February 25, 2010

RABBIT, OR HOW TO WIN AN UNWINNABLE SITUATION: A MEMORY

Since the Germany Army is in the news again, wih recruits having to eat raw liver to prove their manhood, and some of the other kind of bullshit things that bullies do the ones they perceive to be weaker while being in uniform, I've been thinking about my days, way... way back in the day. My days. The days of the Cold War (yes, I'm old enough to have caught the tail end of it, you know, like other unfortunate people catch a cold)...

....when the iron curtain was still there, the call to wake you up in the barracks at fucking 3 AM in the morning was that the orange army has just crossed the Elbe river from the East, coming at us with seven divisions as you slipped out of bed only to trip on those cold, cold floors, with the thought of as long as it's not the fucking Red Army, let us fucking sleep, and even if it is the Red Army, they can at least wait until breakfast. Whatever the fuck happened to being civil?

Yes, I was a soldier boy. For those of you in the United States, sitting comfortably in a chair while some are fighting, dying and bleeding for retarded decisions made by your leaders, in my country there was/is a draft, and in my day the only way to get out of it was to be a full-blown pacifist, and by that I mean that you had to make the case in front of a jury that even if somebody were to rape the love of your life and rip her living heart out, right in front of you, you'd still embrace the fucker.

You know something? I like to meet that person who can say this with a straight face. I like to meet the person who'd die before defending himself. I'd like to MRI that person's brain, maybe find out if there is a hormonal imbalance there.

Because I sure as hell couldn't make that claim about me.

And so I got to wear my first boots, clunky little fuckers they were. I also got stationed in Northern Germany, in the NATO headquarters of Zone 1, one of the three primary defense zones for West Germany.

Remember kids, there was still a wall, no, The Wall (no Pink Floyd required), and the evil people in the East were all bloodthirsty. And if you haven't seen it, and I mean, really seen it rise up in front of you, that big chunk of concrete, with its death traps and watchtowers and K9 patrols, you have no idea what you're talking about. Go back and watch Tom Brokaw again, that delusional bit of somebody who had come here a few times like a tourist, but who never had to live with that subconscious knowledge that most of us who had been there had to live with.

That we were the ones who'd die first. We knew the French had targeted their tactical nukes at, wait a minute, at us? Yes, not at the Soviets, we in West Germany were the DMZ, so to speak. The East would make a move, it would have to go through us... and what a great target we would be.

And still, I went into the army. And I have seen numerous instances of bullying there, from the mild (putting a recruit strapped to his bed in the shower, because the guy refused to wash, and if you are with seven other guys in a small room and bunk beds, trust me, you'd do the same if one guy smells like urin and shit cakes for three weeks) to the wild (it wasn't raw liver, but we did have fish eating contests and booze fests, though I never took part in them).

Most of the time, it was because people were bored. Bored! Bored! Bored! Because, you know what you get to do in the armed services most of the time? Nothing! I swear, when I got my own car after my service time was over, I'd refuse to wash it for over six months, figuring that I had done all of my car washing for a life time while I was in uniform.

The mood was shit. The food was shit. And the uniforms made you look like you were a camouflaged Papa Smurf, unless you were wearing your gala uniform, which made you look like a grey-clothed waiter at the local whorehouse.

Is it any wonder that I was always looking forward to the war games? I even volunteered to go on many that I didn't have to go to, like ones in Denmark (the best two weeks spent at beach, ever) and in the South of Germany (worst winter ever, and if you don't believe it, try sleeping outside with nothing but an Army Issue sleeping bag as the temperature drops to less than -20 degrees celsius). At least when you were outside, you got to do things.

Like The Rabbit, for example.

Now, as the name already suggests, The Rabbit is a search and destroy game. It pits two chosen idiots, usually the weakest and/or least-liked of a platoon against the rest of the group. Those two get to have the choice of weapons, they get a two hours head start.. and then they get hunted.

The point of The Rabbit is simple. The rabbit never wins. It isn't supposed to. The whole point of the exercise is one of team building, to unite the platoon and make it work as a team. Give it an enemy. Choose people they mostly don't like. Have them have some fun.

Guess who was chosen?

Yeah, right, but it wasn't just me, it was also my roommate Rupert (I swear, I'm not making that shit up). Privates Thomas and Rupert. Rupert was seven years my senior, his services had been deferred because he was studying, but just at the last minute, just as he received his degree in engineering, they had caught up with him, and into the uniform he went. What did I say about the rabbit? It never escapes. It never wins.

And so Rupert and me stood on a field in Northern Germany on a cold April day, all packed and ready to go to be hunted by the rest of our platoon. We were asked our choice of weapons. And I said that I wanted us to have our G3 assault rifles, 60 shots each, four play grenades... and an MG-3, a heavy machine gun for stationary use that is a bitch to carry, with an additional 200 shots.

