It’s now been 18 years since that day. The day each one of us boys anticipated and dreaded. Despite the assurances of various males in the family who’d already been there, national service had not been abolished by the time our number came up. Whereas girls in our class were free to sit exams and plan their lives as students, employees or wives and mothers, boys had the 26-month ‘service’ to the motherland to anticipate. Stories from older brothers, fathers, cousins and uncles, black and white photos of their time in the army, all served to fuel our imagination and expectations. What would it be like?
On the morning of Wednesday the 3rd of July 1991 I said farewell to my mother, got on the bus with my school friends and left childhood behind. There were no tears. This was a habit, an expectation, and regardless of how much pain the mother and child felt, they contained it. And so did we. I entered the gates of the recruitment centre as a boy, a lad with a head closely trimmed, only to be identified as soldier number 5983/91. We went through various phases of carefully planned humiliation: the physical strip down, the psychological strip down of personal identity. The donning of uncomfortable, ill-fitting, camouflage fatigues, boots, cap (to be worn at all times), personal hygiene products. And a gun. A weapon. An actual, man-killing device. For training purposes we were issued with a Zastava rifle, a Yugoslavian AK-47 imitation. Don’t imagine the opening scenes of the Full Metal Jacket here. There was nothing ceremonial about all this, just endless bullying, humiliation, shouting, but also the occasional moment of unexpected kindness from the odd corporal who happened to recognise you from school.
On the first day, we were lined up and taught to obey orders: march, halt, right or left turn and about turn. The striped sadists used about turn as a means of torture. Even though they were not allowed to order more than 4 about turns without an ‘at ease’ and ‘attention’ in between, they were really effective in getting us to burn our boots in the July sun. By midday we were pretty much skilled in the whole thing. We were made to jog to the restaurants, where I saw a passing soldier carrying a tray with chick peas stew, one of my favourite dishes. ‘Great’, I thought, in my diachronic naivety, ‘I love chick peas, the army’s not so bad’. Until I tasted the stuff. It was as if someone had shovelled some gravel into a tomato sauce and dished it out to 800 starving, camouflaged boys. Not good. I tipped it into the bin and got myself a bag of crisps from the canteen.
Over the next month or so we were made to run. A lot. Running in the July heat is no joke either. I remember drinking so much water during the day that I had neither space nor appetite for food. I dropped 7-8 kilos in a month. My shirt was so sweaty it was getting soaked and dried up in the heat, with white marks on it. We washed in our spare time, but having only two shirts meant you went a couple of days wearing a stinky, crusty shirt.
In addition, we were ‘taught’ to aim and fire, break down and assemble our weapon, clean it, make our beds so well a coin would (or should) bounce off them, polish our boots so hard you could see your face in them (for about 2 minutes before the dust covered them again). We were taught to hate the enemy. The specific enemy, with their Muslim, ‘backward’ attitudes. We were taught to fight them at night because Muslims ‘didn’t like dying at night’. Bullshit of course. Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and pretty much everyone else, hate dying whether it’s midnight or the sun is shining bright in the sky.
It wasn’t all bad though. We were taught to use a compass, a map, find the north by using the sun or the stars, such things. But above all we were taught to obey. Obey orders, your superior, the system, the institution. Learn the hierarchy by heart, the soldier’s prayer, the soldier’s oath. Military songs about parachuting, killing, pillaging and raping the enemy’s women. Songs about the glory of our army and the evil of others.
After about a month, having done well in the exams, I was selected to be an officer. So I, along with another 300, were shipped off to a Greek island to learn the trade. Enter another 4 months of running, climbing mountains, walking the distance, shooting various weapons, night and day training, attacking imaginary enemies on real life mountain slopes. Clinging to things such as the memory of a girl, the new Guns n’ Roses album. I remember sharing my walkman with my best friend from school who also made it to the island, listening to the same stuff, going through the same emotions, despite the army’s attempt to desensitise us and turn us into animals.
There we came into contact with our Greek ‘brothers’, with whom we had a love/hate relationship. They were suspicious of us and we of them. We clustered around our identity, our little cultural and linguistic peculiarities, against this common foe. Clashes were common, but also friendships. The army’s deconstruction of the person is the great leveller, after all. In this school we were ‘taught’ how to be leaders of men, to take the initiative (but not too much). On the whole I had a fantastic time, only because of the lovely landscape and the frequent exercise, and the bonding with my brothers against the establishment that sought to swallow us up and churn us out as order-obeying robots. Even in our 18-year old naivety we could still distinguish some of the absurdities: the 150-kilo captain ordering us to do push ups. The principle that you couldn’t walk anywhere in the camp-you had to run. Weaklings with stripes. Bullies and other people with all sorts of chips on their shoulders and sadistic tendencies. We resisted as much as possible, going underground to avoid detection and public humiliation. A Greek sergeant punished me for eating bread just outside the dormitories. I still remember his name and how petty he was.
When that was over we returned home, to be posted to various areas and duties. I ended up plodding along, having a good time on the whole, but also growing fiercely anti-authoritarian. I learned to appreciate superiors with common sense and kindness. I also hated deeply superiors who were power-hungry and irrational, and still do. Even though I was technically an officer, I identified with the soldiery, many of whom were mates from school. Together we saw ourselves a world apart from that of the ‘professional’ soldier, whose career evolves around pretending to be effective in the presence of their superiors.
I managed to finish my service without ever being punished, even though I often broke the rules. That was the greatest lesson I learned from all this: you can’t openly oppose the institution on your own-it will always find a way to crush you. That’s where the idea of the underground was born I suppose. Twenty-six months of an institution working hard at undermining your sense of personal identity and attempting to reconstruct you as a number (not a free man). Thanks, motherland. You taught me a great lesson: never ever ever to die for you.