Got a letter in the mail, go to Iraq or go to jail. And it won’t be long till I get up back home.
Los Angeles – when I was growing up, everyone had a hero. Mine was the world-famous escape artist Harry Houdini. I wanted to be – I needed to be – someone who could always find his way out of any situation.
Every Thursday afternoon I leave work early to beat the L.A. traffic. On my way home I check my mailbox at Mailboxes Etc., because, with American troops in short supply, the Pentagon is searching for soldiers who still owe time on their service contracts to ship out to Iraq.
I’m a Canadian, but I’m also a member of the Inactive Ready Reserve. So I’m uneasy on these weekly trips. I hum army songs to distract myself from thinking about what life would be like if I were to get the “battle call.”
Of all the disastrous things that could happen to me overseas, nothing terrifies me more than my nightmare of being an American POW trapped in a prison like Abu Ghraib. I’m not nearly so afraid of driving over a land mine, being shot or getting hit by an RPG (rocket-propelled grenade).
When I joined the army, I was given a Geneva Conventions ID card. If I’m ever captured, I’m to show the card in order to guarantee my basic human rights. But after seeing the home movies U.S. soldiers took of Iraqi prisoners, it’s clear nobody follows the rules and the card is meaningless.
As I was telling you, I used to be deathly claustrophobic. The thought of being confined or blindfolded paralyzed me. As a kid I tried every home remedy to rid myself of this asphyxiation phobia: I’d crawl inside my sleeping bag the wrong way, under my comforter, under my bed and see how long it would take me to escape.
When all the other kids were playing with their Hot Wheels in the sand pile, I was creating elaborate labyrinths full of deadly traps for ants. I’d grab the biggest carpenter ants I could find and drop them into my mazes to see how long it would take them to escape. If they happened to take a wrong turn, they’d end up fried by a magnifying glass, set adrift on a piece of wood on the lake or consigned to a pit where I made them fight other ants by grabbing their heads and forcing their pincers to lock onto each other.
In the winter I dug snow tombs and threw dogs and kids in snowsuits inside and… that’s enough. You get the point. I realize now that these sadistic childhood games were a pathetic attempt to overcome the terror and powerlessness I felt.
That’s how I know what seduced those young U.S. prison guards into playing out the spymaster’s game at Abu Ghraib, where they believed you were either the victim or the torturer, one or the other, zero sum, me or them, me or the ants.
When I read Houdini’s biography at age 10, I thought I’d found the perfect role model. His ability to escape from everything was empowering. I no longer had to play God with ants to overcome my feelings of helplessness. Houdini’s techniques were only tricks, but if I learned some of them I thought I’d be able to escape the panic of my phobia and be cured.
In my basement, I asked my brother and his friend Tommy to use a chair, a sleeping bag, a garden hose and some rope to put me into something that I wouldn’t be able to get out of. They sat me in the chair, tied my hands behind my back, stuffed the sleeping bag over my head and wrapped the hose around it. Tommy kicked the chair over and they turned out the lights and split. I was trapped!
We were living in Puerto Rico at the time and had just had the basement hurricane-proofed, so nobody could hear my screaming. An hour later, my dad came into the basement looking for his toolbox and cut me loose. Another failure. My terror haunted me through high school and after – that is, I until joined the army.
I used to be a high school stud. Now I’m crawling in the mud.
A few months ago, the wife and kids of an army buddy currently in Iraq came to stay with me for a few weeks. His tour kept getting extended: first he was coming home for Christmas, then Easter, then maybe for his son Tyler’s birthday. He’s yet to come home.
My friend’s wife, Sue, got sick of waiting and took her kids to Disneyland, but it soon became clear that a big part of her decision to visit L.A. was so that her boys could spend time around a male, someone they associated with their dad.
At night Sue asked me to tuck the boys in. This was a difficult mission. A week before the family came I’d wiped a bunch of photos that their dad had sent me off my hard drive. I knew the kids would want to play Doom on my computer and – Christ almighty! – I didn’t want them seeing what their dad was really doing in Iraq. (He’d e-mailed me a picture of himself smoking a Cuban cigar – they’d found Saddam’s private stash – with a big grin on his face, machine gun in hand, standing beside a hooded Iraqi prisoner.) I walked down the steps to his sons, trying to come up with a way to put a happy spin on the world of their missing dad. The boys, a seven-year-old and 15-year-old, watched my every move.
“Why is my dad there and not you?”
