Authors: Eric Fair
On the bayonet course we sing, “Blood, blood, blood makes the green grass grow.” On the rifle range we sing, “One shot, one kill, right between the eyes!” On the heavy-weapons range we sing, “Your buddy's in your foxhole, a bullet in his head, / The medic says he's wounded, but you know that he's dead.”
On Sundays we are encouraged to attend chapel. We line up outside and choose between Catholic or Protestant services. Those who choose not to worship on Sundays stay behind in the barracks and are assigned cleaning details.
I attend the Protestant service. When the chaplain says something agreeable, soldiers say, “Amen.” The chaplain says we aren't loud enough. He says, “I wonder what your drill sergeants would think about that? Let's try it again.” The next week I try the Catholic service. No one says, “Amen,” but the priest tells us that we can't just come to chapel as an escape from the drill sergeants.
There's something about the Army that makes it difficult to go to church. During the week I am singing cadences about blood and foxholes. On Sundays, I'm being told that I'm not yelling loud enough and that I can't use the church to protect me from the Army. I decide to put my head down and get through basic training without thinking about church. I'm not sure what Don would say about this. I decide not to think about that, either.
The following week, I decide to skip church and accept whatever consequence Francis has in mind. We stand in formation while the Catholics and Protestants march off to services. When they're far enough away, Francis looks in their direction and says, “Fucking assholes,” before sending us back to our bunks for extra rest.
Basic training winds down and we prepare for our follow-on assignments. We stand in the hallway outside Francis's office and wait for our orders. The first sergeant calls me into his office and laughs. “Arabic? What a waste. Torture a towelhead for me.” Francis stops me in the stairwell. “Linguist? I figured. Don't fuck it up.”
As part of my enlistment contract, I am required to attend the Army's airborne course at Fort Benning, Georgia. It is a three-week program designed to introduce students to the world of military parachute operations. We don a parachute, we board an airplane, we fall out of the airplane, and we try to land without hurting ourselves. The instructors spend the majority of the time making jokes in an effort to alleviate nerves. On the way to the airfield we sing cadences about dying in a parachute accident.
He hit the ground, the sound was splat, his blood went spurting high!
His comrades then were heard to say, “A hell of a way to die.”
He lay there rolling 'round in the welter of his gore
And he ain't gonna jump no more.
On the last day of the course, the entire class marches to the 250-foot towers where we trained earlier in the course. The Army bought the towers in 1940 after witnessing them in action at the World's Fair in New York. We were dropped from the towers in order to instill a sense of confidence in our equipment. But on the day we're scheduled to jump, we sit in bleachers in front of the towers and watch mannequins fall to their deaths. The parachutes are rigged to malfunction. One type of malfunction is called a cigarette roll. The parachute deploys but fails to open. It flutters in a straight line as the mannequin plummets to the ground. The mannequins make terrible sounds when they hit the ground. Overhead, a plane flies by with a jumper in tow. The static line is rigged so it fails to release, and the mannequin flaps in the wind behind the plane. We laugh. The instructors wish us luck.
I jump out of the plane and I don't die. No one else does, either. But there are a variety of minor injuries. I fail to keep my chin in my chest during an exit and when the risers on my parachute deploy, they tear into my face. On the ground, I stick my finger through my cheek. The instructors send me to the medics and tell me to be back in time for graduation.
We receive our jump wings on the parade ground. Family and friends attend the graduation ceremony. The instructors place the shiny pins on our left breast pockets and then push the sharp edges up against our skin. They do this gently. After the ceremony they collect the jump wings and say, “Wait till tonight.”
In the barracks, we receive our jump wings again. We stand in the hall and wait for higher-ranking soldiers. They pin the wings on our uniforms again and shove them into our chests. The pins penetrate. Then we fight our way down the hall as other soldiers grab the pins and shove them further. Some twist them. Some punch them. One soldier swings a Kevlar helmet. Everyone bleeds. Everyone laughs.
