I grew up on a steady diet of "Commando" comics, from which I learnt most of the German I know today. "Gott in Himmel!" "Kammerad!" "Achtung! Englander!" (it wasn't until recently that I discovered that an Englander is a sort of adjustable spanner -- I'm not sure why all those German soldiers were so alarmed about the sight of them. Just not mechanically inclined, I guess.) About the time I hit puberty, my best friend (several years older than me) joined the Territorials, and entertained me with stories of pranks, drunken debauchery, and explosions. The idea of becoming a soldier, even (or especially) a part-time soldier, began to look quite appealing to my tiny hormone-ridden brain. "Cool!" I thought to myself. "You not only get to play with guns and bombs and stuff, you even get paid for it! What a life!"
I joined the Territorial Infantry late in 1979, shortly before turning 18, and underwent a gruelling battery of intelligence and aptitude tests to determine my fitness to serve. Cunning trick questions like "What is your name?" and "How many fingers am I holding up" weeded out lesser mortals, ensuring that only the best and brightest would form the core of New Zealand's fearsome fighting machine. A stringent medical examination determined that I was neither dead nor a cripple, and then all that remained was to wait for the notice which would confirm my induction into the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. (Fanfare!)
All that remained was to wait for the notice which would confirm my induction into the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. (Slightly apathetic, off-key fanfare)
All that still remained was to wait for the notice which would confirm my induction into the Royal New Zealand Infantry Regiment. (One kazoo hums something which might be a fanfare)
After a couple of months, nothing had arrived and I was beginning to become despondent. I got a job at a local primary school, managing the library: a position of immense responsibility for which I was paid the princely sum of $85 per week. The job required (among other things) that I ring the bells for the change of class on time, and thread a film projector successfully at least three times out of five without breaking it or electrocuting anybody. I was also landed with the task of teaching several kids how to read. They'd been labelled "remedial readers", because they failed to respond to standard classroom teaching techniques, but as far as I could see the problem was motivational rather than intellectual, and once they were introduced to the idea that you could read about cool stuff like trucks and rockets and bloodthirsty murderers instead of lame books about a couple of wussy kids taking their dog to the park, they got along fine. I don't know how they fared in the end, because at long last my induction notice arrived and I was whisked off in a snot-green army bus to Sunny Waiouru, the Garden Spot of New Zealand, and home of New Zealand's Army Training Centre.
We arrived on a grey afternoon to be greeted by earsplitting bellowing from a group of jungle-green-clad australopithecines who, having been lumped with the responsibility of turning us into soldiers, took revenge on us by making every facet of our lives as miserable as possible from that point on. They followed standard army training procedures from the word "go", carefully selecting scapegoats and then blaming them for their brutal treatment of the rest of us. We responded like Pavlov's dogs of course; they'd been doing this for quite a while and knew exactly which buttons to push. After being informed in no uncertain terms that we were the lowest scum on the planet, worth less than the dogshit scraped off a real soldier's boots, we were marched (well, shuffled really) off to our respective barracks to dump our gear. I began to think that perhaps I had made a mistake.
Immediately thereafter, we were shuffled off to be issued with our uniforms. The quartermasters measured just about every portion of our anotomy, wrote everything down, and then (ignoring their measurements completely) threw us the nearest garment off the nearest pile. The only things which were actually fitted to us were our boots. We were shuffled back to the barracks to change out of our civvies, and went into a frenzy of clothes-trading (or outright theft -- I never did find out who nicked my socks!) We emerged on to the parade ground as gleaming examples of the warrior incarnate -- or as sacks of shit tied in the middle with string, depending on whether the onlookers were blind or could actually see us. Oh dear oh dear.
