Humanity Lessons in the Army
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I remember the day my army fate was sealed. The instructions for a
certain day in September 1977 with the destination were enclosed in a
single letter that arrived in May 1977. I was three days shy of 19. My
seven years old niece, Janka, who was visiting us screamed at
passers-by, "Jozko is getting a gun! Jozef is getting a gun!"
All my life Tato and some teachers warned me, "A couple of years in the
National Service is what you son need ..."
Nitra often saves its last blast of summer heat for the start of
autumn. September 1977 was no exception. It was Indian summer. A time
when the hot days drifted into balmy nights and the leaves could not
decide whether or not to turn.
Few of us who were coming on the train from Poprad to Nitra realised
that we were riding on the same train tracks used less than 40 years
ago to send over a million Jews to their deaths in Krakow. As we moved
passed straw bales, people queuing in the front of the shops and
weather changing its mind from sunny to overcast, few of us inside the
train were aware that communists recently removed the inscribed the
names of 77,000 Jews from Bohemia and Moravia who were deported and
The train was only 15 minutes late in Poprad, by the time it reached
Nitra 250 kilometers away I was worried I get charged for dessertion
when I arrived three hours after the scheduled time.
For those living outside the army barrack walls, Nitra itself was a
wonderful place. Sprawling beneath a castle in a bend of the Nitra
River, the town is the oldest documented settlement in Slovakia, and
with pleasing sights of vine-covered slopes rising to the north. It has
the views of the first Christian church in Czechoslovakia.
In September Nitra region was a garden - lush green pillows and
embroidered with wildflowers, grapes, wheat, all kinds of colourful
vegetables. This surprised those highlanders who had never been in
Nitra. Many only knew the mountains and thought the lowlands were
composed only of a communist industrial heap, the fag end of the
Russian Revolution, which turned rivers into ashtray colour. It
surprised those who still remembered the school propaganda material
about Nitra where the city was wrapped in a one huge red flag with
scycle and hammer.
The sign over Nitra army barack squeaked like an iron curtain as it
flapped in the breeze. Its faded and peeling letters read
CESKOSLOVENSKA ARMADA. The word Armada defined my enthusiasm in one
word: compulsory. I walked towards a huge green iron gate stationed
with soldiers with a rather unnatural laughter. My nose twitched at the
scent of oil and diesel exhaust. On a long plastic bench a conspiracy
of soldiers watched me watching them. Old sweat stained their khaki
uniforms. Brown machineguns coloured their shoulders. A cloud of black
military boots danced on their nervy feet casting a dancing shadows on
the right side of the concrete path.
As I passed by the ramp next to a white green cabin, through the fence
of rusty barbed wire, the soldiers' soft brains and hearts were making
a decision whether to spit or not to spit on me. I was one of the lucky
ones, no saliva showered my face. As I showed a soldier my papers, I
swallowed hard and concentrated my eyes away from the bad karma and
pack mentality, pretending to study the rusty hood of an ancient Tatra
truck propped against the fence, squinting as the sunlight bounced off
the pristine chrome. The place did not invite conversation or smile.
The two sides of the barbed wire which separated the civilian and the
army world were milimeters from each other-and a psychological
I remember, like an old lover at a wake, how hopeless I felt on the
first day in the army. My first day of the battery-hen existence.
"Take your clothes off!" the order came without preamble and as soon as
I entered the barrack with the sign 'Recruits'.
"Not here", I replied brusquely.
"No?" He clearly hadn't expected a refusal.
"What part don't you understand?", I responded icily, and turned
towards toilet room ... It was not the sun that hit me like a hammer on
my first day in the army.
What was to be the next worst thing? You get to understand why no one
wants peace more than a new soldier. The other thing worth mentioning
about that first army afternoon, is the fact that it was, without a
doubt the most humiliating experience in my life. I didn't expect to
have my private parts exposed in front of an army of laughing
strangers. Around me were strangers cursed with barking fits of "Hurry,
hurry, hurry ..."