The last request made me look like a complete idiot in the eye of my CO. Like I said, the whole point of being the rabbit is to be fast and agile and try to avoid your hunters at all costs. Carrying an additional 11.5 kg, even between two people (with your backpacks and everything else) is somewhat suicidal.

But that was okay. I wanted him to think that.

We got our two hours, we got a map, we got our meeting points, should we really and truly escape the chase (no chance)... and we ran.

Well, actually we did a somewhat brisk walk, because I didn't have the slighest interrest in running. Running wears you out. It stops you from thinking. And walking allows you to do just that. And in order to win this game we needed to think.

"We can't win this game," Rupert said, and he was smarter than me, but like all engineers he lacked a bit of lateral thinking. Which is an advantage in his chosen profession, I guess, but in other situations, linear analysis doesn't really get you anywhere.

Now, the problem with Northern Germany is that it's as flat as a skinny gay man's ass, there is nothing to dig into, and you can see who's coming three days before they get there. It's mostly plain fields, with a few bushes and trees popping up here and there like badly shaven pubic hair.

The hunters had the advantage.

What we needed was a forest at least big enough to give us something to even the playing field.

What? What did I say before? I had absolutely no intention to run.

I had the intention to win.

Roughly an hour away from our position (and this was all before Google Maps and GPS, kids, we had to find shit the old-fashioned way) on the map was something that might work, I thought, and I prayed that the map was still current enough, and that nobody had razed this tiny forest to the ground to make away for crops.

And every now and then, I left the hunters something. A wrap from a Snickers bar. A few crumbs of the awful biscuits they hand out as emergency rations. The silver foil these biscuits were wrapped in. Left them just visible enough so that the hunters could follow us, but not visible enough to make it easy on them. I needed to slow them down, just enough that Rupert and I had a little time.

The tiny forest patch was there, just like the map promised. We had maybe three hours to prep what I had in mind. Now, the other thing about the Northern German plains is that the ground is relatively hard. Even with your spades, digging a fox hole wasn't an option. It would take too much time.

But that's not what I had in mind. Rupert and I looked at the three patches of trees that surrounded a small clearing. None of them would make great cover, only one of them would be good cover.

And so we started to dig a little. Not much, maybe half an hour, just enough so that somebody looking for you would see that there's been some work done here. We camouflaged the make-shift foxhole with branches and brush.

Then we stepped out on the clearing and looked at what we did.

"They're going to see this," Rupert said.

"Yeah, I know," I said. "I want them to."

"You what?"

"I want them to," I said and went back into the foxhole. Went to work. First things first. I had to lose my G3 in order for this to work. With my backpack and my helmet I could make a little dummy, prop it up just enough that it would be noticeable, but not enough to it would be glaringly obvious.

I went back to Rupert on the clearing.

"They will really see this," he said.

I hoped so. I went back to the foxhole, opened my backpack and got out the things that weren't part of Army Issue weaponry. Want to know what they were? A six pack of diet coke cans. Four bags of ball bearings, the little steel kind that you can buy in biking shops. My own hunting knife. And lots of nylon string.

Never trust Army Issue alone, kids. Always bring your own stuff to the party.

Otherwise it's very rude, wouldn't you agree?

Now, the problem with grenades is that they work very well in an urban warfare environment. When they explode, it's not as much the explosion itself that kills, most grenades have a very limited range and produce a big bang, but if that bang doesn't hit anybody, you are left with some nice fireworks but not much else.

In an open, plain field a grenade is a completely useless offensive tool. Even if you're good, you can throw it 20, maybe 25 metres, and that's if you are standing up and leave your cover. It will expose you for maybe 10 seconds, and that's 10 seconds your enemy has to target you. Even if at first they won't get you, the second time they will.

Useless.

Another thing that made me look like an idiot in the eyes of my CO.

Only that I didn't intend to use them like grenades. I threw one coke can to Rupert, took one myself, we both had a drink, the third can I emptied out onto the ground. Rupert had no clue what I was doing. Great. Now I looked like an idiot to him, too. Then I took out my knife and started to cut the can's top, because you know what's funny? Those old standard grenades fit quite easily into one. I took out the bags with the ball bearings.

"Oh...my... god..." said Rupert, who had finally got it. "You're insane."

"Yeah, I hear that a lot," I said.

Now, like I said. A grenade alone is pretty much useless in an open-field combat situation. If you're outnumbered 10 to 1? It's suicide to use them. But if you put them in a coke can and fill the can with ball bearings, what you have is a shrapnel mine.

Granted, it won't be as effective as a Claymore or a M14, but within a range of maybe 10 to 15 metres, it will do the trick for you just as well. It will bring hell on earth to those who are near it. It will also bring chaos and bloody confusion.

And all over sudden, the hunters no longer have the advantage.

If you do it right. If you stage it right. If you make them careless and arrogant to play their part. So Rupert and I filled three coke cans, then I hid those three cans... at the back of the foxhole and to the sides, but not at the front. I rigged them with the nylon string to be on a hair trigger, then I went back to the centre of the foxhole.