The military uniform has several purposes. First of all, it identifies the wearer. Our uniforms certainly did that -- they identified us as complete tossers. It also depersonalises the wearer, reducing him or her to a cog in the military machine. We were so depersonalised by the crap we had to wear that they had to hide us when the rubbish was collected, or else we risked being thrown in with the rest of the shit and dumped. Lastly, the uniform is supposed to be a support to the soldier's morale, since he knows that while wearing it, he looks competent and strong, ready for anything. In this respect, our uniforms failed, since they made us look and feel like refugees from the secure ward of a psychiatric hospital. Just to cap it all off, we were then strapped into chairs and shaved with the sort of haircut that only a psychotic could take pride in. To add insult to injury, we had to pay for the privilege -- five bucks each, which went straight into Corporal Powhata's beer fund. He was a happy man that night. We, on the other hand, were not very happy men at all.
The essence of army life as a new recruit can be summed up in one word, and that word is "bullshit". In the military context, bullshit has slightly different conotations to the term as it is used in real life. In the army, bullshit refers to an all-pervading obbsessive concern with minute details of environment, uniform and bearing. Some people are born to bullshit, others have bullshit thrust upon them. We had bullshit thrust upon us in bloody great truckloads. The army brings the application of bullshit to a peak of attainment which is staggering in its scope; it almost reaches into the realm of high art. Almost, but not quite -- it's still bullshit. Let me give you an example:
Every soldier is issued with four blankets (grey, woollen, with stripe, soldiers for the sleeping beneath), two sheets, one pillow, and one pillow-case. We were required every morning upon arising to take this bedding and fold it and arrange it into a perfectly regular box-like arrangement which was placed at the head of the bed. Three of the blankets, and both sheets, are folded to a prescribed pattern and stacked, alternating the blankets and sheets. The fourth blanket is folded around the whole, leaving the layers exposed. The finished effect is a little like a huge, dingy grey layer-cake, though not in the least appetising. The corners of this construction were required to be sharp and square, and anyone who has ever had anything to do with woollen blankets will know that the terms "sharp" and "square" are not intrinsic to their nature. Most of us cheated by inserting cardboard into the folds of the surrounding blanket, but even so, the process of building these blasted things took up anything up to half an hour, depending on how rumpled the bedding had become in the night. Personally, after experiencing this ordeal a few times, I built the most perfect bedroll I could, packed it with enough cardboard to build half a shanty town, and then put it under my bed, only bringing it out for the morning inspection. I slept -- and shivered -- under one thin blanket for the first six weeks of my basic training. Fortunately, by the time I got to bed at night I was usually so exhausted that I could have slept comfortably on barbed wire.
The next morning, after a solid and (possibly) nutritious breakfast comprised mostly of the "white" and "grey" food groups, we were issued our rifles. This was more like it! Lethal weaponry! This was what I'd joined up for! The rifles were FN 7.62mm SLRs, a sturdy, workmanlike, and bloody heavy weapon designed mostly (as far as I could see) to be indestructible and idiot-proof. A far cry from the plastic and aluminium space-age rifles used nowadays, our SLRs weighed in at (if I remember correctly) just over seven kilos, fully loaded. On the other hand, it could have been worse -- we could have still been using Lee-Enfields. Or, considering the state of some of the New Zealand Army's equipment, flintlock muskets. We paid another visit to the quartermasters to be given the rest of our equipment, which consisted of ancient Vietnam vintage American webbing, American helmets, American water canteens and American entrenching tools. (In those days, children, the Americans were still our friends since we hadn't told them to take their nuclear umbrella and stuff it up their collective arseholes. It was a simpler time.) Once we'd been shouted at some more, and worked out how to untangle it all, we strapped it all about ourselves and shouldered our rifles -- by golly, we actually started to look like soldiers! Bloody awful soldiers, I will admit, but soldiers nonetheless. I think it was the helmets that gave it away.