In December 1995, I begin studying Modern Standard Arabic. The Defense Language Institute (DLI), in Monterey, California, is the U.S. military's primary school for foreign-language instruction. All languages are covered, but the largest classes are in Korean and Arabic. I arrive at the reception office and hand the duty sergeant my orders. The orders say the program will last for seventy-three weeks.
New arrivals spend the first week in briefings. Officers and career soldiers get up front and chide us for having it so good. Never again, they say, will the Army see fit to station us in such a wonderful place. We don't deserve it, they tell us. We haven't been soldiers long enough. They say we should be suffering in some place like Louisiana, Kentucky, or Tennessee, just the way they did when they were young soldiers. We're confined to base for the first month. Like any other soldiers in training, we wake up, we clean, we run, we shower, we train, we run again, we clean again, and we sleep.
We master the Arabic alphabet on the first day. We learn to write the letters in script on the second. We learn to read from right to left. We learn to count, we learn the days of the week, the months, the colors, and the seasons. By the end of the first week, we are reading simple sentences.
Tests are scheduled every two weeks. Fail two in a row and you're out. Fail any combination of three and you're out. Fail to impress the instructors with your overall progress and you're out. The class consists of forty students broken up into four classrooms. I begin the course with twelve students in my classroom. At the end of week five, two students are out. By week seven, three more have joined them. Like most students, I assume my days are numbered. I survive each test by a thin margin, and I am pulled in by instructors and berated for my work ethic and study habits. One instructor in particular, an Iraqi civil engineer named Mumtaz, seems to enjoy berating us more than the others.
Mumtaz is the lead instructor. He is large and imposing. Students are afraid of him. Other teachers are, too. Occasionally Mumtaz enters a classroom unannounced to observe the other instructors. When he does, they become angrier and less patient. They scold us for mispronouncing words, and lecture us about our poor handwriting. The teachers tell Mumtaz they are working as hard as they can; the students simply aren't smart enough to keep up. We are lazy. We are dumb. None of us are going to pass the course. Eventually, Mumtaz takes over the class and lectures us some more.
After twenty-six weeks, there is a weeklong break. We've lost more than half the class. The remaining students show the most promise. We assume the vast majority of those who remain will be allowed to stay with the class through the final exams.
The pace quickens. In addition to basic language classes, we begin to study Middle Eastern history and politics. We visit our teachers in their homes and travel with them to Arabic-speaking communities in San Jose and San Francisco. Entire weeks are dedicated to immersion. We speak Arabic in class, in formation, at physical training, and in the barracks. DLI offers us a world-class education, and exposes us to the incredibly diverse and complicated Middle East.
Mumtaz spends time telling us about how he escaped the regime of Saddam Hussein. He was only a lieutenant during the war with Iran. He was forced to serve. He was never a real soldier. Just a driver. He never did any fighting. No one, he tells us, supports Saddam Hussein. All Iraqis hate him. None of them are in favor of the regime. Mumtaz says that if America had invaded Iraq during the Gulf War, the Iraqis would have taken up arms alongside them. He says that he would have gone back to Iraq and fought alongside U.S. forces. He says it's too late now. The opportunity has passed. Saddam learned his lesson. He will never do anything to antagonize the United States. America will never fight another war in the Middle East. He says, “Saddam will grow to be an old man.”
Eventually, Army leadership gives us more freedom at DLI. We dress in civilian clothes in the evening and we can depart the base without requesting an official pass. On occasion, Mumtaz takes me to dinner. We go to a Lebanese restaurant in Monterey. He forces me to order in Arabic. He sees me pray before my meal. Mumtaz says he is Christian, too. He takes time to teach me about the Christian communities in Iraq. He tells me that Saddam treats Christians well. He leans in, looks away from me, and whispers. He says, “We have done well under Saddam. Saddam is a bad man, but he protects us from the Muslims.”
