There’s a scene in the movie Hamburger Hill that rings so true, I can’t help but remember it every time I hear someone say pass the potatoes. Usually at Thanksgiving or Christmas, someone will say it and I’ll smile privately, remembering the actor Michael Boatman who played the part of Private Ray Motown telling a story about how he went home and couldn’t keep from acting like a jerk.
To set up the scene, Motown is trying to convince one of the other men who is a short timer that he isn’t ready to go home. Motown is trying to explain that the military changes you, it indoctrinates you, it makes you do things for a reason that have no place at home… and sometimes there’s no reason at all. So he’s talking to the man and telling about how he went home on leave:
I smile at my Mamma. Great meal, Ma. Would you please pass the f**king potatoes? The ham is f**king A, Ma. You don't know how… how f**king great it is to be home. How you going to act, huh?
The scene is silent for a few long moments as each one of the men imagines how they’d act. You can almost see it in their eyes as they all realize that they’d probably act the same. And it embarrasses them. In fact, they’d rather be at war.
I remember this scene so well because I did the same thing. It was 1986 and I had just returned from my first duty assignment and a year in Korea. I hadn’t been home for more than 14 months and I was on leave between duty stations. I can see it in complete and utter horrifying clarity in my mind’s eye as if it were yesterday. There I was, sitting at the dining room table at our (then) home in Ooltewah, Tennessee, with my little brother, my mom and my dad.
I don’t know what I’m eating. Hell, even then I’m not sure I knew what I was eating. It was probably potatoes. I was so delirious to be in the Land of the Big PX and home and with family that I forgot absolutely everything about decorum and the way a person should act. I was telling a story which revolved around several Korean hookers, a drunk soldier and a Kimchi House. I was dropping A-bombs and F-bombs like a cellblock of felons doing life without parole. I can picture my mother and father glancing at each other several times as I was talking and shoveling in the food. I can also picture my little brother staring at me as if I was the greatest, bestest, foulest mouth he had ever seen and he wanted to grow up and be just like me.
It’s one of the most embarrassing moments I’ve ever been cursed to remember.
Would you please pass the blanking potatoes, ma?
I’m of the impression that soldiers should come with warning labels. One should be WARNING- WORDS COMING OF THIS MOUTH WILL BE OFFENSIVE AND INAPPROPRIATE.
On my way into Kabul for the first time, my friend, a sergeant major, was giving me a tour. “They’re building a Hilton there,” he says.
Channeling Nostradamus and Bobcat Gothwait, our driver shouts, “S**t’s going to get blowed the f**k up.”
We were in Afghanistan and we laughed and nodded like it was Solomon himself levying prophecy, but anywhere else the words wouldn’t be even remotely hilarious. Hell, even re-reading them, they’re funny to me, but then I’m an old soldier. The absolutely profane idea that a building getting blown up is funny is clearly a coping mechanism. What makes it okay to laugh is that the builders should have known better than to give the insurgents such a tasty target.
But is it really okay? Not in real life. But then war isn’t real life either.
Here’s a statistic. According to the New York Times, at any given time during the last decade less than one percent of Americans served on active duty in the military
So we’re just a sliver of the population. Real life isn’t us. We’ve separated ourselves from real live and joined a reality known as the military.
Understand, we have to make war not real life, or else it totally messes with our head. But why do we talk like that?
I’m not going to pretend to know the answer, but it has always seemed to me as a some sort of coping mechanism. The indoctrination begins at the beginning. Although things have changed and become more politically correct since I joined the military, I can remember how the desensitization campaign began my first day in Basic Training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina. After the drill sergeant was done cursing and fuming, and we got our heads shaved and a complete new suite of new camouflaged color clothes, we went on our first run. It was then I learned of the thing called cadence.
Cadence is not only a tactic used by drill sergeants to help us forget we were running, but also to keep us in step. A third unspoken reason for cadence is to desensitize and prepare our young minds for things we’d never believed we’d do.
Was it/is it on purpose? Is there a room in the basement of the Pentagon called the Global Military Desensitization Office? Or is it merely custom, maybe something we do as a measure of intellectual protection without even thinking about it? I’m sure this can be answered by someone with many more academic letters after their name.
But for now, read these snippets of cadence. If you’re alone, say them out loud and imagine soldiers responding to these call-response cadences, shouting them as loud as they can:
I think a version of this one was in An Officer and A Gentleman:
Flying low across the trees,
Pilots doing what they please,
Dropping frags on refugees,
Napalm sticks to kids.
A yellow bird with a yellow bill
landed on my window sill
I lured it in with a crust of bread
THEN I CRUSHED HIS F**KING HEAD!!!!
Up jumped the monkey from the coconut grove
he was a mean motherf**ker, you could tell by his clothes.
He wore a two button ditty, and a three button stitch
he was a loud motherf**ker and a son of a b***h!
He lined a hundred women, up against the wall
and bet anyone, he could f**k them all.
He f**ked 98 till his balls turn blue,
Then he backed off, jacked off, and f**ked the other two!!!
Whew! That was a bad one. I’ve sung all of these and more. Now, looking back at it, I have to admit, I’m pretty shocked at some of the things which came out of my mouth. Knowing my mother is probably going to read this, I’m very happy she never heard me actually sing it as part of cadence, which I did, up and down the streets of Fort Jackson, Fort Gordon, Fort Carson, Fort Huachua, Fort Ord, Fort Hood and a dozen other places to include the Land of the Morning Calm.
Before I ate that dinner at my parent’s house, my first unit in the military was a nuclear artillery unit in Korea. We wore t-shirts, hats and jackets with the words Nuke ‘em til they Glow scrawled artfully for all to see, along with whatever graphic representations the Korean workers could stitch. We were proud young men. We loved the fact we could rain down radiation on our enemy. We were lean, mean fighting machines, ready to do everything and anything to keep our way of life… anything and everything so that other people’s sons and daughters could stay at home safe.
There’s a reason fighting men and women talk like this. There’s a reason we think like this. It helps us focus. It helps us deal with the idea of killing someone. It’s a coping mechanism.
We should just make sure we don’t do it in f**king public or else the world might find out how absolutely bloodthirsty we really aren’t.
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Weston Ochse is the author of ten novels, most recently SEAL Team 666, which the New York Post called “required reading” and USA Today placed on their “New and Notable List of 2012.” His first novel, Scarecrow Gods, won the Bram Stoker Award for Superior Achievement in First Novel and his short fiction has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. His work has appeared in comic books, and magazines such as Cemetery Dance and Soldier of Fortune. He lives in the Arizona desert within rock throwing distance of Mexico. He is a military veteran with 29 years of military service and is currently stationed in Afghanistan.