This piece appeared in the 2016 edition of the fantastic Going Down Swinging. Many thanks to Matt Harnett for editing much more clarity and urgency into the draft. The author retains copyright.
Day began with lighthouse flashes: warmth is coming. Hope whispered through young bodies, semi-conscious.
Strung out on cold coffee and saturated with imagined danger, we lay guts-down in a shallow trench on an ancient, untrodden hillock. One twitching eye affixed to a generic yet ultra-personal assault rifle, I kept my gaze fixed coldly outward. The bodies to my left and right – the King’s College man on the machine gun, a shadow of privilege cast by his strapping chin; that falcon-nosed Sydney south-sider atop a burgeoning beer belly – were joined to me by ritual. We were a hollow circle against the world, each of us protecting a sector of our little trainee Army group laced through the dawning trees and hazing scrub.
This was the ritual. It’s one of many that shaped an earlier version of me. Growing up, I expended enormous time and effort trying to escape modernity by embracing mythologised traditions of antiquity. I was a sort of self-radicalised reactionary. I still don’t know which parts of the decision to walk that path were an overreaction to adolescent alienation and which were based in clear-eyed truth. I am glad for those experiences, though, the ones that shaped my present guarded optimism – and, incontrovertibly, me.
Most contemporary armies welcome each day on the battlefield with stand-to, the predawn vigil of facing out while lying down. It’s a staple, though one of unclear provenance. Our Sergeant told us it harks back to Vietnam. The Viet Cong preferred to attack at dawn, having crept close under cover of darkness. Another officer claimed the practice began in the trenches of the First World War. Both origin stories sound credible, but neither explains why we should re-enact them. Technology has evolved; enemies are now visible over the horizon. I wondered every morning of that first field exercise as I hauled myself out of my sleeping bag, but never asked Sergeant my question. Even then – at the start of my military exposure – I sensed answers were irrelevant.
Proving that reasons are only dressing for ritual, our Lieutenant later told us that the purpose of stand-to is the inculcation of night vision. Any veneer of tactical prudence withered under the blowtorch of this absurdity. We were standing to simply because the syllabus said to. But absurdity is the engine of military initiation. Specifically: obedience to absurdity. Regrettably, my rationalist education and liberal upbringing had lacked both of these qualities.
Adolescent bodies shook as night chill burrowed deep among organs. We breathed shallow despite over-stimulated hearts and watched for Charlie’s ghost. As I write these words, hosts of youths are lying everywhere on the fringes of the developed world. If absurdity is the engine, ghosts and rituals are the secret soul of the modern armed forces.
Theoretically, the warrior is a minor player on the modern battlefield. Musket lines and trench skirmishes are defunct. Defence analysts claim that cyber sabotage and stealth air power, tactical warheads and strategic missiles – not the friable human body – are the new media of industrial-scale destruction. Except that drones and satellites and bombs often disappoint. Civil wars don’t readily lend themselves to identifying ‘goodies and baddies’ at 20,000 feet. So when Western forces invigilate an intrastate anarchy, the business of death cleaves to an immutable fact: a bullet is a bullet, which may as well be a musket shot or a spear hurled or an arrow launched from horseback.
War is just positions and projectiles ad nauseam. Localised combat is a play of chance, trajectory, firepower, muscle memory and discipline. We in the West hope that enough ritual and the right personal weaponry can tip this vast, cascading calculus in our favour when our ‘boots on the ground’ inevitably step outside civil order. The death cult that is soldiering has barely changed since the phalanxes of ancient Greece. The Enlightenment happened to other people. Ironically, searching out adulthood and selfhood within a consumer society, I couldn’t think of any other career worth believing in besides the military. Nothing besides national defence deserved rational, controlled pursuit. My island was drifting free and the Army was the imagined seabed for which my toes were scrambling.
* * *
My rifle was aimed at the eastern horizon. Daylight had finished regrouping at the rim of the world. Ripples coalesced into tentative searchlights, and one probing beam swung up unexpectedly and touched my face. I watched blinding spots pirouette across the riflescope and, very deliberately, tried not to blink. I could smell the cigarette of our Sergeant, and knew he was sitting in middle of the circle, snug in the little fisherman’s chair he carried slung on the outside of his rucksack.