Most of our Arab instructors at DLI are Christians. There are no women in headscarves and no calls to prayer. We study Arab history, but we don't talk about Mohammed, the Koran, or Wahhabism. We learn about the political systems in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria, but we never talk about Saudi Arabia or Kuwait. Army leadership reminds us that we are not to engage our instructors in discussions of religion. I don't know why this policy is in place. I don't know why we avoid the topic of Islam. But most of us leave DLI having learned next to nothing about Muslims.
On Sunday mornings, I attend a Presbyterian church in Carmel. The congregants are old. Many of them are transplants from the Northeast. The church has a beautiful organ and a wonderful choir. There is no clapping and no overhead projector. I attend an infant baptism and volunteer to teach Sunday school.
On base, students call DLI the Defense Love Institute. Male and female soldiers live on the same floor. We have been together for nearly a year. We are fit, stressed, and drunk. I start to drink on Saturday nights.
This is a significant departure for me. I had my first taste of alcohol a few weeks after my twenty-first birthday. It wasn't that I thought drinking was immoral; I thought of underage drinking as illegal. Presbyterians typically follow rules. So I did.
But I am a soldier now, and alcohol eases the stress from long days studying Arabic, so I view it as a tool to be used in pursuit of my calling. As Arabic gets more difficult, I use this tool more often. I start finding it difficult to feel good about going to church.
I meet another soldier. She is fit, stressed, and drunk. She is beautiful. I take her to dinner. She sneaks into my room at night and does wonderful things to me, far more than anything I experienced in the church parking lot during high school. I enjoy these things. I try not to think about what Don used to say about things that can't be undone. I feel good about spending time with this beautiful soldier. She is warm and kind. I have sex for the first time. I find it impossible to feel good about going to church.
As the language program moves into the final months, we take time to enjoy Monterey. We have survived an entire year. Only a few months remain. At this stage, none of us expect to be dropped from the course. We prepare for the Defense Language Proficiency Test (DLPT), a battery of exams that will judge our listening, reading, and speaking abilities. We must score at a certain level in each discipline in order to graduate from Monterey.
In class, the pace slows. For the first time in over a year, we have time to concentrate on things other than Arabic. After class, I take long runs along the Pacific coastline and enjoy the views of the ocean. I ride along 17 Mile Drive with the beautiful soldier and explore the walking trails of Big Sur. We hike and camp and build fires on the beaches. We visit the mansion of William Randolph Hearst and spend entire days at the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I take time to read John Steinbeck and I walk on Cannery Row. I sleep until noon on Sundays.
My Presbyterian grandmother calls and says she is flying to San Francisco to see family. She wants me to show her Monterey. I don't want to be reminded of how I've drifted from her standards, so I tell her I'm too busy. I tell her it's too hard for her to get on base. I tell her I'll see her when I'm home. I tell her it's a bad time.
That Sunday morning I sit in the common room and watch the San Francisco 49ers on TV. I am hungover. I spent the night drinking hard cider, then moved on to Jack Daniel's. I'm drinking more hard alcohol now, thinking less and less about Don and the memory verses. The beautiful soldier is with me. We're not supposed to be having sex in the barracks, but we're far enough into the course now that leadership tends to look the other way.
I hear someone in the hallway say, “He's right down there.” I hear my grandmother say, “Thank you.” My grandmother stands in the common room at DLI surrounded by empty liquor bottles and hungover soldiers. She laughs. She introduces herself to the beautiful soldier.
My grandmother takes us out to lunch. She tells stories about the family and how some of the Burds moved out to California and why it's important for all of us to stay in touch. She asks the beautiful soldier about her family, and she learns things about her that I didn't know. My grandmother tells me these things, then orders me to ask other questions. She treats the beautiful soldier as though she is a part of our family.
My grandmother says nothing about the empty liquor bottles, and she says nothing about finding me hungover on a Sunday morning. She says nothing about how I tried to avoid her. Her unwillingness to judge is the very thing that condemns me. I feel exposed and embarrassed. I am guilty. But I am too immature to admit it. Instead, I blame the beautiful soldier. I tell myself I was led astray.