Every hour you think 'this is the worst', but no, next hour it was
worse. Looney tunes in army souls began to blurt from every direction.
I was surrounded by uniforms, boots, and guns. I had to adopt a persona
who had to get used to the act of saluting in a way that pleased a
bunch of brutal strangers.
In the unforgiving concrete environment of Nitra army barracks, where
everyone looked the same and appeared to have a personality of
depressed undertaker, life has bared its bones to me. I observed men
turning into little boys and bed wetters. I was taught how deep and
dimensional cruelty of a crash-or-crash through survival course in
survival could be. The brutal reality of remembering my army days was
that the ideal and the real were galaxies apart. Stories of military
service seem to be plots with a thousand possible outcomes and sources
of endless paranoia. In the army, you could practically smell the
testosterone from dusk to dusk. There are crucial parts of Czechoslovak
army culture which imitated concentration camps, but you will not find
them mentioned in any books. They were two years of my life like no
other in place like no other.
On my first day in the army, my shaved head shined in the autumn sun I
paused before a group of soldiers who told me to stop and salute them.
My slowly frying brain began to register the press of bodies and the
assult of the senses of a dozen soldiers shouting "We like your
moustache," seemingly all at once. I had no idea what was going on when
they began to pull on my moustache. As tried to get away one of the
second year soldiers hit me from behind and I felt a screaming pain
behind my ribs. You could say that the whole course of my army life was
determined by my first conflict on my first day at the barracks.
"Soft head, son of a bitch. Sure and I never meant to hurt you! Don't
be daft, it was the slippery ground that made me do it. Besides, the
end of cigarette has your name on it. Dumbhead!"
One's name became a nameless a hey you. "Hey, You! Yes, You, Mongol!
Come Here. Now run back, you dumbhead ****," "Lie there, you
dumbhead*** I felt as I imagined I would feel if someone hit me on a
head with a leather belt: first surprise, then nothing, then
Not the language of saints. Obscene language even to me. However, it
was not a language that made your nose bleed. My confused eyes
described their organs of sight as reflections of hell. They were the
eyes that reminded you your own optimism was misplaced. I might have
entered hell, but I felt as if someone plunged me in an icy lake. I
simply could not get that icy experience out of my shaven head. I felt
tragically humiliated as a soldier boxed my tears with the biggest
smile on his lips.
On my way to the canteen I remembered with a fresh pang of
disappointment that I was hopeless. Some described the aroma of stale
food as the musky odor of a school gym locker room. In the past, one
whiff of musky odor, and I could be transported back to Tatranka dance
practices, but my memory was invaded by a rather different
Signs everywhere indicated that I was at the bottom of the food chain.
What could I do to stop this bullying? Wearing a big silver cross?
Nothing. And as the moon rose higher the army barracks began to give
birth to lunatics and gradually I became aware of the old primitive
madness. Poor little us! One soldier was reflecting at moon's end and
one at moon's beginning. What one accumulates as a fresh soldier are
mostly uncertainties, anxieties an acute sensitivity to snubs and
sneers. All these feelings of inadequacy are predicated on the
conviction that pain matters. Exemplars of mental playfulness and
infected souls rowed along all day long in unpredictable moods of older
soldiers. Reading between the yelling sneers and insults, I realised
that second year soldiers were exact copies of their first year
experiences. Their qualification for yelling in your face was that they
had been yelled at like that when they arrived a year earlier. Here you
didn't dare to meet stare with stare, glare with glare. I soon realised
that all forms of eye contacts were minefields, some haunted by
madness, some with a barbarous wish, some determined to take you with
them. Merely by virtue of drawing breath, each freshmen had the right
to think a serf of himself. Suddenly, you didn't feel so human anymore!
Was the earth a planet orbiting the Sun? Was the Sun a star?
"And get that stupid look off your face!" said an officer with three
stars on his shoulders who never stopped pulling the wings of the
"But, it hurts, you say? How sweet of me to hurt you!"
On a bleak September evening in 1977, my destiny dumped me at area 3.