Every instinct begged me to blink. Sergeant couldn’t see, and it didn’t matter, and I was pretty sure my pit buddy was sound asleep next to me with his head propped obediently on his rifle. This was only the first ritual of an endless day of rituals. It didn’t matter one iota if I blinked, and I really should have. But I tried to keep my eyes open.
As the sunlight broadened across distant fields and into the gums and valleys, the prospect of a dawn blitzkrieg receded. Irritable birdcall rustled the eucalypts. Tired fingers unratcheted from triggers. The ghosts conjured in our shared imagination hadn’t materialised; yet we remained facing out in the rocky dirt. Sergeant had a cigarette to finish, and we’d barely started our submission to privation.
While I pretended to watch the grey and brown trees, I fumbled a ration pack meal from my rucksack and my favourite spoon (one spoon arrives with each daily ration pack, but not all spoons are created equal). Our manoeuvres were unfolding in the foothills of the Tidbindilla Nature Reserve on the western skirts of the capital. A plane took off from Canberra airport as I ate. A Qantas: the red kangaroo leapt boldly towards the sun, hesitated, circled, then swung south toward Melbourne.
Military initiation evokes tribal coming-of-age ceremonies. Ordeal is the mechanism – the threshold – for group joining and individual moulding. Each soldier is shaped towards the optimal combination of reflex and routine, learning the postures, preparations, angles, positions and mindsets necessary to make their projectiles count on the battlefield. General John Monash famously likened battle to an orchestral composition. In rehearsal, individual differences are coercively supplanted by a set list of consistent collective performances. The group is made and the individual is taught the concerto moves. But we all have our totems of self-possession. A pack of cards stowed at the bottom of a rucksack; M&Ms are savoured at midnight. Behind the curtain, idiosyncrasies are cultivated in secret.
Tribal cultures are endangered in the modern era. Those that survive in relative seclusion are reported as exotic curiosities. The Okiek tribe in Kenya exile their young men for several months, during which they paint themselves with white clay and encounter the roar of mythical beasts at night. Some Native American adolescents retreat into the wilderness to meditate on the path they’ll walk as adults. Indigenous Inuit, Ethiopian, Brazilian and Apache tribes practice variants of trial by ordeal. Record after (breathlessly clickbaited) online record reinforces how utterly foreign these inclusive sacrifices appear to first-world eyes.
In the West, ritual and communal shaping is being – or has been – replaced by the modern idea of identity essentialism. Tribal coming-of-age rituals, by contrast, are premised upon an enduring flexibility of self. They emphasise the intimate role of experience, forfeiture and hardship in melding an individual into the group. Contemporary Western ritual – where it persists at all – increasingly avoids sacrifice and celebrates a predetermined maturation. Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah, Christian Confirmation, Amish Rumspringa, the prominence of particular birthdays – 16 in America, 18 in Australia – are all adulthood ceremonies without the traditional trial. The rational, spiritual being is fully developed on schedule; after a decade and a half of schooling the mind achieves its end state of full reasonability and sensibility.
I wanted something different from that development and matriculation into the knowledge economy. We all did. Everyone in the hollow circle – all under twenty-five, an overwhelming majority from middle-class families – had, for different reasons, chosen a type of exile: a life predicated on hermetical retreat into the wilds and hardship on the frontiers. The lesson we were quickly learning is that deep, purposeful belonging isn’t transcended towards but rather ground out – bled out along with old ideas and certainties. We were hollow-eyed sacrifices, not beatific vision questers. All of nature was complicit in the process.
A boiling summer day was blossoming. In the hours following we would evacuate a steady stream of overcome soldiers. Around midday the radio operator relayed a mayday for a heat-stricken mate while I lay close by, facing out. He returned at dusk with electrolyte icy poles that he and I slurped under the parched stars. The reasons didn’t matter and rationality was forced underground; every passing day we became more determined. Before we could go home changed, we had to kill our share of ghosts. This was the coming-of-age we believed we needed.