“When’s my dad coming home?”
“Is he going to die?”
I used to date the high school queen. Now I date my M-16.
I keep trying to figure out what possessed me to join the military in the first place. I guess I was drawn to the idea of being part of a group, belonging. I wanted to be a part of what soldiers feel toward each other.
When I got to boot camp, I figured out that war is all a game, and mastering it became the greatest escape of my life. I no longer had to be stuck being the same person every day. It was all like a play, with the drill sergeant as an acting coach.
I would wake up in the morning on my cot, wiggle my toes, and there I was, the same old me. Then Drill Sergeant Ballard would walk in wearing mirrored aviator sunglasses to look like the Terminator, screaming, “Get the hell out of bed and into the pit.”
As I did push-ups in the mud day after day, living out my drill’s torture fantasies, I would think about how great it was to escape from myself: no more unpaid bills, dead-end desk jobs, family obligations. I was free! I was an American soldier, the greatest acting role I had ever been cast to play. And I got to play it over and over again.
That’s what I thought. My private life at the time was, to paraphrase the army’s slogan, “a disaster of one.” All of us who fell for the trap had what we thought were reasons. But the reasons behind the reasons are another story about power and men, and finally about being so goddamn young that the military looks like a home when it’s really a cage.
Then someone leaked to Drill Sergeant Ballard that I was claustrophobic.
“I went to SERES, Private. I know just what you need.” That’s Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape School, where they treat you like a POW in German and Japanese prison camps for a week. It’s like the dreaded Room 101 in George Orwell’s 1984, a torture room where one’s worst fears are made real.
During your incarceration, they try to break you down by using a variety of torture techniques: sleep deprivation, forced standing, choking in water, solitary confinement, humiliation, etc. It’s the “etcetera” that had me sweating.
Drill Sergeant Ballard’s “claustrophobia remedy” involved stuffing the entire platoon “nut to butt” into a medic transport truck that locked from the outside. He proceeded to drive the truck around and around in circles. When he got tired of that he stopped the truck, climbed on top and jumped up and down on the roof.
I lay between two privates in fetal position with my eyes closed. Mortified. I don’t know what the hell we were supposed to gain from his guerrilla psychotherapy exercise, but it failed to cure my affliction.
Standin’ tall and lookin’ good. I should be in Hollywood.
After basic, I was trained as an army propagandist. I learned how to design “battlefield advertising” leaflets that we drop from planes, gather intelligence from POWs and use a loudspeaker.
All through training I was looking forward to the day I would get deployed and do my job for real. This was during peacekeeping time, when Bosnia and Kosovo were the deployments. Our job “in country” was to flex our military muscle to keep the peace, educate kids about land mines and fix roads.
It was very Peace Corps-esque but with more perks: a signing bonus, student loan repayment and the GI Bill.
Now I know that the army is a two-headed beast: Nation Builder/Death Machine. The high school kids scraped up to feed the monster only find out the truth too late. What I really did when I signed up was to put my Social Security number into a lottery system.
The winners are the ones who use the army for the benefits, do their time and get out without permanent mental or bodily harm. The losers are those whose numbers are called, who ship out and are killed or permanently wounded for something they don’t even understand or believe in.
The grunts and the dog-faces on the killing ground are like the ants trapped in my maze. They may think that God and the Flag are over them, but it’s only fear that fills the sky.
Still humming, I pull into a free parking space at Mailboxes Etc.
I used to drive a Cavalier, now I’m humping all this gear…
I keep searching for a lost Houdini chapter on draft dodging, but I know it doesn’t exist. There’s no escape. I guess it’s inevitable that the ants will get their revenge and I’ll be dropped inside the death maze, where I’ll be at the mercy of a giant superpower child that tries in vain to spread freedom by raising its huge fist and then dropping the death blows of Shock And Awe on the sandbox of the world.
I turn the key to the box and find bills, student loan consolidation offers, a Costco newsletter and a Pottery Barn catalogue. Phew.
Looks like I’ve got another week to plan my escape.
Let them stay
Help the War Resisters Support Campaign:
• Contact PM Paul Martin (pm@pm. gc. ca) and Minister of Citizenship and Immigration Joe Volpe (minister@cic. gc.ca) and ask that they make a provision allowing U.S. war resisters to remain here.
• Attend a vigil at Brandon Hughey’s refugee hearing on Thursday, June 2, 7:30 am, at 74 Victoria. www.resisters.ca