I sat at the desk in my new dorm room with one bare foot crossed over my thigh, sawing a torn blister off the bottom of my foot with a pocketknife, then piling the dead skin on my desk. I sawed off the next blister, the next white patch of dry crusted skin, and the next, then added them to the pile of dead skin. I had this really nice pile going.
It was move-in day of college. I was eighteen, living in Stanley Hall, at the University of Iowa. I had just finished unpacking. I had shelved my books and movies alphabetically. Set up my computer. Plugged in the television. Tucked in the sheets and covers on my bunk bed. With the bedding, I had a decision to make about the corners: tuck them in at respectable forty-five-degree angles—hospital corners—or simply jam the blankets under the mattress? I thought awhile, then decided on a compromise. I made the hospital corners, but I made them loose, so the bed didn't look aggressively neat. Just regular neat.
I kept the door to my room propped open because that seemed to be the fashion.
Really, I kept the door open because I was performing something. I was an E-2 private in the Iowa National Guard, and about thirty hours prior I had graduated from the army's six-week infantry course at Fort Benning, Georgia. There, a cadre of loud, muscular, veiny men had spent the summer persuading me to the idea that not only was I able and willing to kill other human beings but, further, that I was good at it. Now I was persuaded to this idea. I had this steady and potent feeling of being truly capable. But in a broader sense than knowing how to shoot a rifle. Like I was capable of doing anything. Like any problem I encountered here in civilian life would be easy, relative to the ones at training. But there was also something off about that feeling. Something tremendously bizarre: that I was here, suddenly, at this polite university, to study books no one reads except students at polite universities. To learn words like hermeneutics and simulacrum just so I could use them in formal essays explaining what the books meant.
It felt strange, and I wanted to communicate that somehow. I wanted to show people the strangeness, because they couldn't know just by looking. This wasn't my hometown, where people knew me, so I had to perform it. And since the bottoms of my feet were torn up from the long ruck marches, I took off my socks and began cutting away the dead skin. Piling it on my desk. With the door open.
After a few minutes, someone knocked and stepped in. He wore a white V-neck T-shirt and faux-distressed jeans. He was narrow and scruffy and apparently couldn't stand up straight.
I'm Paul, he said, shrugging his little shoulders. I live down the hall. Just wanted to . . . say hi, or whatever.
I stopped hacking skin off my foot for a second.
Cool. Hi. I'm Steve.
He stared at the pile on my desk.
What are you doing?
On the first day of the semester, the other students filed into their lecture halls and discussion sections. But not me. I didn't go to class. I didn't have any. Registration happened over the summer, and none of my drill sergeants had felt compelled to let me near a computer to sign up for any bull---- f---ing college classes. So on the first day of classes I went to see my academic adviser, in a huge rectangular building of white stone and turquoise glass. He gave me four slips of lime-green paper. He told me to find professors whose classes weren't full and ask if I could enroll late. Each class needed to fulfill a particular gen-ed requirement. Each lecture needed a corresponding discussion section. Each discussion section needed a course number matching the lecture. The green slips needed to be signed, then returned to this office by four o'clock so the information could be entered and I wouldn't miss another day of class. Okay? he asked. Does that all make sense?
It sounded familiar. Just like the army's process for medical screenings or issuing equipment. In order to complete a simple task, I needed to first see an administrative figure who would describe the scope of the task, provide the right paperwork, and assign a hard-time for completion, then direct me elsewhere toward subsequent necessary people who would help me conduct the paperwork, and the people would act irritated with my presence, and I would act patient, like I had all the time in the world, then I would thank them and find the next person, paying close attention to detail each step of the way, then returning the paperwork to the original office for final inspection.
I took the green slips and said, Yes, sir.
The morning classes were the only ones left, so at 0730 I went to the discussion section for a history class called Western Civilization III. I was worried because I had never taken Western Civilization I or II, so it seemed like I was probably already behind. Like if you tried to learn advanced rifle marksmanship before learning how to disassemble the weapon, or before learning to find the pause between breaths that means it's time to shoot.
But there I was at Western Civilization III. The TA's name was Allen. He was short and wore thick glasses and snorted when he laughed. He wore ironed shirts tucked into his slacks, and he carried his things in a briefcase. During a class discussion about World War I, Allen drew an elaborate diagram of a trench on the chalkboard. He drew the trench like a zigzag, then asked the class to guess why trenches were designed like zigzags. I raised my hand. I didn't need to guess. We had practiced clearing trenches during training (though I had no idea why—who fights in trenches anymore?). I told Allen that trenches were designed like zigzags so the enemy can't hop inside and shoot someone at the far end of the trench, because of the angles. The attackers can only overtake a short segment at a time, which slows their progress and makes them vulnerable to counterattack.
I avoided adding that if you do find yourself in the position where you are trying to take the trench, it is advisable to try a series of two-man teams, each one leapfrogging the previous. The teams can hi/low around the corners while staggering the pace of their movements to maintain surprise—slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Not too different from taking a series of interior hallways. Maybe it wasn't that crazy to practice.
Allen said, Yes, that's right.
