When I was in basic training at Ft Leonard Wood in Missouri, Army and National Guard Reservists were training with active duty army. There was an African-American who for some reason several whites did not like. I do not recall his name and do not recall any direct interaction with him. Part of our stupid and senseless training were night-time maneuvers and with two to a tent. The person I shared the tent with was from Chicago and a tough kid from the streets.
He was very rough, aggressive, and many of the active duty and reservists feared him. We were also in the same barracks and I will merely provide his first name, Al. In the barracks our beds were face to face as it were. There were eight beds, four to a row in the room and I was fortunately next to the wall with the only windows. From the beginning, he was very nice to me because I was the most educated in our room and interestingly he saw me as a mentor and not as an elitist from another social class. I would read his girlfriend’s mail to him if he could not understand a word and even helped him compose letters to her. When we were using pugil sticks to simulate bayonet hand-to-hand combat, we would always team up and he would knock me down gently. I had it made. At one point, he went A.W.O.L. from basic and I tried to talk him out of it. Only I knew he was leaving to meet his girlfriend off barracks. He did return and was not severely punished. I was glad because he was really a complex person, with a lot of sentimentality but needed direction.
Anyway in our tent one night on maneuvers, Al told me a bunch of them were going to go to the tent of the African-American and beat him up. I was in graduate school working on my masters degree at Saint Louis University and tried to use all my powers of persuasion to deter him. I told him it was wrong. I told him he had no right to hurt someone. I told him not to join the others and that violence was never productive. He listened to me; he always did, but I could not dissuade him. In the middle of the night, he left the tent on his mission of attacking, along with others, the African American. When he returned I asked him what happened. He said they “hurt him pretty bad.”
The next day I noticed the man was puffy in his face, as he had been beaten presumably with fists and very sullen. I do not think he was severely injured or maimed by this attack but he was obviously a victim of an assault. For days I kept telling Al this was wrong. I am glad I had the morals to do this but regretted I could not successfully deter him from this hate crime.
No one was punished. No one was courtmartialed. No one was arrested. Everyone knew eventually this attack took place and I presume given the African-American’s face, the drill sergeants knew it as well. You could see his face. Yet there was a conspiracy of silence. There was inadequate supervision. The military refused to investigate this and punish the perpetrators.
Today in Iraq, soldiers are also engaging in acts of racism and rage, on a much more horrendous scale than what I witnessed. Yet the military is only reluctantly FOUR years into the conflict beginning to prosecute killers and criminals. The military must uphold standards of decency and not adopt a “brotherhood” mentality of taking care of their own. From the assault at Ft Leonard Wood to murders in Iraq, I am convinced that crimes, and certainly what happend in basic training was a criminal assault, are overlooked, covered up and ignored unless exposed by the press or publicly revealed by a member of the military.
I am proud of the fact that I tried to prevent this assault. I am not proud that I did nothing after it took place despite not directly witnessing it and only being a private. To this day, I have wanted to express my horror over this incident and believe the war in Iraq is an opportunity to do so. Basic training and active duty are intended to dehumanise the soldier, strip her or him of their identity and train them to kill. Such a brutal environment is most resistant to civilised restraints on conduct. Another reason why war destroys a sense of humanity beyond the “band of brothers: white brothers.”
I see the atrocities in Iraq and I wonder whether the Bush administration even considered the suffering and the military mentality that would invevitably lead to such brutal and horrific acts in country. They are also to blame and are criminals that should be arrested and prosecuted for war crimes.