Monday, January 16, 2012

Shades of Corinthians

From midway through year four through to the end of eight I was sentenced to an all-boys private school. Not in the formal court sense but by my parents, allegedly on recommendation from my state school on the grounds I needed something they couldn’t give. Rigid unthinking discipline without accounting for the needs of the individual I suppose.

As part of an all-boys private school that was owned and operated on behalf of the surrounding Anglican diocese it meant my having to go to chapel at least once a week in the morning before school began (1). Only our bus arrived later than most and I was forever having to shuffle in conspicuously after the service started.

The choice of bible reading poison to me seemed to be always Corinthians, specifically the bit about putting away childish things and becoming men. Which was somewhat ironic since the school enforced sport on all its subjects and thus in summer and winter both they ran around after balls. It basically made me feel bad that I played Dungeons and Dragons.

Eventually though I convinced my parents to re-submit me to the state system and in year nine I commenced my last years of high school in a co-ed state school. Unfortunately my years at the all-boys private school had done some severe emotional damage and I arrived there in a fucked-up state and basically spent nine months without friends and sitting under a tree at lunchtime because the moustache-clad female Librarian had banned me from the library for life (2). I once ventured away from the tree and tried to make friends but one of the cool hot girls (3) came over and told me to fuck off so back under the tree I went.

Ouch. Twenty plus years on and that still hurts.

But despite the hell and brimfire about putting away toys there were some toys that were always considered cool and in many ways you were more manly for liking them. I am of course talking about war toys. The school had a cadet unit, and being a disabled (4), I was sentenced to the Quartermaster’s Core along with the mentally and physically damaged, which included some fuckwit with an artificial leg (5). But being a cadet unit it meant we had access to guns. Inoperable SLRs in fact, the large heavy-duty weapon of choice fielded by the Australian Army during their participation in the Vietnamese war and right up until the futuristic-looking Steyr came in sometime at the end of the ‘80s.

We got to field strip the rifles and re-assemble them, timing how long we were and even trying to do it with our eyes shut. The proper cadets, not the failed fatties like us in the Quartermaster’s Core (6), even got to go out to a rifle range and shoot real operable guns at targets. That shit be bitching to a boy.

And how I loved war. I loved war toys—the play loft above our garage was littered with hundreds of my toy soldiers and I played with them right up until we moved house in year ten—and I loved guns. As noted before I even cut kewl pics of guns out of magazines like National Geographic and kept them in my manila folder of gun pics. Guns—and war—were fantastic to me.

As I got to uni, however, it all became a little less fantastic. I did an arts degree, starting a year after all my friends due to 1991 being the year of the fucked up university admissions debacle where universities had given away slots under a principals recommendation scheme and subsequently the marks needed to get into arts went from 49.5 to well north of 80 (out of a hundred). I’d earned a paltry 63.15 from memory and thus could not get in.

When I started my degree I had no idea what I wanted to eventually do in real life. None at all. So I just chose courses that I was interested in and, this being a critical make-or-break criterion, were on in the afternoon. My embryonic interest in psychology ended on day one of choosing courses when I discovered lectures were nine o’clock on a Monday. Fuck that shit.

In first year I went with Ancient History, it being the one subject I enjoyed in High School (even if I did come last in the class), Philosophy and English. By second year and third year the courses got more interesting and basically I went for communications classes—semiotics, advertising, textual analysis and film studies—and history courses such as medieval history. One of these courses was The Literature of War.

The lecturer/tutor who ran the class was my favourite tutor during my undergrad time, but it was a slightly fractious relationship in that he once kicked me out of an earlier lecture for turning up drunk and carrying on down the back. Luckily he didn’t remember that was me. He also made fun of my library-sourced copy of The Iliad which featured a heavily dated translation full of “thees” and “thous”, because as I recall I’d spent all my text-book money on partying and was forced to get what I needed from the library (7). 

Literature of War covered the mythic and epics of Homer through to current times, such as a protagnist in a bomber aircrew grappling with the terror of having to do 25 bombing raids. We also looked at Weir’s Gallipoli as the two protagonists of Archie and Frank represented old war and new war; old war being all gallant and athletic and how physical prowess mattered; new war being hyper-deadly and industrial, where even the great were mown down by machine guns alongside the hopeless and ordinary.

