It is often said that the army makes you a man, but what is often not mentioned is that it is a place where you can go quietly mad, and where a certain type of madness almost becomes the new normal. Where else would it be normal for new batches of “miliciens” to be fair game for all sorts of – what shall I call it? frivolities? abuse? indignities?
One of those initiation rituals involved pouring a pint of beer over a new recruit’s head. If you were made of the right stuff, you took it stoically, and presumably that was the last time you were bothered. The fact that the sergeant on duty hardly raised an eyebrow when I washed out my uniform under the tap to prevent it from stinking of stale beer the next day tells you all you need to know – he’d seen it many times before.
Or the time when someone placed a water-filled condom in my bed, which then burst : again the sergeant, when asking why I was sleeping on the floor, hardly skipped a beat when I mentioned the burst condom and the soaked mattress. When at the end of my stint in Soest I had to return my mattress, the sergeant there was going to charge me for a stained mattress, but relented when I related the story of the condom.
The craziness was not always this nasty, but nevertheless held a touch of the unreal. When on patrol, I challenged one of the new recruits on the field where they were playing football to show me his white card. When he stated that it was in his position inform in the dressing room, I berated him for not knowing that he had to have his white card on him all the time. I managed to do this with a poker face, whereas my partner on patrol had to turn round to hide his mirth.
Or there was the time when the whole of our patrol had to line up in full fatigues, and just for the hell of it we decided to do the can-can, just when the major’s wife passed our line-out in her car. Not sure what she thought of it, although maybe she’d seen it all before too.
So why does it happen ? There’s definitely adapting to an existing culture, but there’s also the boredom, the lack of punishment for what in civilian life would be inexcusable transgressions, maybe also the attempt of army to live up to its reputation of making men out of boys.
Whatever the case, when I left the army I definitely had toughened up, my humour at the time bordering on insults, which just remained on this side of funny. I suppose in the end the effect wore off, but I wonder what a longer stint in the army might do to your state of mind.