Saturday, April 25, 2015


"Our great wistfulness about the world of primitive man is that he managed willy-nilly to blunt the terrible potential destructiveness of the drama of heroism and expiation.  He didn't have the size, the technological means, or the world view for running amok heroically."
-Ernest Becker, "Escape From Evil," p. 96

Samurai armor and weapons are individuated to the warrior.  The polishing of the katana blade alone took about six days, and before it was given to a samurai, it was often tested -- not with chemicals or equipment, but on cadavers, to make sure the blade can run smoothly through the limb of an enemy.  The armor's variegated manufacturing processes are a representation of their clan and its smiths, in the same way that patterns in Scandinavian folk clothing could indicate a specific municipality of Sweden or Norway, or patterns and creation styles in Persian or Kurdish rugs can identify the tribe that created it.  Needless to say, variety was part of the design in the plating and chainmail, as was how it was bound to cloths of various colors and patterns, and what animals or symbols were at the crest of a helmet.  It was a matter of what individual craftsmen and craftswomen put their talents and devotion together to make a warrior's image, survivability, and lethality happen.  Additionally, not unlike the spirituality native Americans had for their world, the Japanese came to associate spiritual qualities with the objects.  The maker of some katana swords crafted blades that were bloodthirsty, others created blades that were reverent, and so on.  The spiritual qualities of the equipment could also be established over time by the previous owners' deeds or misdeeds.

The impersonal nature of modern warfare is well represented by the difference between these older meaningful individuated processes that illustrated respect for the warrior, and the mass processes we use today.  In 2006, we shipped our Strykers from Fort Lewis, Washington, down to Arizona (via train or truck).  The company personnel took charter buses through California, to Yuma, in order to utilize the military's training site on the base.  About a week into training, we had a friendly-fire incident in 2nd platoon.  As it was told to me, in an ill-planned nighttime live-fire exercise, our stryker vehicles were to have their movement synchronized: two vehicles were supposed to alternate their bounding in the same direction, while firing at a target -- also in the same direction.  Soldiers with heavy automatic weapons would be exposed through the hatches in the top of the vehicle, firing at the targets.  Due to some apparent loss in communication and/or inability to coordinate, vehicle drivers weren't quite sure where and when to stop, and weapons teams weren't quite sure when to stop firing, and at least a couple rounds from one vehicle's crewman operating an m249 S.A.W. hit Bryant Compean in the head.  An immediate ceasefire was called over the radio, and although we headquarters medics fired up the engine in the medevac stryker and prepared for the casualty, we were called off from driving 20 minutes to the range where 2nd platoon was at, since the aero-medevac resources of Yuma Proving Ground were already 2 minutes out from the scene.

The next morning, it was declared that all training operations were to be halted pending investigation, and our company did little more than sit around doing weapons maintenance and physical exercise until leadership decided maybe we should take a break.  Somewhere off-post, accommodations were made for the company to stay in a hotel.  Mass intoxication, the seeking of prostitutes, and occasional fights ensued, but to no serious level.  After seeing his sloppy fistfight with a communications soldier, I confronted one infantryman who tried to justify his violence by claiming, "He was talking shit about 'Comp,'' while crying.  I was incredulous to that, but then he made the more clearer statement -- the true ailment, perhaps: "I had Comp's brains all over me."  I had to wonder if it was really a good idea to take a traumatized platoon and give them the conditions to be drunk and irresponsible, but it might have been the lesser problem.

By the time we left the hotel and got back to post, the vehicle that Compean had died in was given back to us.  High-pressure hoses of the Yuma Proving Ground Fire Department needed to be employed to spray clean the inside of the Stryker vehicle, as the Arizona heat had cooked pieces of the soldier and his blood to the vehicle's surface.  We wrapped up training operations and headed home not long after.

A week or so later, being back in Fort Lewis, I had the chance to talk to Jacob Sweat, the medic for the platoon who was at the range at the time Compean was killed.  Standing in the aid station of building 3213 with a couple other medics present, he told me about the incident, and also of the military's investigative processes immediately after the incident.  Sweat tells me that, despite the overwhelming consensus in the platoon that there was no foul play involved, military investigators still performed lengthy single-person interrogations, ripe with accusations of negligence in an incriminating style.  Sweat was a pretty tough character.  In my years of working with him, I think the only time I ever saw any hurt in his eyes was after that incident, when he said, "They asked me over and over again why I didn't do CPR on Comp, and I eventually told them to go fuck themselves.  I said, 'It's pretty hard to do CPR on a guy with half of his fucking head missing.'"

At the funeral, I sat behind Compean's parents; his father's head vibrating with emotion as if he had Parkinsonian tremors.  Months later, our company's First Sergeant would give me a ziploc bag with Compean's helmet in it, which had apparently only recently been shipped to us from Yuma after the investigation.  Fragments of skull were still in the body of the helmet, and part of the cloth helmet cover was caked with a dried mix of blood and cerebrospinal fluid.  "Wash it out," First Sergeant had told me.  "We can still use it."  And I did, in the shower stall of the aid station of that building.  I wondered about the men who receive posthumous promotions and posthumous commander's coins made in bulk in China, with no intended recipient; whose weapons and gear, the tools of their trade and key to their survivability and lethality, could potential see so much of their human essence, but were ultimately issued like library books: on loan.  Despite the notion of a "manufactured" society of "human numbers" sounding like an uber-liberal pedestal, there seems to be more than enough evidence that, in a way, mass production (and the absence of spirituality where one is unique and connected to all matter around them) makes this true.

The man whose bullets killed Compean got med-boarded out of the Army in 2007.
Sweat deployed with us, but his 2007/2008 Iraq deployment was marked by having been discovered to be stealing other medics' morphine auto-injectors and using them on himself.  He died of a drug overdose only 2 months after he got out of the army, in 2008.

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