Today I want to tell a story. This month marks the 100th anniversary of The Somme. It's a touchstone in English speaking culture (As Verdun is to the French, or the Kindermord to the Germans). WW1 still shapes the emotional landscape (for a treatment on that one might wish to look at "The Soldiers' Tale", Samuel Hynes, 1997, Allen Lane The Penguin Press).
We say "the past is an alien country". So too is war. When one marries the two, and tosses in the oddity which was The Western Front, and marry it to the birth of the modern age, well that's a lot of baggage.
My twitter feed of late has had a smattering of names, men who died at The Front. Even if there were some way to get all of them who died on the first day of The Somme, I couldn't do it. I'd injure myself, even if all I did was limit myself to the more than 20,000 Commonwealth dead.*
Ignoring the idea that the soldiers lived in abject misery non-stop (in a quiet sector they rotated for two-week cycles, "on the line, rest, in reserve". In active sectors this was reduced to one week in, with varying time in rest, and reserve), one wonders why they did it? What is it that keeps armies from being "rational" and running away (as Montesquieu said any such rational army should).
Camaraderie, which moves to love.
I was in the Army. It's a different place. The culture is not the same as the outside world. Basic Training's main focus isn't, contra idiots, to "break you and rebuild you". Can't be done. What it does do is channel the way one thinks. The, functionally, absolute power of drill sergeants married to youth (most recruits are about 18) and isolation serve to make the world smaller. It's all about right now, maybe even today. Tomorrow is another country.
Exercises are much the same. I called it "mission time", because the clock becomes a way to define this set of hours, but it has no relevance past the issue of filing a report, or knowing the beginning; or end, of a shift.
The point of basic training is to make that sense of camaraderie a seed resting in every relationship you have. When new troop shows up one's basic desire to like people takes over, and so long as they don't screw it up, you will. Since this is about story telling, I'm going to tell one.
In 1999 I was at my Platoon Leader Development Course (PLDC). PLDC is how the Army turns enlisted rankers into Non-Comissioned Officers (NCOs). Supervisors, with the power of life and death. The Army is a bureaucracy, but the working environment is very different to a civilian one. Mouth off to your boss and you may get yelled at, even fired. Mouth off to your NCO and you can end up in prison.
PLDC is one of the hardest courses the average Joe ever takes. In it's way it's harder than Basic. In Basic screwing up gets you yelled at, commanded to do push-ups; or otherwise punished as people punish puppies. At PLDC things like being late to a formation mean you get kicked out. Things that would get you recycled at Basic get you kicked out. Tests were pass, or go home.
To make it harder on me I took it in the Reserve Component. It was only 15 days, but in that 15 days we had to do everything the Regular Army does in 28 (we skipped a lot of inspections, and got little sleep. Leadership rotations were reduced from three days at a time, to one). If you failed a test you got one retest , this included the PT test. PT Tests are *BRUTAL*. Even if one is in shape they kick your ass. They have three parts, Push-ups (two minutes). Sit-ups (two minutes). Two mile run, for time.
If you failed the one you took when you arrived, you had to take another a week later. About 15 percent of a class usually failed the first one. Almost no one passed the second. A week isn't really enough time to recover from that level of exertion to muscle failure, esp. when you are on short sleep and doing lots of physical things (e.g. learning to lead a rifle squad through the woods).
We had two members of my squad who failed the intake test. We managed to nurse them through the next one. So both of them beat the odds. There were also written exams. The Army doesn't truck with the idea of " Memorise everything". Nope. We figure people will memorise the things they need to have ready to hand, and be able to look up the things they don't use all the time. So tests are open book.
Five of my squad (14 people) failed one of the tests. Why? Because no one had taught them how to use a reference work. They had been tabbing everything they thought was important. Their reference books (a stack about a foot high) were a cluttered mess of colored bunting at the edges.
So I taught them how to use a table of contents and an index. I taught them the tricks I'd learned with maps in my specialty. I gave them tips on how to spot the distracting elements in a question. They all passed the re-test.
Years before, when I was studying interrogation I strained my achilles tendon, but good. The terrain at Ft. Lewis, combined with the vegetation meant I aggravated the injury. I went to see the medic. In the back of a HUMVEE she gave me the news... I really needed to be in soft shoes, not boots. Only one problem, the rest of the course was all, "in the field". Regulations require one to wear boots in the field. If she put me in soft shoes, I had to go home.
So she made me a splint, and said, "Of course, no one can see what you are wearing inside your overboots** (we were at Ft. Lewis, in January, a very rainy time of year). A wink is as good as a nod, and I took her meaning. The next morning I had my soft shoes in my ruck. I told my squad I needed to be on the first weapons guard when we got to chow, so I could swap out my footgear (I wasn't sure if falling in in overboots was allowed, so I hadn't), where none of the cadre could see me.
So they put me in the back of the truck and I spent the day doing a land navigation exam in running shoes and galoshes. The next day I went to formation in overboots, and we went out for a 36 hour field problem. This was the last big pass/fail exam. 36 hours from the start of the exercise (plus the re-test time for the land-nav people***, &c) and you had a "field leadership" test in there too.
My squad made me sit out several of the humps, because I wasn't in a testable role. "No Karney, you can't go on the hump, if you blow your ankle you can't pass your eval, and you go home". So they picked up the slack. It wasn't any skin off their nose if I didn't pass. The only things left for them to do was pass their eval.
0800: We are on the last hump. No one is guarding the ammo, because all the ammo is either spent, or being humped. We have to make an assault on a hill. We are all stupid tired. I am slipping into a hypnogogic state. It's been the worst sort of cold. 34F and drizzling. When we are moving we sweat, when we stop we freeze. There are two squads working together on the assault (the other squad is defending the hilltop. There isn't a fourth squad because of course attrition). When the Squad Leaders were planning the assault we are in a laager. I am terrified of falling asleep. I should be on my belly in the ivy, so I can't be seen.
I don't dare. If I fall asleep I might not wake up when we move out. We are all so tired my Team, or Squad, Leader might not notice. If that happens, one, or both will fail the course. So Itake a knee, because the act of not falling over means I can't fall asleep.
None of us (well, that's not true, there was one bastard who actually didn't care; he said so. Made me regret teaching him how to use a reference book, but I digress), wanted to let the others down. When the shooting started I was in the thick of it. I took over my fire team (the leader being hors de combat) and pushed over to the flank, etc. I completely failed to notice that I was blowing out my other achilles.
That's what camaraderie does, even without the extra levels of love and devotion that come of being in combat. Even without the stronger levels of homosocial bonding in the world at the turn of the 20th century. That's why they not only went over the top, but kept going over the top, for months, and years, even after seeing the wave before them get annihilated.
The power of love.
*Canada celebrates "Canada Day on July 1st, with the exception of Newfoundland and Labrador, which have that day for a memorial day. Of 879 "Blue Puttees" who went "Over the Top" July 1st 1916, 68 answered the roll the next morning, 324 dead (or missing, presumed dead) and 386 wounded.
**She also told me that as soon as we got back from the field I was coming to see her, and I was going to be put in soft shoes. She too understood the calculus I was making; and making her own.
*** We had three people re-testing Land-Nav. One of them didn't make it. We'd gotten him through the re-test of PT, and the book re-test. He had all the making of a decent NCO. Went to Land-Nav and we never saw him again. He'd been shipped out before we got back, his bunk made as if he were a dead man. That's the way of things.