Sunday, 27 April 2008

Recruit camp

These days, the expression "boot camp" seems to have taken over from "recruit camp". More Americanisation of the language I guess, or an example of how perceptions from Hollywood are more powerful than the reality on the ground. More people have seen a movie like Platoon than have served in the army.

We simply referred to it as "recruits", as in, "When did you do recruits?" (once we had gotten through it of course). We were not referred to as "boots", we were recruits. We weren't private soldiers - we were lower than that. Until we passed the course, we were the lowest form of life - "Recruit Bike".

Our recruit camp was held at HMAS Leeuwin, on the banks of the Swan River in Fremantle. You might have noticed the "HMAS" - what was a bunch of army recruits doing at a naval base? Beats me. I guess it just made sense for all the services to share the one facility. It was a reasonably modern place for its time, with three story brick barracks, a proper mess, a large gym and an asphalt parade ground. That was the stuff that faced the road and was presumably shown to visiting VIPs when they were shown around. We actually did most of our lessons in WWII era (or earlier) huts out the back of the base - away from prying eyes. Bits of the base looked like leftovers from the Boer War.

One thing that comes back to me now is the paperwork, or lack of it. Every bit of paper that we got looked like it had been mimeographed, and given that personal computers were extremely thin on the ground back then, we were spared the sight of clerks sitting in offices creating new forms for us to fill out all day. Back then, I thought we were drowning in paperwork, but compared to now, it was a paper free zone. Interesting how the rise of the PC has not created a paperless world, but has instead created a voracious demand for paper. It's simply allowed clerks and beauracrats to easily create and publish forms for everything. If you took away the ability to produce forms, we'd quickly find that we needed fewer of them.

In the leadup to the camp, I was sent or given a 2 or 3 page form listing what I was to bring. Things like a toothbrush, boot polish, laundry powder etc etc. It was very simple and straightforward, having been typed out on what looked like a manual typewriter and then duplicated. It was for all I know the same forms that they handed out to recruits back in 1914. I must go to the War Memorial one day and simply go to the archives and poke around in the files. I'm sure all the paperwork will look familiar.

Like most of the recruits, I was dropped off on day one - mainly because there was no parking for our cars. There might have been 150-200 of us. After gaggling around on the parade ground, we were divided into 6 or 7 platoons of 30 each, and then further divided into three sections of 10. At this point, we were probably assigned to an instructor, and then shown where to drop our kit in the barracks.

The rooms were very simple affairs - four recruits per room, one single bed with plasticised mattress over a wire frame, and a built in wardrobe for each person. Lino floors, brick walls, no curtains and no doors. Who needed curtains to keep out the sun when we got up at dawn? The place was very bare and spartan. No frippery anywhere. Each floor had a fire escape at one end and some communal showers and toilets at the other. The laundry was on the ground floor. It was a simple, well laid out, no nonsense affair. No excess fat or unnecessary stuff.

I think it was one platoon per floor, and I don't think the three instructors per platoon and the platoon sargeant got their own room - from memory, they shared a room just like us. The only person who got their own room was the platoon commander - a lieutenant. I'm pretty sure all the officers were housed somewhere else.

Our instructors were all corporals and lance-corporals. None of this Marine drill sergeant stuff for us. Some had loads of experience and had been in the regular army for years, whilst others were reservists like us, and had probably been in for only 2 years at that point. But we didn't know that - we were wet behind the ears recruits, and we knew less than nothing about military life.

At this point, I will mention Full Metal Jacket. This is one of my top five favourite war movies. There are many aspects of the first half of the movie that any recruit will recognise - the drill, the weapons instruction, the physical exercise, the spartan barracks and most of all, the loud, profane instructors. Regular army recruits go through a much longer course - usually 8 to 12 weeks (depending on which army you are joining), so we got a rather truncated introduction to the army. A lot had to be crammed into that two weeks, and cram is what our instructors did.

Our corporal had seen service in Vietnam in the infantry, had stayed in the regular army after the war and then moved onto the reserves when his time was up. He was short, slightly dumpy and easily the quietest and most humane of all the instructors on the camp. Which made him slightly less loud and less abusive than the rest. Although he had seen longer service than every other instructor put together, he spent the first few minutes of every lesson boning up on the contents from his notebook. Looking back now, I think he was pretty fond of a beer, which might explain why he didn't yell so much in the morning. Sore head and all that.

So we turned up, got split up into our various platoons, had a quick march around the barracks to show us this and that, and then it was time to issue us with kit. That meant marching back and forth from the Q store time and time again to be issued with boots, uniforms, webbing, bedding and all the other stuff that a soldier needs, before finally being marched to the armoury to collect a rifle. Each stage involved completing a bit of paperwork, because the Q store never hands anything over without a signature.