A word about helmets. Nowadays, your standard piece of battlefield headgear is made of a slew of amazing space-age plastics. It weighs about an ounce, and provides enough protection to keep the wearer safe and sound even if they're struck on the bonce by a defective Russian Mars probe plummeting out of orbit. In those days, helmets were a different matter. They were made of boiler plate, weighed about forty pounds, and made normal human beings look like mushrooms. They were so heavy that the wearers had to be winched onto their horses, and if they fell over, they couldn't get up again unassisted. No, wait, I'm thinking of something else, but you get the picture. The novelty of wearing these scone-protectors wore off about thirty seconds into the run back to barracks, since they bounced up and down and jiggled from side to side, placing an incredible strain on the neck muscles and giving me a terrible headache. Fortunately for us, we hardly ever had to wear them again. Instead, we wore a thing described by the army as a "jungle hat", which looked like a cross between a cowpat and those hideous towelling sunhats worn by elderly gentlemen while playing lawn bowls. (For formal occasions, we wore berets; since the berets are a sort of digested-grass-green, they just look like cowpats).
Our training began in earnest. There's little point in detailing every little thing; suffice to say that it consisted almost entirely of running long distances while carrying heavy objects and being shouted at. We also learned how to take our weapons to bits and clean them, after which we would run out to the firing range, fire our weapons at menacing cardboard soldiers, run back to the barracks, and clean them again. Boy, those cardboard enemies really took a pounding. If we ever went up against a cardboard army, they just wouldn't stand a chance. I hear that due to cost-cutting and what-have-you, the time recruits spend on the firing range now is minimal. We were fortunate enough to be trained in those far off and halcyon days when somebody in the policy-making department thought that soldiers should be able to shoot more or less in the direction of the enemy, and so we spent a couple of hours a day out on the range. It was great! Things went BOOM! and BANG! As well as our rifles (both the 7.62 SLR and the lightweight 5.56 M-16), we also got to play with machine-guns (woohoo!), M-79 grenade launchers (wahoo!), M-72 rocket launchers (yippee!), and..... hand grenades. Training with grenades was one of the few occasions on which we had to wear our steel hats.
The grenade range consisted of a little concrete maze of booths which reminded me strongly of a pigpen. Maybe it had been one at one time; I don't know. Anyway, out in front of the pigpens there was an open space and a few old tractor tyres lying around. There used to be an old car to throw grenades at, but it was taken away after the vociferous complaints of the Engineers whose job it was to go out and deal with unexploded bombs. Apparently, the grenades would get stuck in the recesses of the car, and if they didn't go off, they were bloody difficult for the Engineers to get at. Thus, we were stuck with utilitarian but unromantic tyres for targets. Anyway, the process was this: the lucky soldier would be given two grenades, and would enter the throwing bay where he would be awaited by a sergeant who was responsible for making sure he didn't do anything more than usually stupid and kill himself into tiny bits. The range officer up in his tower calls "Ready", the sergeant would say "Ready", and the soldier takes the pin from one of the grenades. The sergeant then says "Throw!", and the soldier yells "Grenade!", throws the bomb at one of the long-suffering tyres, and ducks behind the concrete parapet. That's the theory.
We had a recruit in our platoon who I will call "Private Stoopid" since that describes him fairly accurately. (I won't tell you his real name in case he has grown up and got lawyers). Anyway, he went through the whole drill of taking out the pin, waiting for the command, tossing the grenade, and ducking. "You didn't yell grenade" says the bay sergeant, pointing out his error... so Private Stoopid stood up, didn't he. He yelled "Grenade!", and was dragged back down by the sergeant just as the bomb went off. One of the bomb fragments smacked into the front of his helmet as he fell back, tearing open his canvas camoflage cover, and leaving a nice, shiny score through the steel beneath. As it happened, it would only have taken out this frontal lobes which he obviously didn't use much anyway, but the sergeant was mightily wroth and called him many rude names before giving him his second bomb to throw. Oh, how we laughed.