* * *
The Aztecs anthropomorphised their sacrifice, and for that we condemn them. But if they’re on extreme, surely we in the West are nearing the opposite end of the spectrum? Rituals are the blunt tools that have bound these lonely islands of ours together in human chains, in communal scrums pitted against flora, fauna and fortune. The deepest bonds are customarily forged in adversity. Sacrifice – personal or symbolic – seals the contract of ritual, alloys the chain together.
If not blood or hardship, what is there to hold our archipelagos as one? To this former adolescent malcontent, it seemed there was nothing: just chance and vague self-interest, connections that appeared to be eroding beneath a rising tide of technology and economics and isolating globalisation.
I realise, now, that’s why I stared at the sun. I was searching out of adversity in order to find meaning in opposition. Pushing trailers full of water jerries up hills? Perfect. Nothing like the slow ascent: each step sclerotic and every breath gasping. I stared without a worry because I wanted to be a perfect soldier. I believed a perfect soldier had a perfect cause; that striving to become something made you forever a certain way.
A platoon in the bush is a carefully directed ballet. Daylong, each grunt shimmies and sways between necessary activities and blank-staring inertia. Show me, we were saying to each other. Show me your sacrifice of free movement. Show me your disciplined body. Show me you believe, so I can believe in our hollow circle.
* * *
The bayonet course is the most scrotal – there is no other word – among the extreme rituals still practiced by modern humanity. My abdomen twitches recognition as I watch YouTube videos of ISIS recruits in black garb summersault through rings of fire, and, in-between Coca Cola ads, crawl under barbed wire. I know this ritual imbibing of the killing act. Fire’s a nice flourish, evoking the killer as phoenix and their training as immolation. There was no fire at our baptism. Only smoke, fear, reflexive hate and an embarrassment of knives.
There were rumours we were about to meet the Big One; we boasted how easy it would be. We would gazelle over the pits and slalom easily between the barbed wire. Dread circulated underneath. What if we were found wanting? I returned home after a different training block to find that bushfires had, weeks prior, ripped swathes through regional Victoria, close to our family home. Like the fires and the outside world, the bayonet course was deliberately obscured, hinted at obliquely.
Ignorance worked its fearsome magic on our group mind. Terror sucked my heart into my boots the morning we marched into the woods, and the Course at last materialised.
Boxes and oxidized wire and wooden barriers and tattered rubber blocks, stencilled with human forms, strung out through the spray of summer-browned leaves, arcing lazily up the gentlest of inclines. Underwhelming. The rooves of the bunkhouses we slept in were silhouetted through the understorey: the fabled monster had been drowsing nearby the whole time, behind the brush we pissed on after dark.
Sensing disappointment, the Course awoke with a cacophonous roar. Machine gun fire strafed our orderly rows. Sustained bursts from all sides and we froze. The Chief Instructor – a severe lady with lawyerly diction – began to scream. The language of the Sergeants, which we had learned to mimic, ripped out of that precise throat and smashed into us like hail on a tin roof. Half-crouching in place, we glanced around, frantic. The ground rumbled, great malignant limbs thrashing. Virulent yellow smoke billowed out of the underbrush.
Through the gas haze, the machine gun muzzles flashed. Fear fear hate fear. Fix bayonets.
I wrote a poem about the bayonet course a number of years later – a paean to the savage joy of it. The voice of our instructor kept coming back, demanding to be let out. I always picture her now as a judge in wig and garb.
You are worthless
you are weak
you make me sick
to my fucking stomach
but my god, we will find out
if there’s a single MAN
amongst you here today.
You are going to FIGHT
for every motherfucking breath you take.
Get some BALLS about you
you fucking first timers
you fucking pain virgins.
Hold the rifle like this
DON’T LOOK BACK YOU PRICK
there’s nothing back there that’ll save you.
Stab like this…
And so on.
I lost count, but I think we ran the bayonet course twelve times. The last two or three were liberating, because by that time it had become easy. Each attack was performed in time to our shared heartbeat. The ghosts had grown rubber bodies, and we were shaped to slaughter them. Adrenaline peaked and peaked again. The glands are full of the best drugs. In. We don’t need to synthesise exorbitant highs. Out. The body has all the ingredients to uplift and bind. On guard.
