Semper Why?

Thursday, August 24th, 2006

He was a tough kid and determined to take what they could give him, but the dirty needle was too much.

Join the Marines, spit up blood.

Talk about a military that’s strained to the breaking point. They’re enforcing stop-loss orders, calling up the reserves, extending the enlistment age (in a recent spoof of a recruitment ad on “The Daily Show,” doddering oldsters were lured to sign up with the phrase, “Remember, when you have a gun in your hands, they have to listen to your stories”). This is the paradox of waging an unpopular, morally ambiguous war.

What happened to 19-year-old Lance Cpl. Matt Solowynsky at the beginning of this year shows another aspect of the strain. The process of dehumanizing the enemy — the sine qua non of every war in human history, and crushingly obvious when a war grinds on without a clear strategic objective — sooner or later backs up on itself.

Part of the toxic waste of war embeds itself in the emotions and the soul of the combatants. That Guantanamo energy, that gusto to terrorize helpless detainees, to humiliate unarmed civilians, isn’t so easily contained, and begins corrupting the whole system. When a designated enemy isn’t available, anyone — a new recruit, say — will do.

“He didn’t do anything but be a gung-ho Marine,” said Tod Ensign of Citizen Soldier, the organization that eventually came to Solowynsky’s aid. Indeed, he was the highest ranked recruit in his class when he graduated from Marine Corps Basic Training last September. How odd that, a few months later, he was AWOL, fleeing Camp Pendleton, Calif., as though he were a POW.

The psychiatrist he saw a short while later called his flight “by far, his most responsible option.” And, according to his lawyer, Louis Font, Solowynsky was well within his rights, under the Uniform Code of Military Justice, to do what he did. If he has a court-martial trail — he surrendered to the Marines at Quantico, Va., on Aug. 22 — his defense will be his right to leave an abusive situation.

All the new guys were subject to harassment, but Solowynsky says he was singled out because of his high rank, which the other men in the company, who were just back from Iraq, didn’t think he deserved. Still, until the day he left the base, he was determined to make it in the Corps no matter how much they dished out. C’mon, this is the Marines. Dishing out is what they do.

“I was hit, choked and slapped,” he told his psychiatrist, according to a subsequent report. “I was grabbed and thrown against the wall. I was hit open-handed across the back of the head by almost everybody in my company. A buddy and I were attacked by senior Marines. They threatened to fuck me up. From when I woke up to when I went to bed I had to live with it. I didn’t resist. …

“Everything I did was wrong. In particular, I was harassed by [a sergeant], who told me I don’t deserve my rank. He did a lot of the hitting, sometimes when drunk. I didn’t resist.

“In addition, I felt isolated and trapped because I couldn’t talk to anybody about my situation. I couldn’t go to my superior because it was my superior who was beating me. I couldn’t speak to his superior because it is unacceptable to skip over someone in the chain of command in order to make a complaint. I had even asked to go to Iraq with another unit. I would have chosen to stand guard in the sun all day for seven months just to get away.”

Still, Solowynsky was prepared to handle all this. He was prepared to handle the 24-hour guard posts, the weekend confinements to barracks. What he was not prepared to handle, however, was the “IV training class” he had one Monday morning, which followed 24-hour guard duty.

“I was taking notes — looking down at my notes — and a senior Marine thought I was asleep. He slapped me on the back of my head,” Solowynsky told me. The next thing he knew, someone was demonstrating needle insertion on him. “The first time I got a blood clot in my right arm. (The sergeant) then said that I had to have it done to me again. This guy did it to me in my left arm with a needle he had dropped to the ground three times. It was abusive, and I lost a lot of blood.” When class ended, “We had to go on a run and I started coughing. I coughed up some blood.”

And that, it turns out, was all he could take. The point of putting up with the abuse suddenly vanished. He knew if he stayed he’d have to fight back, a no-win situation for sure. He was trapped in a nightmare and took the only option he had left.

“I grabbed my backpack and civilian clothes and got in my car and drove home,” he said. It was the end of Solowynsky’s brief military career.

I know, this is just one desertion story out of thousands. There are others with more political clarity — Army 1st Lt. Ehren Watada, the highest-ranking officer (so far) to refuse deployment to Iraq, recently had his “Article 32,” or pre-court-martial, hearing — but the unfolding saga of Matt Solowynsky, the gung-ho Marine, shines a terrible light on things. Sometimes we wrest the idealism from our young and turn them into the enemy, as though we don’t have enough enemies.