That course changed my idea of how awesome war is. Because war is not about machines of death and guns and heavy weapons, as cool as such things are, but it’s about people. War is people versus people and not only do ordinary people suffer the privations and misery of war, but so do the soldiers and sailors and air men and women that take part. What they put up with and what they are asked to do is nothing short of incredible and it’s why the greatest burden on any government now is to consider the when, where and why of military intervention when lives of their soldiers and sailors and airmen and women are on the line. Not just physically but mentally, especially in deployments to prevent or monitor civil conflicts and where the utter misery and bastardry that lawless conflict inflicts on people can be seen (8).

With having recently enjoyed the ‘Who Farted’ sequence with the emerging then re-submerging Captain Willard from Apocalypse Now I re-watched Hearts of Darkness: A Film-makers Apocalypse, the documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now, which used footage and photos shot by Francis Ford Coppola’s wife, Eleanor, and interviews some ten plus years later with assorted cast and crew. It is probably the best 'making of' documentary I’ve seen to date.

Then I re-watched the helicopter assault scene from Apocalypse Now.

For those who’ve not seen the movie, but are likely aware of this scene as it’s one of those seminal pop culture things, an air cavalry unit commanded by the somewhat unorthodox Lieutenant Colonel Kilgore, assault a village at the mouth of a river in order to insert a river boat carrying the protagonist, Captain Willard, up said river to assassinate the insane Colonel Kurtz. The air cavalry, consisting of Huey helicopter gunships and smaller one-seated spotter helicopters, come in low over the waves towards the village, blasting ‘Ride of the Valkyries’ from large speakers as part of psy-ops. It is an incredible scene and made all the more incredible for the fact it was shot in the ‘70s and CGI was not used. All the helicopters were rented from the Philippine Army and in fact were being used in counter insurgency ops during filming with filming often halted because several copters were called away to go spray hills (and presumed rebel occupants) with machine gun fire.

So I watched that scene and as I watched it I was reminded of that transformation of consciousness that I had during uni when I realised that war is actually fucked up and while war toys and what-not look kewl their purpose is to kill. 

You have to hand it to the cast and crew of the movie to deliver a scene that not only showed the full power of a first world military in action but the impact that had on innocents—with the village shown in the minutes before Wagner could be heard faintly then with steady increase in volume; a pristine community with a central swept clean flagstone square; schoolgirls in pristine uniforms being corralled to safety by teachers as the first strains of Wagner could be heard; a female defender with an AK-47 herding villagers; villagers heading for concealed gun pits to repel the invaders.

Then at a critical moment in Ride rockets are fired and the assault begins in earnest. The battle aftermath is a chaotic shambles as Colonel Kilgore strides around in a broad-brimmed 1870s US Cavalry hat, whilst stripped to the waist, then delivers his famous dialogue about the smell of napalm and how a burned to a crisp hillside smells to him like victory.

As noted I am wigged out to heck, courtesy of my failing to properly stock my sads meds, and I’ve been without anti-depressants for two days. I get a new script later this afternoon. I’m dizzy, teary, and aching.

I watched the helicopters come in and the villagers defend their ancient home and I cried. Not a lot, but there were tears, at the hideous wrong that was inflicted on them by another nation thousands and thousands of miles away and done so because of a geopolitical assessment that to not intervene in this civil war would somehow cause surrounding nations to fall to the evils of communism. Even though Ho Chi Minh was a committed nationalist who’d basically gone communist because he saw that as the most effective means to achieve independence from the French (that and China, despite ancient Chinese-Vietnamese enmity, supplied them materiel during their struggle).  

War is not fantastic; it is fucked up. Even if occasionally it’s a necessary evil to stop a greater evil at play. Though of course then there’s the problem of deciding what is in fact a great evil and when intervention is needed. Hello the fail that was the western world intervention in Vietnam and the recent Iraq war. 

Anyway here I am … thirty years removed from childhood … and I realise that war toys are not great and thus I am putting my admiration for them away. 

Though in no way do I now I call myself a proper man. Fuck you, Corinthians—and I still play Dungeons and Dragons!