Personally, I don't have a great fondness for hand grenades. They're safer to the user now than the Mills Bombs they used back in the dim, dark past, but even so, I don't much care for a weapon which is just as likely to kill me as the unfortunate sods I'm tossing it at. I prefer my explosions to happen at a nice, safe distance. For this reason, I have the highest respect for the sergeants who risk their lives in the grenade bays, at the mercy of pimply youths with the brains of a snail. It's a form of heroism I don't care to emulate, if I can avoid it.
Speaking of pimply youths with the brains of a snail, Private Stoopid was responsible for another incident which I remember with great fondness. The platoon was doing some sort of filth training, which involved climbing through ditches waist-deep in mud and crawling under barbed-wire entanglements, also through mud. Our NCOs had a fine time standing on the sidelines and tossing thunderflashes (an explosive device like a giant firecracker; not too dangerous, but very, very loud) in amongst them to simulate real bombs. I'd sprained my ankle during a run the previous day and was confined to light duties while it healed, so I too was having a fine time standing on the sidelines and tossing thunderflashes in amongst them. Anyway, Corporal Tamehana tossed his thunderflash into the wire, and it bounced off one of the strands landing about two feet from Private Stoopid's head. Tamehana yelled 'Thunderflash!', so Stoopid stuck his head up and yelled back 'What....?' He couldn't hear a thing in his left ear for about a day afterward. Oh, how we laughed.
The Army, in its infinite wisdom, believes that warfare might occasionally take place outside of firing ranges. They therefore feel that their soldiers should have a passing aquaintance with those bits of land without towns or military camps on them, and be able to find their way about without roads and things. I expect they're right, but it seems to me to be very inconsiderate of an enemy to make people fight in the wilderness instead of near comfortable hotels and spa-baths and what-have-you. Anyway, for a few days during our basic training, we were sent out into the bush near Waiouru to learn how to be hard-bitten wilderness travellers. This is called 'Fieldcraft', and consists of things like learning which way up to hold a compass, how to build shelters which will keep out the rain everywhere except wherever you happen to be sitting, and how to make stretchers out of sticks and army-issue parkas. It also introduced us to 'Rat Packs', which are not (as you might imagine) groups of rodents, but are instead supposed to be food. Ration packs, you see. They come in two basic varieties, Wet and Dry. We were issued with dry rations, which are lightweight freeze-dried things which are supposed to become edible, or at least, easier to chew, when rehydrated. Private Stoopid discovered an important fact about freeze-dried food when he said 'Hey! Meat-flavoured biscuits!' and ate the slices of dehydrated beef without water, and that important fact is that he really shouldn't have done that. The beef promptly started absorbing the moisture from his gut, and he spent some very uncomfortable hours whining and moaning and generally getting on everyone's nerves until his stomach stopped cramping.
Towards the end of our Basic Training occurred a torture of such diabolical magnitude that even now I wake up screaming in the night when I dream about it. The army, with its talent for dry understatement, describes it as the 'Battle Efficiency Test'. With my talent for lurid overstatement, I'd describe it as 'The Final Work of Beelzebub, Lord of the Flies, for the Suffering of Mankind'. Although I've managed to blot it from my psyche for many years, I'll now bite the bullet and sift through the layers of my repressed memory to describe it for you. Essentially, it consisted of a ten-mile (about 17 kilometres) formation run in full kit (no helmet or ammo, fortunately), followed by carrying another soldier and all his kit for about 50 metres, followed by jumping over a 3-metre wide ditch (we were allowed to put the other soldier down first), followed by clambering over a 2-metre wall, followed by firing twenty rounds at a man-sized target at 25 metres. Simple enough, hmmm?
