There comes a time in life, when enough time has passed, that you can look back on certain challenging situations with a sense of detachment and humour: “Someday you´ll be able to look back at this situation and laugh about it.”
The time has come for me to share the jocular but oddly enough ‘true story’ of how I was part of the Canadian military reserves for a brief period of time during my late teenage years while attending the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. For those who have met me in recent years it may come as a shock for you to hear I was once a part of the military. It doesn´t really conform well to the image of the independent backpacker type who enjoys culture, food and languages in far off corners of the world. It´s not something I mention proudly or talk about openly nor have I included it on my resume in the last six to seven years. I was only part of the Canadian reserves for a very brief period of time (2000 to 2001) but I did collect a rather large database of vivid memories.
Basic training was an absolute exercise in futility. In hindsight, it´s become rather apparent what the entire purpose of its procedure and psychology was meant to accomplish. When you can tear back the layers of propaganda and mind control you´re left with a very basic recipe. The entire point of basic training was to instil within the lowly level soldier the very specific point that you´re nothing more than a stimulus response creature. Your entire existence within the military chain of command is to obey orders at whatever cost. To have even the slightest inkling of creativity, objectivity or spontaneity was ENTIRELY frowned upon and in fact punishable by a wide array of various forms of discipline.
The entire existence or essence of basic training is to prepare the soldier for the most unbearable of conditions. Your partner has been fatally wounded in the heat of battle and your Sergeant is raging on at you to charge. The natural flight or fight instincts of an intelligent human being is to retreat and take shelter. After-all, basic human instincts prepare you for survival in most cases; however, in the military, the rational and obedient solider charges on without the slightest delay. If they´ve been properly trained (also know as brainwashed) they´ve become conditioned much like a laboratory rat by stimulus/response habituating. The punishments aren´t rational. They´re designed to be this way. In order to strip somebody down to the most robotic of creatures serious conditioning needs to take place.
The key factor in all of this is that in order to instil the rigid chain of command the conditioning process takes place daily, hourly, even by the minute. Instances of impossible deadlines and inspections were more often than not the weapons of choice. Having to make your bed to the accordance of precise measurements was a requirement of every soldier. Tape measures would come out each morning to check how it was done. If you were off even a mere millimetre it was cause for grave concern. Your bed would be ripped to shreds and you´d have several minutes to have it made back to the same configurations. The impossible deadline was not met and consequently you were marshalled to do physical punishments and gruelling exercise for an extended period of time.
The instructors would also eagerly look for imperfections while you were marching. If your arms did not swing a certain degree or you were slightly out of cadence you might be yelled at and referred to as the following: “A soggy shit sandwich.” If your room was impeccably clean the instructors would hunt for things to point out that were wrong. They´d lift up garbage cans searching for what they referred to as ´dust bunnies´ for an excuse to repeat the process of brainwashing and physical punishment. The process was repeated EVERY single day of training. I couldn´t believe how many fellow trainees just didn´t get it that NO MATTER how well you DID OR DIDN¨T make your bed or clean the rest of your supplies the results would be the same. You´d get yelled at for constructive or non-constructive reasons and forced to do a series of humiliating tasks all in the process of establishing the hierarchy (what they referred to as the chain of command) while ensuring that the soldier knew without a doubt they were nothing more than a lemming (a lowly lackey) that would perform tasks at the drop of a hat. It was purely about conditioning and establishing the rigid SENIOR/JUNIOR relationship.
The ideal soldier is one who does not asks questions. It´s the soldier who jumps half a second before you give the command and who does not ever think twice about what is going on. The entire psychology of the military is to encourage group-think mentality. As a sociology major, I´ve studied about the mentality of what goes on in a mob scene. The underlying concept is that when social norms are stripped down you´re left with nobody willing to accept responsibility. Thus, individuals within a mob feel far more willingly and likely to do behaviours they would not do as a single individual. This kind of mentality is very much a part of the military. Discouraging individuality and intelligent thought is at the forefront of most disciplinary measures.
The more passive, obedient, conforming and lemming like you become the more you´re appreciated in the military as a private. In basic training, there is no shortage of double digit IQ goon squad instructors who are well versed in popping down sore thumbs that were sticking out. It´s very easy for them to detect because the individuals they´re after are the ones who are questioning the absurdity of certain operations or suggesting a method of getting something done that would reduce a project from 45 minutes into a simple 15 minutes of labour.
I found myself gravitating towards these types of people. I respected them immensely because deep down I knew they were above the conditioning that was taking place. I felt a sense of kinship and affinity towards these types because I myself was becoming passively resistant. I´m not naturally an aggressive type and especially during my teenage years I didn´t have the physical or mental resources at the time to go head to head with the system in a head on collision.
What I might do today would be an entirely different story! Instead, I became a dust bunny collector and a soggy shit sandwich parade-r. I brought myself down to the lowest common denominator and tried my best to do the LEAST I possibly could. It was my way of passively resisting. I quickly got labelled as an underachiever and I wore my title proudly.
Once in a while I would selectively choose to excel at something such as floor hockey or physical fitness tests during our jogs. Only the most discerning eye caught on to the cognitive dissonance taking place and it was a way of showing that I MIGHT just in fact NOT be putting in my best effort. I did this to stick out my tongue directly at the system without actively fighting it. I met several of those who did actively fight the system and I have immense respect for them even to this day. I think they knew all along they would not gain any kinds of concessions or benefits from the entire ordeal. In fact, they willingly knew they´d face harsher circumstances; however, what they did prove was that were not going to be a brainwashed lemming.
I still remember my final grade to this day. I was placed in the lower third of the class. Little did they realize at the time that I´d go on to finish a university degree, work overseas & travel while having numerous offers to study abroad on scholarship for a Masters degree. I can honestly look back ten years later and count my blessings that I didn´t excel in the military and continue on in that direction. I can´t imagine how different my life would be now had I really put in my best effort and tried to play along with the system.
I didn´t know it back then but I know it now, I´m very much a free spirit and I´m now living the life of travels and adventures that I’ve always dreamed of.
This is an article I wrote back in 2010 while backpacking in South America. It was my 10 year anniversary of basic training at the time and at the age of 28, I reflected on my experiences in the military and how different a person I had become over the years by following a path that deviated strongly from basic training.