I got a job at the university bookstore, which primarily sold T-shirts, sweatshirts, polo shirts, and other varietals of shirts, and the textbooks were in one special department in the back of the store. For anyone to find the books, people in the shirts department had to direct them down a certain aisle, make a hard turn, then all the way back. I worked back there with the books. I liked showing people to the right shelf and saying, Here it is! and how easy it was to do everything right. Make the stacks neat and keep the boxes in order and never lose anything. It was all attention to detail.
One time I was opening and unpacking boxes with a coworker named Travis who majored in art history. He was a kind, heavy, round fellow who lived with his parents and had a passion for bookbinding. The uniform at work was a black apron with the bookstore's logo, but there was only one size, and because of Travis's size, his apron fit like a bib.
It must've been early in the week. I had bruises down the side of my face.
Travis smiled with his bulbous cheeks and said, Did you have a rough weekend? Get in a fight or something?
Kind of, I said. It was drill weekend.
Like, drilling for rocks?
No. Drill. Like, for the National Guard. Drill means training.
Oh, Travis said. What are you training for?
A wrestling mat was unrolled in the main drill hall. The day's training was called combatives, or GFT—ground fighting techniques—a program of mixed martial arts the army had then recently adopted. We were practicing the introductory level, which featured basic Greco-Roman style wrestling, along with a variety of arm bars—ways of breaking a person's arm, usually by snapping it backward at the elbow—and submissions, which is a euphemism for choking someone until they lose consciousness.
Teaching mixed martial arts to members of the National Guard means entertaining a rather specific and improbable scenario: a Guard unit has deployed to a combat zone, and they are on a mission of some kind, outside the wire. The mission goes absolutely to s---, and they're taking fire in a really extreme way. Suddenly a soldier becomes separated from the group. To make matters worse, he doesn't have his rifle, for some reason. He dropped it, or a bad guy wrestled it away from him and the rifle skidded a short distance, eight inches beyond his reach, like in a movie. But in any case an attacker is right there trying to kill him. The attacker doesn't have a firearm either, somehow, and now these two people are fighting each other without weapons. Army instructors would pitch this scenario as being able to hold your own until your buddy arrives with a rifle and shoots him.
Army instructors, like all instructors, sometimes have to help their students imagine situations in which the thing they're learning will be necessary in the real world. Ground fighting was one of those times.
Everyone took off their boots so we wouldn't tear the mat. Then we were divided randomly into pairs. I was paired with a guy named King. He was several years older than me, thick and sturdy—he had fifty or sixty pounds on me at least. I knew that King was recently back from Afghanistan, but I had no idea what that meant. What they even did over there.
The instructor stood at the center of the mat with two demonstrators. He explained a particular move we were going to practice called escaping the mount. One person would start in a full mount over the other, and the person on the bottom would escape and take a dominant position of their own. The demonstrators showed us what to do, step by step. Once the person escaped and achieved a more dominant position, we were told to start over. Just practice that escape, again and again and again. King got on his back. I straddled his upper torso, shoved my knees up close to his armpits: a full mount.
He threw me off right away and took a position on top. But he didn't stop there. He went for a cross-collar choke, which was designed to cut off blood to the brain. Also called, for that reason, a blood choke. Obstructing someone's oxygen can take minutes to affect them, but obstructing someone's blood supply can knock them out in a few seconds; a person cannot hold their blood. King tightened down fast on my neck and I passed out.
I woke up. Somebody was on top of me. Different guy. Seemed like I was fighting this guy now, so I reached for him. He put up both hands and said, Whoa whoa whoa, easy, easy, easy.
It was the instructor, Sergeant Armstrong. He was a short, bald, serious man whose civilian job was on the state SWAT team, so I was extremely glad we weren't fighting. I looked around. Everyone had gathered close by. I started to understand what happened. King said we should go get some water, so we left the room, and he watched me drink from a fountain in the hall. He leaned against the gray-painted brick. He said he was sorry, he just never heard the instructions. Like any of the instructions. He thought we were supposed to just fight each other for a while. He said his hearing had been f---ed up ever since the deployment. He couldn't hear sh-- anymore.
Lemme make it up to you, he said. After drill I'll buy you a Big Mac.
I said thanks, but it was fine.
I wanted to ask what happened to his hearing. What was it like over there? I couldn't imagine it. But asking seemed rude. We were standing in the hall in our sweaty green socks. I figured other people, civilians mostly, asked him what it was like and there was probably no way to describe it. What could he say? We went back to the mat.
That first round was supposed to be the easy, laid-back round, and now we got new partners and the bouts intensified. I lost more fights throughout the afternoon. The scratchy Velcro of one guy's uniform scraped back and forth over the side of my face while we were grappling and turned the skin red and green and purple.
When Travis asked, What are you training for?, I didn't know where to start. Travis and I both wore these aprons, which had been worn by bookstore employees over many years, had probably never been washed, faded black with rips in the stitching. We were opening boxes of college textbooks, about plant biology and business management. Travis's parents did his laundry. My answer had to move from that space into one that involved a stoic imagining of extreme human violence, without causing either space to seem belittled or absurd.