We were loaded into trucks at the crack of dawn, driven ten miles out into the wilds of Waiouru, and dumped there by giggling drivers who drove back home in comfort, ready for breakfast. Bastards. We formed up, and started off at the double (Note: "Double march" means running, in step, in formation. I don't know why they don't just say "Run".) We ran for a couple of klicks and marched for the next 500 metres, and then repeated the process. After the initial kinks were worked out of our muscles, it didn't seem too bad -- not nearly as bad as I had expected, anyway. Or so I thought. After five miles, I was feeling awful. Really, really awful, but not as awful as Raz Ratama, who had finished throwing up all over himself and was just retching between gasps for breathe. We'd run this distance before, but never in full kit, and the extra weight was more significant than we'd expected.
Past the five-mile mark, things got easier. Our bodies had realised that things weren't going to improve, so they'd started doling out the endorphin supplies to fool us into thinking we weren't going to die straight away. That worked, off and on, until about the eight-mile mark, which is when my own personal body decided that enough was enough, and assumed a horizontal non-running position. It was a very peculiar and somewhat psychedelic experience; one minute I was running along, not feeling too bad, then I was looking at the sky, then at the ground, then I was hitting the ground. I didn't feel exhausted, though I wouldn't say that I was ready to boogy the night away, but my body just decided to quit. Hey-ho. Sergeant Howarth dragged me to the side of the road so that I wouldn't be trampled into mush by oncoming platoons, got me breathing properly again, and then ran off to catch up with the rest of the platoon. My muscles started working again after a minute or two, and I ran off after them myself. The rest of that run was pure torture, and I discovered an interesting psychological phenomenon: it is much easier to endure physical hardship when you are surrounded and supported by others who are going through the same thing, than when you are isolated from the group and on your own.
Anyway, eventually I made it to the assault course and rifle range, only to find no-one there. Had they been and gone? No, I'd gone the wrong way. The rest of the platoon had run straight through camp and out the other side, and then had to run back to the range. So, by collapsing I'd managed to cut more than a kilometre off my run. Ha! My body knows what it's doing! I stopped running, and immediately my calves knotted up with excrutiating cramps. I had to walk around slowly for ten minutes or so to let them calm down, and by that time the rest of the platoon had arrived. We staggered and leaped and climbed through the assault course, and then went on to the firing range where we were issued our twenty rounds of ammo, and pointed at the target. My brief rest had obviously done me good; out of my twenty rounds, I managed to put thirty-four on target. (Private Crum, next to me, had blazed merrily away at the wrong target!)
So, that was that. We were deemed to be efficient to run into battle (except for me and a couple of others who had fucked out along the way), so that the New Zealand Army could dispense with all those nasty expensive trucks and things.
Our training progressed. As well as running and shooting, we also marched. Every day, for several hours, we marched and wheeled and turned and presented arms and so on and so on, until we became a hive-mind. Our drill became a thing of such precision and simultanaeity that it would have been difficult to tell, by sound alone, that there were more than one person out on the parade ground stomping about. All except for the man I shall call "Private Dumpling".
Private Dumpling was a very pleasant chap. He was bright and cheerful, with a fine sense of humour. He also looked like a pear with legs. I'm not sure what the minimum height requirement is for enlistment in the New Zealand Army, but Dumpling must have stood on tip-toes when they measured him since I swear that he couldn't have been more than five foot tall. Add to this a rotund belly that no amount of running or press-ups or sit-ups could flatten, a sunken chest, and no discernible neck, and you begin to garner an impression of what he looked like. Now, a man is stuck with the body that he's born with (except in America, where you can have it surgically removed and exchanged for one of Cher's old ones), and poor old Dumpling was in no way to blame for his physical limitations, but the fact was that he had to take one-and-a-half steps to everyone else's one, unless he extended his stride to potentially groin-straining lengths. Also, the poor bugger had absolutely no sense of rhythm, and was chronically unable to remain in step with the rest of the platoon. Hardened sergeant-majors quailed at the prospect of presenting Private Dumpling on parade with the rest of the men, especially with the end-of-training drill competition fast approaching. They made a valiant attempt to improve his drill, giving him (out of the kindness of their hearts) endless hours of extra drill practice, all to no avail. There seemed to be no answer to the problem; we were doomed to last place in the all-important drill competition until the very night before, when Halleluia! Private Dumpling slipped and fell in the shower!