Each body adheres to a ritual differently, but the effect on the self is the same. On the bayonet course, some of us cried and some of us got too excited; some of us became entangled on the wire and some of us cracked bones and some of us lay down panting and almost surrendered the dream of belonging. But, by the end, we were uplifted as one. There was no ‘I’ on the last run-throughs. Whatever ‘I’ was, it was not strong enough to pull a bag of lactic acid and lacerations over the wooden walls a ninth time. Whatever ‘I’ was, it did not have enough reasons to twang masticated strings of muscle into stabbing the target a hundredth time.
* * *
Ritual it is the instrument by which groups build identity. It is a painful process. It is inherently sacrificial, as we found in Tidbindilla beneath the broiling sun. Sacrifice is pivotal, because it involves destroying or removing associations that define a prior self.
Every evening of my first week in the bush, I watched the nightlights of Canberra and tried to imagine which one was closest to my girlfriend. I remember the canvas chafe of rucksack straps, the weight of the Vietnam-era radio and the bedevilment of a twelve-foot aerial that attracted all the vegetation and none of the intended frequencies. My joints ached as we crouched in long grass, shoulders bowed beneath Canberra’s depressing patter on our “rain coats psychological” (the Army knows all about placebos). Every sensation was emblematic of my growing distance from civilization.
One night in particular I looked down from a muddy mountain firebreak and saw a patina of gold spread across the plateau. This cathedral of light – close enough to touch, as I descended from the heights – was a blunt reminder of the sacrifice I had chosen. I knew exactly which hill my girlfriend lived behind. The paltry physical distance underlined a vast separation; the bush was a moat around our hollow circle.
Minutes stretched like days, watching the unblinking city. On sentry duty at night we would plan in muttered exchanges the routes we’d take, tracing our homecoming celebration through the lantern-lit conurbation. First – naturally – we’d motor along the eastern backstreets to McDonalds. Next we’d chase the double-carriageway south to the supermarket, surrendering to the call of the strangest peccadillos. One thousand bags of gummy bears, a crate of ginger beer, the box-set of Harry Potter. We planned our reassimilation into civilization, and visualised it as sentry duty became interminable. Our normal selves wouldn’t fully recede: their glittering homeland was spread before them.
Sensation is paramount in locating and defining the self. Without sensory anchors, selfhood changes with frightening haste. After one night in the bush, horizons begin to shift. Personal history gives way to the shared present moment, a ritualised present that depersonalises history, drowning out a preconceived sense of self. Other exercises, further afield in the lonely Victorian hinterlands, were less fraught. Without the markers of our everyday lives and loves it was easier to sink into the landscape.
* * *
Tools generally – and weapons especially – are not inanimate. They’re designed to animate the body in certain ways.
The knife is as simple as tools get. But consider the gun, that near-universal symbol of modern tragedy. The gun is one of the most complex tools a body can bear: peerless personal killing machines, black boxes of desire and taboo so deeply felt that they warp their surroundings. We walked on tiptoe around rifle ranges, even after we’d spent years becoming native to them. Immortality is holding another person’s mortality; a body senses and the intellect knows that.
My disappointment was prodigious when I spent a few days with a pistol facing off against hazard-yellow targets. Try as I might I couldn’t hold the damn, tiny thing still from the recoil. No one could. Rows of bodies forged carefully and redesigned for combat steadied the pistols, aimed, fired. Wrists flicked and bullet spreads yawed across the grey concrete bunker, again and again missing their mark. There’s something deeply unsatisfactory about standing with feet flung wide, hips spread and arms outstretched, unprotected: all your bodily power – the inheritance of the planet’s most fearsome predator – directed towards, and failing to control, a smallish metal paperweight.
The assault rifle, though, is almost godhead. A two-kilometre arc of destructive power limited only by the number of magazines one can strap to the finite human frame, nestled against your shoulder.
A machine gun is Mjöllnir, lightening hammer of Thor. Firing a machine gun for the first time: how can a body forget? All the other rifles in the platoon – suddenly props. Shenanigans. I hauled my huge Mag 60 across awkward grassy hillocks towards the enemy’s position. Actually, the gun hauled me, a sizzling bag of anticipation, along in its wake.
