Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Din of Pigs

A few days ago, I sat in the back of a Stryker and listened to the chatter between the driver, gunner, vehicle commander and scout. The conversation, laced with off-color racial, ethnic and gender jokes, was largely unprintable. Since it is not a discussion essential to understanding the troops or one I could even secure command approval to write, I didn’t even bother to try. By most standards, it was extremely offensive. But as one of the Soldiers put it, “that’s every day in our truck. It helps pass the time.”

A day later, another Soldier noted how much he liked the fact that infantry doesn’t form cliques. Regardless of age, ethnic origin or religion, he remarked, you wear the same uniform, do the same job, and poke fun at each other constantly. You either develop thick skin, or you go mad.

Years ago, while waiting in the dark for a mission to end, I remember listening on the radio to the banter between two gunners. One had an unusually large head and the other unusually crooked teeth.

“Wilson, I need help opening my MRE. Walk over here and use your teeth to saw it open.”

“Why don’t you smash it open with your gigantic head?”

“Your teeth actually might SCARE it open.”

“Like your huge head scared your mother when she had to deliver you?”

…And so on. In short order, every one of us was laughing – perhaps to the point of compromising our tactical readiness. Yet we all stayed awake and mostly alert. On long missions, boredom to the point of desperation trumps manners. And despite the undeniable hostility and decidedly offensive language, these two Marines were roommates and close friends.

There are places where such conversations are wholly inappropriate and hurtful, but Iraq isn’t one of them. Troops are often outside the wire, usually in the same vehicle, and have the same purpose: keep each other alive, complete the mission, and go home safely. Gentility becomes far less relevant.

Regardless of their brutality, one thing remains a fact: each of these young men and women are friends with each other and trusts them with their lives. And besides this, there are still rules to the “game.” Most consider racial jokes and “your mom” comments to be acceptable, but nobody says a thing about a man’s wife or children. In fact, remarks about spouses or children are always encouraging, edifying, and complimentary. If there’s nothing nice to say, they simply remain quiet. (Even when a Marine Corporal I know named his newborn son “Corporal”) These guys aren’t total criminals; they’re just pigs.

And thus, I have witnessed innumerable derogatory conversations about Mexicans, white people, blacks, Jews, Asians, fat people, skinny people, and any other defining title under the sun. Quite often, their sources are of the same ethnic or philosophical origin. For example, I know a black Marine with a German SS tattoo on his arm. It’s all in good fun. In fact, I’ve even observed this behavior in other armies.

While visiting an Iraqi army barracks a few years ago, Iraqi soldiers went around the room and identified themselves as Sunni, Shiite, Yazidi, and even a couple self-described devil worshippers. As they joked about each other, they stroked their chins and casually drew a finger across their throats. But they’re not serious. Many of them stated to me directly what most US troops quietly live by daily: “I don’t care what he believes; he’s my brother.” Their actions demonstrate it, too.

Our big headed Marine was often known simply as “The Head.” Everybody knew who it referred to. The one with the misaligned orthodontia was occasionally called “Chainsaw.” “Beak” had an enormous nose, naturally. The unit’s two Smiths were differentiated as “Stinky Smith” and “Stupid Smith.” A Hispanic Marine titled himself “Your Friendly Neighborhood Minority” (think Spiderman). Here on this base, “Radio” is named after a mentally retarded man from a movie. “Honeytrap” is a female Soldier called upon whenever looks might help get what the unit needs. As for “Trouser Snake,” I elected not to ask. It doesn’t particularly matter. They’re all in the same boat, working to complete the same mission, and all would unthinkingly do everything in their power to preserve the life of their brothers and sisters.

Besides, when everybody is home, they’ll find something besides vulgarity to occupy their time. But out here, it’s no holds barred. When the mission in the sun gets tiresome or the late night mission swatting sand flies runs long, the jokes, the insults and the verbal assaults begin. And when it’s over, they’ll all go home as friends. They’re not hateful in the least; they’re just bored, tired, and lonely. Why not make this forced marriage (and a bad one) fun?

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved


  1. Pretty funny stuff, with an underlying cord of deadly seriousness.

  2. I laughed so much at the conversation you recounted - and the nicknames of those guys! So completely true!