'That's a nasty sprain you've got there' said Sergeant Howarth, barely able to restrain himself from grinning his own head off, 'you'd better report sick in the morning.'
'No, I'm fine' says Dumpling, 'but thanks for your concern. . .'
'That, Private Dumpling, is a very nasty sprain you've got there and that's an order!' replied our ever-caring Sergeant Howarth, ond Lo! We did go forth on the morrow, and verily did we smite the opposition hip and thigh, and we did march forth triumphant, and we did carry the day. We won a very attractive engraved and polished shell-casing (the Army's a little short on imagination when it comes to giving prizes, I guess) for being able to keep in step better than any of the other platoons. Here's where I give away a closely guarded military secret: the reason that military drill goes CRASH! BANG! CRUNCH! instead of whumph thumph mumble is this. We put handfuls of one cent pieces in the magazines of our rifles, and pushed stones into the treads of our boots. All for the sake of making as much noise as possible while we postured in a military fashion out on the paradeground. So, now you know.
And so passed the first phase of our training, known (for fairly obvious reasons) as 'Basic' training. We had a special parade, called a 'Passing Out Parade', which had nothing (much) to do with unconsciousness and a lot to do with standing around on a roasting hot paradeground for hours listening to someone with an enormous rank mumble stuff. I couldn't hear a word that he said, but I'm sure it was all very important and profound. It was at this parade that we were actually awarded the Holy Shell Casing I referred to above, though only one of us (Private Whata, the oldest of the recruits at a venerable thirty-two years of age and therefore practically ready, we thought, for a zimmer-frame and incontinence trousers) actually got to see it any closer than twenty metres or so. He was selected to march on up there and 'accept' the bloody thing, before it was promptly bustled off to whatever glass case the army keeps stuff like that in, and we were left with the glory and fuck-all else.
There was one incident of note during that parade, though I wasn't close enough to see anything of it except the furtive aftermath. A group of officer cadets were passing out on the same day as us, and were present on parade with M-16s and fixed bayonets. When ordered to shoulder arms, one of the pillocks somehow managed to stab himself through the armpit, promptly fainting from shock. I saw him being discretely carried off, bleeding like a stuck pig (though in all honesty I should point out that I've never actually seen a stuck pig so you should just take that as a spot of literary license), and that's the little bit of unconsciousness I was talking about earlier. Just think, someone who can do himself a serious injury with an unloaded rifle was considered ready to lead soldiers (that meant us) into battle. Good grief.
Speaking of officer cadets reminds me of a little late-night incident concerning them. A few of us had been out at the dry canteen (so called because it didn't sell any alcohol), watching TV and eating coronary-inducing fast food. On our way back to the barracks, we were met and accosted by a group of officer cadets, who said 'Hey! You have to salute us, we're officers!' Now, we hadn't had a lot to do with these future military geniuses, and to tell the truth, we didn't actually know whether we were supposed to salute them or not. We looked at each other, started to make a half-hearted sort of salute, and then decided 'Sod this' and made a concerted rush for them. They bleated and took off into the darkness, as fast as their little officer cadet legs could carry them. We didn't catch them. We gave chase briefly in a tentative sort of way, but they got away -- I think they were pretty safe, since none of us knew quite where we stood with them, and I doubt that we would have offered them any serious violence. Anyway, we made our way back to the barracks, where we found our platoon commander, 2nd Lieutenant Pomare. We asked him, in a purely hypothetical way you understand, what a law-abiding group of recruits should do if accosted by a group of officer cadets who wanted us to salute them. He said, in a purely hypothetical way of course, "You should beat the living shit out of them". So that was that facet of army life clarified for us. We didn't see that particular group of cadets again, fortunately for them.