Part of me didn't want to describe what we were doing. I knew the way it would sound. And yet part of me believed the training was serious and meaningful. The problem was inhabiting both parts, civilian and military, simultaneously. Each part always believed the other was absurd—I was always taking myself too seriously and also not seriously enough—and both parts were always correct about the other, because they had different rules. It was a matter of context. The military parts became absurd when exposed to a civilian context, the way blood changes color when exposed to oxygen. In a civilian context, it was absurd to have so persistently imagined and practiced these acts of violence. But more than violence, I'm talking about death. Part of the absurdity comes from this persistent imagining of death.
One weekend early that semester, I got a phone call with instructions to bring my Class A uniform to the armory, so I did. The whole company did. We laid our uniforms on fold-out tables in the armory classroom. I had never worn mine before, so there was nothing on it, just a green jacket and trousers. The other new guys were the same way, empty uniforms. It was easy putting on the ribbons because I only had two: one for volunteering during wartime, and one for completing my initial training. I pinned on the ribbons so they were centered over the left breast pocket, with an eighth inch gap from the ribbons to the top contour of the pocket flap. I checked the spacing with a ruler. The ruler was passed around.
Guys with prior deployments had two or three or four rows of colorful ribbons, and they had to consult each other about the correct arrangement. What comes first, the Iraq Campaign ribbon or the Global War on Terrorism service ribbon? Where does the NATO thing go? And what's this yellow one, where does it go? A manual was brought out for reference. A staff sergeant read aloud from the manual and answered questions, like only he could fully understand it, like a preacher deciphering a Bible.
A platoon sergeant handed out one small blue pin to everyone and instructed us about where to attach it. The pin was the Presidential Unit Citation, which our battalion had earned while fighting in Italy during World War II. Now everyone who belonged to the unit was permitted to wear it. I'd read somewhere about what happened to the battalion in Italy. They had overtaken a mountain from the Germans, but the Germans kept counterattacking. Waves and waves of German soldiers came from all directions, until eventually, both sides ran out of ammunition. Both sides ran out of food and water. They fought with bayonets. They fought hand-to-hand. They hurled stones. Drank rainwater. The battalion held the mountain for five days until relief came, and now we had this citation. I pinned it on.
There was an ironing board in the corner where people took turns smoothing out wrinkles. Only a couple guys were proficient with needle and thread, so I waited in line to have my rank and unit patches sewn on. When the guy finished, he said, Learn to f---ing sew, private, and handed me the uniform.
Finally, after our uniforms were inspected, me and a few other guys went down to the locker room to change. We rode in a passenger van to a funeral home on the east end of town.
When a soldier is killed, at least one other soldier guards the body from the moment of death to the moment of burial. The body is never alone. Or maybe the reason is not so sentimental as that, but that's what happens, and that was our job now. A soldier from the company had just been killed in Iraq, and we would take turns standing guard beside his casket, two at a time. Since I was new to the company, I had never met him. The man was already overseas by the time I started drilling.
The funeral director showed us to a room upstairs, with couches and a big television. We would take shifts standing guard down in the parlor, then we could come up here and sleep or watch TV. I was paired with a guy named Carter. We were told the shifts would be two hours at a time. It was our turn. We went downstairs.
People from the wake still crowded the parlor. We stood at parade rest near the foot-end of the open casket. I picked out a spot on the opposite wall and looked at it. I remembered not to lock my knees, to keep a slight bend so that blood could flow to my legs. I tried to have no facial expression whatsoever, like I was a decoration placed there by the funeral home.
Occasionally, a member of the family would want to thank Carter and me, so we would shake the person's hand, then return to parade rest.
The crowd thinned until only the soldier's mother and some cousins were left. The funeral director decided it was time to close the casket and walked over to do so, but the mother wouldn't let him. She went to the casket and leaned over and put her arms around her son's body as best she could and hugged him and wouldn't let go. She was crying, of course, though I tried not to look at her. The director conceded, and the lid stayed open. He never tried to close it after that, even when she left. The lid stayed open through the night.
The platoon sergeant in charge, Sergeant Oakes, told us that once the guests were gone we could relax. Just sit down and be respectful. So on our second shift, we sat in the straight-backed chairs in the middle of the room. We talked. We got bored. Occasionally, I would realize there was a casket in the room with the lid open, and inside it was a man, dressed in his Class A uniform. I would realize that I was here, somehow.
Carter began to pace. He had orders for Iraq soon— Sergeant Armstrong was taking over another platoon—and I wondered if Carter was thinking about that now. Eventually he approached the casket and looked inside. The man had been shot in the head. And though the funeral people had made him decent to look at, it was not quite enough for a close inspection. Carter said he could see beneath the make-up the staples they had used to repair the man's skull.
Later, I went over and I looked, and I saw them, too.
After that shift, we went upstairs and slept, then back down for another. Eventually a new squad replaced us, and I went home to the dorm. A few other freshmen were up late, sitting on the floor in the hallway. They were English majors, too. Talking about Henry James or James Tate or whatever. I changed clothes and sat with them quietly, nodding along to their conversation. I felt tired, but I wanted to be there sitting on the floor with them. I wanted to sit there and say nothing.