It was drizzling. It didn't stop for two years. Private Zeleny who
represented a collection of ill-tempered, intellectually bewildered
misfits, directed me to my room, tucked away in the dankest corner of
the barracks. If the sun had ever come out, I soon realised, I wouldn't
be able to see it.
There were Czechs, Moravians and Slovaks, boys from all the different
villages, towns, cities All kinds were bullies, shouting. The humanity
of the different kind made an appearance. So in the army I saw certain
angles about stained humanity I would not see again. There is hardly a
day without testimony of savage beatings. Something is to be said for
not catching the total fire of madness. When will this end? When will
my blisters stop bleeding? When does the sunny morning form? Given half
a chance, will sanity prevail? While marching, I developed a mantra in
Nitra. This was repeated under my breath in a trancelike drone: expect
the unexpected ... shit happens.
The army had taken a perfectly normal, if somewhat plain boys, shaved
their heads and turned them into forest green monstrosities whose skin
under the green uniform was marked by tattooes. I remember seeing a
bald recruit literally shaking, as pale as a white flag. There was this
sense of surrender in apples of his eyes, like droopy flower without
petals. About once a month we were subjected to a haircut. The prospect
of having my ear cut again would fill me with alarm. My blue jeans and
white T-shirt which I wore to Nitra were still breathing on a big pile
and shocked to see me in the army straitjacket. Rapid uniform changes.
I remember getting my left shoe on my right foot and thinking, "My God,
that's the silliest thing I've ever done." Lunging into a fit of
melancholy was the only escapism. Ah, the ways of happiness were few,
but the ways of misery were legion. The planet seemed not so much
planet as a constant battleground, abuse, mistreatment and unending
horror - not to mention dirty tricks, and back-stabbings without
The moral of army life suggested the hangman - in a village where
hangman rules, only the hangman escapes punishment for his
When I was a child I used to sing: "Be not dismayed whatever betide.
God will take care of you." When I was a child, the words to that song
were easier to believe. When I became an adult in the army, I learned
to worry. Worry about the huge number of unwritten rules about
surviving in the army.
I find myself worrying all the time. I would say nothing, but I was
torn to shreds inside. Torn about what? Well, about the fact that I had
never had a shaven head before and I even scared myself looking at the
mirror. That I had to stand in a souless hall on my own. That I had to
change my army boots and did not have much time for getting a pair that
fit me well. That I didn't know why the unshaven soldier in a room
across the corridor was giving me his fingers. All the way to the
toilet, canteen, office, I worried. In between, I noticed that some
boys had a tear or two in their eyes. I worried at night during the
sounds of measured breathing and intermittent coughing that echoed off
concrete walls. Then at sunrise the yelling of soldiers, came closer
I was expected to learn entire army hierarchy in a day, names and
ranks. If a second year soldier entered your room, I was supposed to
brace yourself into a formal standing position and say, "How may I help
you, sir." Oh, I wished I had Joseph Heller's sense of humour as he did
in Something Happened.
In the office in which I work there are five people of whom I'm afraid.
Each of these five people is afraid of four people (excluding overlaps)
for a total of 20, and each of these 20 people is afraid of six people,
making a total of 120 people who are feared by at least one person.
Each of these 120 people is afraid of the other 119, and all of these
145 people are afraid of the 12 men at the top who helped found and
build the company and now own and direct it. In my department, there
are six people who are afraid of me, and one small secretary who is
afraid of all of us. I have one other person working for me who is not
afraid of anyone, not even me and I would fire him quickly, but I'm
afraid of him.
So many important discoveries were coming hard and fast. What were
human beings made of? Where did the cruelty come from? How old was it?
What made the officers afraid of new recruits? What made their stripes
and stars shine? What is one day in a life of a modern Josef Svejk, or
Good Soldier Svejk, like? Questions no one dared to ask publicly. The
army, the jewel in the crown of communism, was instrumental in
shattering any remaining illusions in my mind about my future in
Czechoslovak Socialist Republic.
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