(1) Oddly, however, I joined the school choir which meant more being in the chapel time. Except that was enjoyable singing and not listening to men talking about how you needed to be more manly and one way of being more manly was to run around after balls all seasons of the fucking year. I suspect however the main reason I was in the choir was because during practice over recess in the Winter months the choir master ensured delivery of a platter of sausage rolls and sauce.
(2) One of three lifetime bans I received from the library during my time there, with herr librarian relenting on each punishment after a suitable amount of purgatory time on my part. However I should note, with tremendous pride, that I got the library chess club disbanded due to rowdy behaviour as we'd had a chess piece fight and we'd smashed a thrown bishop into a plate glass window (though it was not cracked or broken as I recall).
 (3) I cannot tell you how “hard” it was to enter a co-ed school in year nine having spent four and a half years in a single sex school. I got a mad crush on the first girl who was ever nice to me and spent years pining impotently after her. I asked her to the school formal in year 10 and she said no … but she did dance with me. As luck would have it I enhanced my fatty form dance with an electro-mechanically driven spinning bow tie. I really wish someone had sat me down and explained when comedy wasn’t applicable. But then that’s a life lesson I’ve never learned and in many ways the best comedy is when it’s not applicable. Am I right?
(4) I was restricted from sports and PE around year six I think when I developed water on the knee from my awkward sitting pose, developed as it turns out because of my fucked-up skeletal system. So I got to wear sneakers, leather shoes didn’t provide the right support, which in an all-boys school where violence and abuse towards peers was never ever ever not condoned by staff, and who sometimes joined in (4a), proved to make me somewhat of a target. It didn’t help too that I’d gone from normal weight to massively ballooned. And I still got it! (jiggle, jiggle).
(4a) I had a home teacher actually chant my hated nickname in front of the whole class while the rest of those fucking turds looked on and laughed. My parents paid about $6000 a year for the privilege—well, my dad’s former employer did, a rich old French Canadian expat who made millions in the heady boom years of Western Australia during the 70s. For some reason he said he'd pay. What a waste of fucking money. 
(5) He wasn’t a fuckwit because of the leg. He just happened to be a fuckwit who had a false leg.
(6) I got my revenge on being sentenced to the Quartermasters core by leaving the charging radios plugged in after they’d reached full charge, they were most-dated military surplus, and destroyed their batteries as a result. It was a happy accident; fuck da man!
(7) It was one of only three buildings in town that had a lift! It had that machine oil smell to it. It was an Otis so I’d say ‘Mornin’ Otis’ when I got in. Because I am a splendid comedy machine even when on my own. The library also had an agony aunt noticeboard where you could see responses to provided suggestions or even metaphysical questions. The toilets were covered in hilarious semi-high brow graffiti and more than once some clever wit had written ‘Arts Degree’ on each sheet of toilet paper then carefully re-rolled it back up (7a).
(7a) The best movie representation of words on toilet paper goes to the ‘BOOM’ written on Murtaugh’s toilet paper in Lethal Weapon 2, trapping him on the toilet as he’d realised he’d triggered a pressure switch that would activate the device when he got off. Eventually he has to get off… 
(8) I went on a wiki-jaunt about the Vietnam war and ended up reading about Tiger Force. That directed me to some Pulitzer prize winning articles (see References in the wiki page) from the early noughties about the war and the actions of the ‘counter-guerrilla’ Tiger force to “pacify” their area of operations. What they did was nothing short of psychotic and abominable, with civilians casually killed out of hand for the most spurious of reasons. Some men in the unit tried to speak up but the broader hierarchy wasn’t interested. Some say this lack of intervention or care as to the brutality Tiger Force was inflicting had a role in the horror that was the Mai Lai massacre, that took place about six months after the Tiger Force operations (that ended after the valley they were pacifying was sprayed with defoliants to kill agricultural settlements that had been there for thousands of years and thus forced the re-settlement of the surviving people). The worst incident I read about was the decapitation of a baby by a soldier in order to get the baby's necklace. The fact this events happened and nothing was ever done is a deep dark stain on the history of the US Military. 

10 comments:

  1. Awesome post, dude. *salutes* (1)


    (1) Yes, I realise the irony of employing a militaristic gesture in this context...

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    2. Sorry, that was me. I just realised the new format lets me reply direct to comments. I wanted to add that I loved the footnoting :-)

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  2. That was a brutaly long and dense post. So I admire your forbearance for reading through it! I got my meds at four and it's only until now the wigs have ebbed. Stupid meds.

    Thanks again for taking the time to read what I write. It means a lot to me.

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  3. It's ok. One day I intend to make you repay the favour. Oh yes... >:)

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  4. Well I owe you one from before! So I'm still way, way ahead of you on the 'read my stuff' front.

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    1. I'll remember you said that. *makes note*

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  5. GametesRhyme9:11 PM

    *joining Cass' salute*

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    1. Aw thanks, man. It was a long read. I fully understand if people just vague out part-way through.

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    2. GametesRhyme8:37 PM

      Surprisingly, no vaguing out occurred.. I liked the self-reflective part on the issue of war, and coming to grips with aspects of your personality..

      Bring on more posts like this..

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