“Blockage!” our scout screamed, close by. “Cover me!” Tiny bullets had jammed in his puny rifle.
“Who bloody cares?” I wanted to roar back. Just watch me.
I slammed the trigger and came to some moments later, thundering metal fighting in my grip and brass hail thwacking the side of my pit buddy’s face. He didn’t mind the deluge. His fists were full of the precious belts, feeding ammunition covetously into the bay. His huge lopsided grin was aimed at me and mine was aimed back at him. No aiming Mjöllnir, though. We were razing that damn forest and all its face-hugging spider webs. I lost track of our foe’s whereabouts. My pit buddy didn’t even glance up. We fed the machine until the bore ran white hot and smoking, and were fed by it.
* * *
The ubiquitous machines that affix to and to which we affix ourselves blur the contours of the body. In the Army, we grew very close to our guns. They were our raison détre as soldiers. We christened them and kept them with us in our sleeping bags. They grew into us and were accepted by our hands, cushioned by the crook of the elbow and nestled by the valleys of the spine. They became a third arm, an overpowered extension of the body. Once, one went missing, and one thousand bodies went in search, linking arms and advancing through the midnight bush to find that erstwhile appendage.
The man who’d lost his friend and protector stood white-faced in the Chief Instructor’s tent. Shuffling past with the rest of the chain, I chanced to peer in, and saw the lost man’s fear crystallise the unreality of the situation. There were only blanks in that gun and we were tens – perhaps hundreds – of kilometres from anyone. We found the gun after a full night’s searching with night-vision equipment.
It was an extreme example of how technological power bends reality. In our era of mass technology, we often overlook the tools that shape the bodies that change the self. We want to believe our personal identities moderate the effect of technology on behaviour. Undoubtedly they do, to an extent. I – and most people I know – would very much like to believe in our robustly founded selves: our core of conscious autonomy overlayed with hard-earned experiences.
But tools have changed our diet, manufacture, exchange, group sizes, social structures, lifespans and lifestyles. The printing press and cinematography re-contoured the mind as the wheel reconstituted the agrarian body. A modern life revolves around computers and phones, television and online content, surveillance cameras and credit cards, trams and planes, air conditioners and showers, ovens and dishwashers, and on and on. Overpowered tools turbocharge the rituals that change the self.
Several years ago, the mechanical hum of hair clippers broke the dusty quiet of a whitewashed, ageing dormitory in the foothills of Canberra. Wafts of hair were shorn and thrown and floated slowly through the empty shower block as I manipulated my skull down to the bone. The waterfall in the sink effervesced brown strands into the bowels of the building.
Feeling the atmosphere bearing down on my skeletal head, a pale half-circle under a neon glower, I returned to my narrow dormitory room, naked except for a towel filthy with hair applied flimsily as a loincloth. I surveyed my body up close, and was satisfied with the result (more than satisfied; secretly triumphant). The way I saw myself had shifted a fraction. Nakedness had once been synonymous with weakness. I palmed my strange baldness and somehow it felt not brittle, as it appeared, but powerful.
I took a chair and stood on it to retrieve my most ceremonial uniform and tallest peaked cap from their place on the highest cupboard shelf. I introduced the perfect fabrics to my unwashed body. Yes, perfect. Just look what I had made of myself. I reached for my camera, wishing to make an artful record, backlit with fluorescent glare. A record should be made of my clothed and unclothed state, of this becoming –
Six weeks and two days had passed since I put pen to paper and signed the contract to join the Army. Waking before the dawn. Punishments, Sisyphean tasks, countless acts of othering – of shedding connections with former selves and past communities – shared among brethren. All of this heightened by the weapons and machines with which we and the mythical enemy were empowered. Our hollow circle in the bush, the naked circle of my scalp: these were two among innumerable physical acts that redefined me as a soldier. Reason and rationality and old touchstones crumble. After six weeks of unbecoming and re-identifying, I had at last found something to stand myself upon.
* * *
Given time, most certainties erode. I enjoyed the rituals and the missions and the martial bonds. The sacrifice was ongoing, as I’d known it would be. The military isn’t a part of modern society, which is part of the reason why I chose that life.