"You are totally insane," said Rupert.

"Uh-huh," I said, before I took the fourth grenade and rigged it to the inside of my helmet, so that the pin would be pulled the moment somebody lifted the helmet.

There. All done.

"We're going to leave the gun?" Rupert asked.

"Uh-huh." I pointed at the MG3 machine gun. "We still have this."

"You do know that the booby traps are facing the wrong direction, right?" Rupert said.

"God, I hope not," I said.

Ad then we took our position in the third patch of the forest, nothing more than six trees that were decent enough for a cover, but not great. It also allowed us to look at the clearing and our own little trap. We set up the MG3 and covered it. I took Rupert's G3.

And then we waited.

We didn't move. Couldn't move as to not break our cover. And we waited. We waited as the cold from the wet earth crawled up our legs and our arms. And we waited. And your body starts to cramp up in the most impossible places, and all you want to do is jump up, move something, move your fucking leg, move your fucking arm, move it, move it, move it.

And we waited.

And we didn't talk. We didn't exchange our life's stories, you don't talk, you are patient, you are prepared, the last thing you do is talk while you wait for the enemy. Years later, when my friend Jörg (who was also in the armed forces) and I were sitting in a theatre and watched Shaving Ryan's Privates by some director or another, both of us started to laugh loudly at the screen when they are in the French village and while they are waiting for the Germans to arrive, they have all these nice little chats, and they listen to music, and they talk about what they're going to do when they get back home... and they not once prepped for the goddamn assault! They were so bad, in fact, that they had to carry ammo from one side of the road to the other in the middle of a firefight! Kids, don't do that. If you do that, you deserve to die.

Years earlier, Rupert and I had waited for over four hours before our platoon arrived. You could hear them from miles away. Talking. Laughing. Not taking this seriously.

And why should they? The rabbit never escapes.

They passed our position, and Rupert and I made like moles. I think i was buried so deep in the muddy earth that I had it in places that I didn't even know I had.

And then my CO saw it. And I could see that he saw it. He had that shit-grin on his face that only truly arrogant people have. And then the others in the platoon saw it, too. And they started firing at our little trap foxhole with the war games ammo, like a party of drunken idiots.

"We can take them," Rupert whispered next to me.

"Not yet," I said. "Give them their moment."

They continued to fire as they moved forward. Shouting. Laughing. Come out! Come out! We got you! Only that nobody from that position replid. Backpacks have a very limited range of verbal communication, you know.

And they moved in. Just like I had hoped. Saw that there was nobody there. Saw that moment of confusion that turned to anger. Saw how one of them kicked against the helmet. It tumbled from the backpack.

And they saw...

"Grenade!" one of them shouted. It popped. Like I said, it was a play grenade. They don't do much else. But for that little moment, it was real enough.

"Now," I whispered to Rupert.

He started shooting. Short, controlled bursts. I know some people think that having a heavy machine gun is like having a giant extension of your cock, what the hell, let's spray everybody, I'm the man! Who's the man? I'm the man! But that kind of thinking will get you killed. Short, controlled bursts. Take aim. Fire. One second. Two seconds. Your shoulder will feel like a mule has kicked you. Anything longer than two seconds, and you might as well be shooting at the moon. Stop. Take aim. Fire again. Shoot the right people.

I started firing.

From the platoon, we could hear the shouts. What the fuck? What the fuck?

And they started to disperse. And here's the thing about panic. If you are under fire, even if it is merely in a war games situation, your first instinct, of course, is to run the fuck away from the bullets. You don't turn around. You don't look around. You try to get the fuck away from that sound. And they did.

They ran right into the three booby traps I had rigged around the makeshift foxhole. Remember? None of them faced the way they would come in? Three play grenades popping. More Fuck! Fuck! Fuck! Fuck!

And then the voice of my CO rising above it all, "Seize fire! Stop!"

And it all went quiet.

Rupert and I got up. Our legs were stiff. It took a moment. Rupert looked at me.

"You are insane," he said.

"Yeah."

And we walked over to our platoon. My CO was furious.

"This wasn't the game!" he shouted.

"Sure it was," I said. "I didn't read anywhere in the rules and regulations that the rabbit isn't allowed to defend itself. You hunted us. Only we didn't run."

"Fuck," said my CO. "Fuck! Fuck!"

Then he calmed down.

"Well," he said, "I'll give you that. It was a neat trick. It won't work a second time."

"It won't have to," I said. "Because you're all dead."

"Oh, please," my CO said. "Even with your grenades and the shooting, I'd probably still have a third, maybe even half of my platoon, and you've given away your position."

"Hm," I said. "Yeah, you're probably right."

Then i walked over to the booby traps, picked up the coke cans, took out the play grenades and poured the ball bearings onto the ground, right in front of his feet. He looked at the tiny steel balls flowing out the cans, and he understood what I had done.

"Oh my god," was the only thing he could still say.

"Like I said," I told him. "None of you made it out of here alive."