Manning the Dead Zone (Part III)

Oct 4, 2007 by

Part I of this piece is the August 4 entry

CONSECUTIVE DAYS of sentry duty took their toll, especially when the shifts were every four hours.  For days on end you might not get much more than three hours of continuous sleep.  You were also punished if you were caught sleeping before ten pm or after six am.  Although there was a designated midday “rest period” between one and four, it was generally only good for a short nap: unless you had the ten-to-noon shift, both lunch and sentry duty fell within those hours.  This restrictive sleeping schedule combined with the many hours of being on foot all day ensured you were never fully rested.  I assume the idea was to accustom soldiers to the sleep deprivation conditions of war, but the only thing the soldiers acclimatized to was the capacity to sleep through anything.  I am sure that if a grenade had exploded outside our window, only half of us would have awoken; the other half would have required a direct strike.

It was near impossible rousing most of the conscripts, especially for the two or four am shifts.  One conscript in particular was notorious for the death-state of his sleep and it would take several minutes of violent shaking and yelling in his ear to wake him up.  A friend of mine who finished his conscription a decade ago told me that one night while he was making the rounds of the sentry posts (he had been a conscript officer) he came across a sentry standing perfectly upright, holding his rifle like a staff at his side, fast asleep.  Another time a group in his outpost decided to have some fun by carrying one of the bunk beds, along with its sleeping corpse, out of the building; when the soldier opened his eyes the next morning, he found himself in the middle of a soccer field.

Some of the conscripts may have been innately deep sleepers, but even so, whoever requires a quarter hour of prodding to get out of bed simply doesn’t give a damn either about the in-house guard on duty trying to wake him or about the sentry waiting to be relieved.  Initially I didn’t mind waiting an extra five or ten minutes on the sentry post, but it soon became apparent that the ones who kept you waiting longest were often the ones quickest to complain whenever they had to wait.  It was startling just how abruptly your drowsiness could escalate into a seething resentment upon the conclusion of your two a.m. shift when you had to stay up there in the cold waiting for some bastard who once again was not budging from the warm nest of his bed.

Sometimes the sentry never came at all.  He would eventually simply mumble to the in-house guard to sign the Change of Sentry sheet on his behalf.  Upon doing so, the guard would then ring the other sentry and tell him to return to the outpost.  The signature was important because if the officer on duty came by and found an unmanned post, he could only punish the soldier scheduled for that shift, since the previous sentry, who must never leave a post unguarded, could claim that his compatriot had relieved him (as demonstrated by the signature).  After all, it wasn’t your fault if the sentry who took over then ditched his post and returned to the outpost to sleep.  Of course it was a sham claim, and all the officers knew it, but they had no proof with which to nail you.

Absurd as our sentry duty was, I resisted the first time I was told to come down from the rooftop post, balking at the idea of leaving a station unmanned.  But I soon realized that either I climbed down or I would shiver up there for another two-hour shift.  After fifteen minutes of depleting willpower, I eventually abandoned the post, although I did take the ammunition box to console myself that my dereliction of duty was done responsibly.

Two weeks after my arrival a patrolling officer caught one of the conscripts at three a.m. sleeping in his bunk bed when he should have been on the sentry post.  Later that morning, when we were all awake, a conscript at a neighboring outpost phoned to tell us that the camp commander was on his way (the outposts in our company had developed an efficient monitoring and information sharing network regarding the patrolling officers).  At once there was a flurry of activity as everyone began rushing around, tidying, making beds, shining boots, yelling for shaving cream, etc.  There was of course an easy way of avoiding such neurosis: just shave, shine your boots and tidy up in the morning so that you are always prepared for the unexpected visit.  But it was not surprising that they preferred this chicken-with-its-head-cut-off approach: resentful as they were at their imposed two-year service, they wanted to be upstanding soldiers as infrequently as possible.

The commander arrived minutes later.  He was in good spirits, though that did not keep him from punishing the delinquent sentry by canceling all his furloughs for the next ten days.  He moved horizontally down the line, addressing each of us personally (“Show me your nails, Petrou…  How many times have I told you to cut them? You could till the fields with those things!”  “Shakola, you’re a good looking boy, but you’re getting fat. Don’t you know you can’t order takeaway in the army…”).  When he reached me I stomped to attention and stated my name and rank.  He paused and then, before moving on to the next conscript, he uttered what was without doubt the oddest and unlikeliest thing I heard in all my three months in the military, a sentence which, coming from a high-ranking military man, I include with warped and sardonic pride for posterity’s sake: “I never had any doubts about you, Markides.”

Our commander, as well as our captain, had been making impromptu visits to our outpost with increased frequency to prepare us for the much trumpeted brigadier’s biannual inspection.  The inspection took place on a Friday morning.  We were lined up on the sidewalk in front of our house and the commander was in the midst of running us through a practice round when the brigadier arrived with a small entourage of lower-ranking officers.