Military bases are heavily guarded enclaves. War and security have been outsourced to remote areas, along with our call centres, manufacturing and offshore trusts. All this would have been tolerable, perhaps even complimentary, if I could’ve only interiorised the shared purpose to justify the sacrifice. But I couldn’t. Ghost stories are only compelling if you empathise with the protagonist, and I struggled to make the connection to a higher purpose as embodied in the state, an anonymously cynical bureaucracy, and a society encroached by larger problems than twentieth-century war re-enactments do justice to.
More important than reasons were the other bodies that breached the moat. These few people were my external surfaces, reflecting other possibilities. The girlfriend I triangulated from the bush; she was and is my talisman for the future. The family I flew down to see every three months. I never forgot about the hometown bushfire, which I learnt about only after my training camp, and I never forgave that omission either. It was perhaps the first of innumerable small breaks between the idealism I cultivated in the bush and the reality that existed beyond it. As time went on, I became more curious in the imagined alternatives those outside the military hinted at, and less interested in the decision a juvenile version of myself had made. My soldierly sandbank disintegrated over weeks and years.
Erosion is an irregular phenomenon. After my discharge from the Army, I went for a drive along the shore east of Canberra. No two meters of the seaside are the same. Far below the speed limit, I let the car coast along the road and watched fractional changes hum by. Sandy threads of beach gave way to anvil-shaped rock pools that submitted to fierce, scarred headlands.
Feeling listless and ephemeral, I drove until dusk cloaked the irregular patterns in the sand and rock. It was the beginning of a long period of drifting, seeking out connections similar to the ones I had felt and then abandoned. My mates and I gradually lost touch. They were posted to other cities, discharged themselves and vanished in pursuit of their own alternatives, or stopped replying. There’s a huge gulf between the soldier and civilian. I haven’t had friends since, though, that were anywhere near as close as those who, filthy and exhausted, stared up alongside me at summer stars in the middle of nowhere.
I’m still looking for self-defining connections that don’t stem from the negative purpose of killing to further an indeterminate strategy in a distant country. I’ve had the good fortune to solidify one or two, but mostly I get by on little shocks, small voltages that keep my internal motor running just a bit longer. For instance: I felt a subterranean, animal affect when I passed by the Lindt cafe last summer.
Unfamiliar with Sydney’s laneways, my body nevertheless knew Martin Place. My head oscillated – independent of body, of feet steering crosswise along George Street – eyes fixed on the waterfall progression of wide concrete tiers cascading down tothat portentous façade. A very particular rose grey, evocative of bank interiors and grand Manhattan hotels, carved deep in the memory of one disbelieving night in front of the television.
That was how I knew where I was and, fleetingly, a little more about who I was, post-discharge. It’s a travesty that identity can come from tragedy, but it does.
We stood at a safe distance from Martin Place. Looking around, I saw a few other people also loitering among the five o’clock rush. We sixth-sense noticed one another and shared our spider’s web vigil with furtive glances. These rare connections of common feeling and space uncover invisible threads linking person to person: the sense of one social body, however diffuse, joined by time and place into a sympathetic whole. The Pacific winds channelling through Woolloomooloo Bay intensified. The electric tingle of shared belonging comingled with a rational, if unexpected, chill.
Irrespective everything postmodern and globalising, notwithstanding the digital revolution and all of its cascading changes to old ways of life, and regardless the best efforts by some to annex it, our society still has the power to join. Fleetingly and modestly does the lighthouse flash. Moments remain in postmodern life when warmth comes unsearched for and unmediated.
Driving down Lygon Street the other day I passed a Greek Orthodox Church. The roof reached towards the heavens and windows opened to beautiful views of the city. It must’ve stood for forty years or more, vibrantly coloured and unwaveringly upright as the day it was built. But this was a singular occasion: the smooth wooden doors were thrown open, and a wedding was unfolding in the atrium, white and black and radiant happiness. After a moment I realized what my eyes were recording: two people, believing in each other, were being joined together by a hollow circle.
Feature photo: ‘Sunrise over Uluru 17’ by pixculture. Used under creative commons without modification.