The first thing that they do is shave your head & scream into your face until you drop the pleasant fiction that had been your life. More quickly than you would have guessed you learn obedience: to shut your mouth & do what you are told; that you survive by virtue of compliance, shutting down. When they scream, “Drop for twenty,” then you drop. If, wobbly from lack of sleep, you’re told to sit up half the night & strip your M-1 down, that’s what you do. You strip it down. The only insubordination’s in your eyes, which can’t accept the order not to close. Your combat boots kept so compulsively spit-shined you see your face in both hard toes — skinned to the scalp, pathetically distorted, not unrecognizable but not quite you — a self that marches dutifully through sleet & has perfected the low crawl. One gray morning in the second week of basic training, lacing up his boots, that shy, phlegmatic, red-haired boy who bunked above me whispered, “Steve, I don’t believe I’m gonna make it. . . .” “No way, man! You’re doing fine! Hey, look, c’mon, we’re late,” & shrugged him off to race out just in time to make formation in the mist of that Kentucky morning. — He was right. He didn’t. He took a razor blade that night, & crawling underneath the barracks slashed his throat. What little of myself I saved in there I saved by tiny gestures of defiance: Instead of screaming, Kill, I’d plunge my bayonet into that dummy screaming, Quill. . . . Nil. . . . At rifle drill I’d hum the Internationale & fire fifty feet above the target. I kept Dexedrines in my fatigues. Took heart from the seditious drollery of Sergeant May, that LA homeboy with the black goatee, all hip panache & grace: that bop salute and smartass version of left face. & sometimes from his cadre room at night, the wailing blues of Ray Charles drifted through the barracks, & I’d lie there in the dark, awake — remembering that other life that I had left behind. & it was Sergeant May & Ray Charles & Dexedrine that got me through. Had I been more courageous, less the terrified recruit who did what he was told, I would have hung back with that boy & argued with him, said whatever needed saying, or at least have heard him out, just listened, or let someone know, or somehow, god knows, saved him. But I wasn’t. & I didn’t. I was just a kid myself. For all my revolutionary rhetoric, I shut my eyes & ears when shutting of the eyes & ears was politic. When they said strip your M-1 down, I stripped it down. When they said march, I marched.
Iraqi Child & Occupation Soldier
On a photograph by Peter Turnley
The left half of the photo is a close-up of the soldier’s back: his camouflage fatigues, the black machine gun with its mounted scope clipped at his belt. To his right, the girl — eleven, maybe twelve — who glowers up at him with a ferocious loathing. Her city under siege, her family has taken flight from what will never any longer be her home. The tanks, the smoke, the rubble everywhere, those mangled corpses hideous along the road, & all these fiendish foreign devils shoving them around have set, beneath her darkened brow, a gaze so fierce with rage that nothing of her furious scorn remains unsaid. Across the road, a thin young man in white — no doubt an older brother — his mouth a nervous but accommodating grin, arms obediently outstretched, is being patted down by yet another helmeted factotum of the occupation army: 17th Brigade, Blackwatch Regiment. Now refugees, the child & her family are fleeing Basra, passing, at the instant Peter Turnley’s camera captures her, a checkpoint on the southern outskirts of that city. The gloved hand of an unseen adult grips the child’s, intent on pulling her away — so that the viewer knows the girl will not long stand there, glowering at that soldier. Though in fact, because it is a photograph, she will. As in the utmost wretched suffering, of which the heart can hardly be expected to let go, the moment of this child’s malediction shall not pass: this image, then, a kind of Hell in which that agent of the occupation, servant of the savage legions of the West, will burn forever in her seething rage, the harrowing sting of her eternal wrath.
Peace-loving Hitler had no choice but fight. Thus too, of drear necessity, was Amalek depopulated to the last Amalekite. And Ashurbanipal did not rejoice to level Thebes. But had to — brick by brick. Up & down he swore he had no choice. So too did Tisias wish only to save Melos. Cortez, Tenochtitlan regretfully laid waste. Poor Genghis Khan, most genial of fellows, wished not at all to wipe out Nishapur. Eviscerating pregnant girls Menahem faced as something he had simply to endure. In short, we learn that everyone is slaughtered most reluctantly, & ever in the name of Peace: each butchery, however merciless or sordid, is undertaken to defend the sore oppressed & set the people free. How then are we to blame, who have been forced by fate to lay to rest uncounted millions in Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Afghanistan, Iraq — those states we had no option but to bomb for their own sake, we who are no less intent upon providing folk the blessings that they lack than Tisias was, & Ashurbanipal, & Genghis Khan?
“Basic” is reprinted from The Dumbbell Nebula (The Roundhouse Press), by Steve Kowit. © 1999 by Steve Kowit. It appears here by permission of the author. The other two poems are previously unpublished.