After the usual formalities of stomps and salutes, the brigadier announced that he wanted us to enact a state of emergency, which would involve assuming our assigned positions in our bunkers along the Green Line armed with our rifles and with any other weapons that had been allotted to each of us (i.e. machine gun, grenade launcher, rocket launcher, etc.).  But just as the brigadier was about to issue the order, our commander gingerly reminded him that a fiasco might ensue if we conducted such a drill without first informing the U.N.

Clearly in an inspired G.I. Joe mood, the brigadier paused, pained by this reminder that we were still, technically speaking, in a state of conflict and that rushing to take combat positions under the gaze of the Turkish soldiers might lead to complications.  But he would not be entirely dissuaded.  As a compromise, he ordered us to collect from the outpost our weapons and ammunition, as if we were in a state of alarm, and to bring them all outside to our present location.

There were probably only a handful of us who had ever seen the inside of the weapons room, which was adjacent to the kitchen.  It took two minutes just to unlock the barred door.  Once we finally got it open, there was a frantic rush for the ammunition, although no one seemed to know what was what: “Are these G3 bullets or MG3?” “Hell, would you just hand that box over!” “Hurry up, you asshole!  Hurry up!” “What the hell is wrong with you, these are rockets not grenades!”

A full ten minutes must have passed until we were all again lined up outside, our weapons propped up against the porch railing and the ammunition spread out on the road.  We had been told that our outpost was the ‘lock and key of the neighborhood,’ the security of the surrounding area, but I suspect some of the neighbors had other feelings about the house of rowdy teens at the end of their road, especially after seeing the cornucopia of explosives and firepower in our possession.

The brigadier passed down the line, asking each of us questions about our weapons and the state of emergency procedures.  It was not long before he was thundering at us, while several younger officers at his heels were scribbling away in their notebooks.  But I could not blame him for the tantrum.  The chief sentry didn’t know how to work the walkie-talkie and one of the conscripts (the same one who had slept through his sentry shift) was unable to clip his cartridge onto his rifle after being ordered to take apart and reassemble his gun.

“It’s not going in,” he mumbled. “I think it’s broken.”

“That’s cause you’re putting it on backwards!” roared the brigadier, who came up to the conscript’s shoulder.  They were quite a duo.  The string in the left hem of the brigadier’s military pants had come loose and the fabric was hanging ignobly down over his boot.  The conscript still wasn’t able to get the cartridge on, and at one point, he even flipped it over and tried to jam it in upside down.

The brigadier turned to our commander.  “The Turks are gonna kill this one!  How are we going to protect this area when the Turks nail him with the first shot?”

“He was serving coffee at Headquarters before this,” our commander said.  “It seems they kept him there too long.”

The commander was in fact doing his diplomatic best to excuse our shortcomings to the brigadier.  The colonel, meanwhile, who was one rank above the camp commander but one rank below the brigadier, took it upon himself to berate the commander, as if trying to impress the brigadier with his intolerance for any slack leadership under him.  It was all part of the ritual and show, of course, but even so it is an ugly thing to see an older man being hollered at, especially by a craven mousy-eyed opportunist who milks everything he can out of a few stripes on his shoulder.  That said, the commander to his credit refused to pass the abuse on down the line to the captain or to make any obsequious concessions to the colonel, and he steadfastly remained on our side, defending our deficiencies and assuring the brigadier that all necessary changes would be implemented as soon as possible.

I assumed that we were going to be collectively punished with a five-day denial of furlough at the very least, but I was only partially correct.  After warning us about the dangers of drunk driving, drugs and speeding, the brigadier congratulated us on the improvements that we had made and awarded everyone in our outpost (and in our entire company, it turned out) with five complimentary days of leave.  After boot camp, it was naïve of me to have expected anything less.

It was a good thing for the brigadier that he had heeded the commander’s warning against ordering a combat positions drill; shortly after we had retrieved all of our weapons and ammunition, a U.N. helicopter passed directly over us.  The U.N. flew along the length of the Green Line several times a day, but this time they made a loop, passing over us twice before continuing on.  Obviously the open crates of rockets and grenades on the sidewalk, along with the rocket launchers and machine guns, had provoked their interest, but it was surely far less interesting to them than if we had all been armed and hunkered down along the Green Line, facing the Turkish sentries.

There was a good deal of hostility towards the U.N. in the National Guard, both among conscripts and officers.  One afternoon while we were cleaning our guns, one of the soldiers referred to the U.N. as the “second occupying power in Cyprus.”  I had heard this allegation a number of times, although no one ever followed that through by saying the U.N. should pack up and go.  So I suggested to him that he tell them to leave, but as I expected he did not respond.

