my attitude had held me back.
During the course we were responsible for the tank equipment. It was an impossible task. As we got each tank ready we would get whatever equipment was necessary from where ever we could. There was no way to keep track. Anyone found without the equipment that they had been assigned would be arrested and brought to trial.
I sat across from the warehouse official. He went through the list and pointed out the items that were missing. He asked me where they were. I said nothing but reached into my pocket and took out my Parker pen. It wasn’t much but it was all I had. I offered it to him. He looked at it and then put it in his pocket. He assured me that in my case there would be no trial.
It was a rotten system. I was ashamed of my behavior, the acts that ensured my survival. During one of my vacation breaks, I went to a senior army official. I told him how I felt about the constant humiliation, the lack of decency and honesty, the dehumanization of the soldiers. He told me “We all do what we have to do.”
The army taught me to lie and steal.
It’s a kind of regression, you have to become a child again, where you work on instinct, you have no other choice. To turn a person in to a soldier, there can be no free will. The dehumanization may be necessary.
I went through the system; I even tried to improve it. As an officer I went back to the same company and I told my trainees that they would be respected and treated like commanders but that they would also have to prove themselves. I saw that something changed. I was determined to prevent them experiencing what I had gone through.
My children did not serve in the army. They are involved in social projects that are the seed of real change in this country. I admire and support them. It’s a kind of evolution; a move towards co-operation and partnership. This can be the only viable future.