The first day was one of either standing in line, being bored beyond belief, or being yelled at and hurried from one task to another. We were shown all the usual recruit stuff - how to make a bed that the instructor would not destroy on sight, how to put our webbing together, how to lace our boots, how to polish out boots etc etc etc. Once we had a semblance of a uniform on (jungle greens, giggle hat and black boots, along with a web belt), we started drill instruction.

We spent part of every day doing drill. I don't know how many hours - maybe four hours a day? A few hours in the morning and a few more after lunch. It's amazing how difficult it was for some people to even march properly - that is, to keep in step and to swing the arms in the correct fashion. It might seem strange to a civilian, but it actually takes weeks to learn how to march properly. It might seem like glorified walking to some, but it takes a lot of practice to get 30 people to line up in three rows and walk in one direction without bumping into each other and tripping over each others feet.

Marching involves learning lots of little things. The correct way to clench the fist (I can't describe it to you, but the thumb should always be pointing rigidly down). The correct height to swing the arms to (shoulder height). Holding the shoulders back. Keeping the elbows stiff. Getting the right posture involved a lot of yelling and endless marching up and down the parade ground. And that was just the moving in one direction. We also had to know how to start marching, and how to stop. Then came changing direction, being dismissed and all that. And of course the correct way to come to attention and to stand at ease. And you can't forget saluting.

Drill is all about repetition. I know that hippies love to point at soldiers and laugh when they are standing in the hot sun, endlessly being ordered to attention, and then to stand at ease.... it all looks pretty mindless and robotic, and a sane person would wonder why a supposedly intelligent person would voluntarily submit themselves to it. I know that people that like to think of themselves as intellectuals always scoff at the stupidity of the sheep like lower orders that submit to this sort of thing.

Why do it?

Because an army is not a mob. An army is a controlled instrument of terrible violence. Such a terrible instrument needs to be kept on a tight leash - very strong controls are required when you are dealing with a bunch of 19 year olds armed with high powered rifles, machine guns, grenades, grenade launchers, anti-tank rockets and a radio that can call in artillery fire and air strikes. If you want to see what a well armed mob looks like, have a look at footage of places like the Congo and Somalia. Mobs create chaos and destruction and utter ruin wherever they go.

A western army can also create utter devastation - but only when it wants to. In fact a western army will go out of its way to not turn the countryside into a moonscape. With a mob, the provision of arms to 19 year olds allows power to go to their heads, and raping, pillaging and destruction follows as night follows day.

The way to exercise control over well armed 19 year olds (in fact I was 18 at the time, but I'll take my cue from "I was only 19") is to drill them and drill them and drill them and then drill them some more so that they obey orders. Yes, I know that bowing to authority is another thing that hippies love to disdain, but like I said, you don't allow someone to run around with a loaded 7.62mm self loading rifle unless they are going to do what they are bloody well told to do. Not unless you want a hole in your head. The Romans understood the importance of drill, and look where it got them.

So we spent our days marching up and down the parade ground, breaking mid-morning for a cup of tea and a bikkie. Big urns of tea would be wheeled out by the catering staff, and we'd stand around and have a 15 minute break and a biscuit. The smokers would have a fag, and we'd wiggle our blistered feet.

OK, let me try and describe a normal day.

We'd be rousted from our beds before dawn. I can't remember the exact order of things, but in the course of the first two hours or so after being woken up, we'd do a quick parade in our PT gear (to count heads and ensure that no one went over the wall during the night), then do some form of PT. That would vary between put through a series of horrible exercises by an evil PT instructor (like star jumps, push ups, knee bends and the like) or going on a 5k run around Fremantle. Or both. I think we generally did both. But I was young and fit back then, so it wasn't that hard. Some of the older guys (25 year olds) would be a bit stiff afterwards, but us youngsters recovered quickly and felt little pain after a while.

We'd then have to shower, shave, clean up our rooms and change into the uniform of the day for breakfast. All of this was accompanied by inspections to ensure that we were fit to spend all day marching up and down. Several beds would be ripped up by the instructors for failing to meet the required standard.

I don't remember anyone having a problem with the communal arrangements - I certainly didn't. I'd been to boarding school, and it really wasn't that much different - except that the marching was stricter and my housemaster at school never issued me with a rifle.

Breakfast was usually quite impressive, with a good selection of food and plenty of it. An army does march on its stomach, and the Australian army feeds its troops very well. Ok, it's not the sort of stuff that you'd find in a fancy restaurant, and it can be a bit monotonous and there is not a huge menu to choose from, but it did the trick. It kept us marching from sun up to sun down, and I don't remember any whingeing about it. Well, ok, I do remember some whingeing, because someone was always complaining about something. The boots. The marching. The teabags. The giggle hats. The instructors. The short period at night during which the boozer was opened. The PT instructors. All were cause for complaint. Apparently the only time to every worry about an army is when the complaining ceases - that's when the mutiny is about to break out.

More later.

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