Not that there are no grounds to criticize the U.N.’s handling of the Cyprus conflict.  A good case can be made that in trying to play the fair broker, the U.N. has in effect treated the invader and the invaded as moral equals, which has contributed towards solidifying the division.  But much of the enmity in Cyprus towards the U.N. (the hostility is not only within the National Guard) is of the knee-jerk variety, with roots in the much cherished sport of deflecting blame from oneself onto others.

U.N. soldiers often jogged or drove by our sentry posts.  They passed directly in front of the ground-level station, and though most would merely wave or nod in greeting as they went by, there were a number who regularly stopped to exchange a few words with me, as they rarely encountered a Cypriot soldier fluent in English.

Next to other peacekeeping missions, Cyprus is a kind of holiday resort for U.N. troops, but many of the younger soldiers, especially those with bowdlerized notions of war, were craving to be stationed where the bullets were flying.  One nineteen-year old who was with the British Armed Forces but presently under U.N. command told me he had recently been “RPG’d” (fired at by a rocket propelled grenade launcher) in Iraq.  He described the incident with the flush of pride you might expect from an adolescent detailing how he had just lost his virginity.

The captain of our company, who was generally friendly and civil with me as he was only one year my senior, once happened to drive by while I was talking to a pair of U.N. soldiers in a jeep.  I knew I was not permitted to interact with them, but I always found the prohibition brainless and even detrimental.  By the time he stopped the car and came storming over, the U.N. soldiers had already driven off, but he leaned out over the barrels and sandbags and called them back.

“Why were you talking to them?” he asked me with irritation, still staring down the road at the jeep, which was backing up towards us.  “What did they say to you?”

“Nothing.  Small talk.  They just asked how much longer I had left on my shift.”

He looked back at me.  “And what did you say.”

“Another half hour or so.”

He gave a sharp sardonic exhale and shook his head, as if I had betrayed essential information to spies.  The jeep with its blue fluttering flag pulled up next to him.

“What were you saying to my OP?” he demanded.

“Just being friendly,” the driver said.  He shut the engine off and he and the other soldier got out of the vehicle.  The captain instantly stiffened up and saluted them as they stepped out but they just came over to him and shook his hand amiably.  The handshake and smile seemed to dispel much of the captain’s suspicion.  Maintaining a hostile stance was simply no longer possible.  It is no surprise that armies limit chummy interaction between soldiers and officers: maintaining the authoritarian structure requires everyone to keep a cold distance from one another, and one way to do so is through carefully scripted official codes of conduct like saluting, stomping, and responding in a “brisk and lively manner.”

I found such formalities and military protocols to be the most challenging part of army life, not because they were difficult but because they were idiotic.  Anytime you were on sentry duty during the day and an officer came by, you had to stomp and then shout your name and rank followed by “I report to you, Mr. X, that I am serving as sentry on post X of outpost X.  I report to you that during the duration of my duty… [here you would generally just state ‘all is well’].” If the officer happened to be the camp commander or anyone of a higher rank, you then had to continue the spiel: “My mission at the outpost is to execute the duties of the sentry-observer for the surveillance, both day and night, of the terrestrial and aerial space from X to X, to collect every type of information, and to observe and report enemy activities.  In the case of an alarm I will… [yadda yadda, etc.]”

Now unless you imagine that you are an actor of some kind, it is impossible to stomp and shout any of this without feeling like a jackass.  The formalized style also hinders communication.  For example, one afternoon while I was on the rooftop post, Turkish troops began shooting at a nearby firing range.  Shortly afterwards an officer came by and so I recited my assigned mantra.  Since my role was to ‘observe and report enemy activities’ I was naturally supposed to mention that Turkish soldiers were firing at the range, but because I was so preoccupied with getting my script right, I forgot its alleged purpose, which was to report on what I had observed.  So instead of saying “the Turks started shooting a half hour ago” I merely said “all is well” (meanwhile, gunshots were popping in the distance).  If the officer had from the beginning just asked me if there was any activity in the north, I would have told him the facts without wasting both of our time with an elaborate recital of bullshit.

There was, however, one of these formalities that I enjoyed.  After sundown and until sunrise, you never had to recite anything, since you were theoretically unable to see who was approaching your sentry post.  You merely had to point your rifle at the visitor and call out ‘αλτ τισ ει’ which translates to “stop, who goes there” in ancient Greek (a curious way of querying since few people understand ancient Greek: it is like a travel agent asking someone who wants to book a ticket, “whither goest thou?”).  To give the person permission to approach your sentry post he then had to correctly provide you with the two passwords that had been issued to your outpost earlier that day. During this process you kept your gun aimed at him and would order him several times to halt and then proceed.

After a day of stomping to attention and belting your mission to every man of high rank who came by, there was something redemptive in having the opportunity to train your gun on those same officers and to subject them—in a cathartic reversal of fortune—to a comical string of commands as if they were school kids playing Red Light Green Light.

The final part of Manning the Dead Zone will be posted on November 4.

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