Wednesday, June 01, 2005

The Brig

The following essay is by "Doc" Bruce. It describes some of the effects of isolation on the prisoner, and of being a guard in almost complete control of the prisoners. The events in this essay took place during another time period and during a different war (the Vietnam one) and no parallel to current events is intended, except for the obvious psychological ones, those that exist because of isolation and the psychology of being a prison guard. As was shown by the Stanford prison experiment, most of us can be made into cruel tyrants if the circumstances are right. Most of us can also identify with the feelings the prisoners in isolation have. So read and learn what we may be doing in places like Guantanamo Bay.

I was thrown in the brig during the process of applying for a Conscientious Objector status while already serving in the military. The first sense is one of isolation, a removal from the world into a place with no doors. This brig was located above the boiler room and the compartments comprising the brig were always very warm, ninety degrees plus with no ventilation. Okay, hot. Our working gear was t-shirts, dungarees, and boots. The prisoners' primary duty was to keep the brig spotless. On board ship, everything is made of steel, most of which is painted. The brig, however, is not painted but polished until it shone. Most of my time was spent on hands and knees, shining the deck with pads of double-ought wool. I would watch while a drop of sweat fell from my face onto the deck and, as if by magic, evaporate to become a miniature island group of rust.

I shared the brig with one other sailor, a Kansas flatlander (or so I imagined) who had fallen in love with a whore in Olongapo City, Philippines and missed the ship's movement. (All the information I had on him was through the guards; we were not allowed to speak to each other.) I'll call him Jimbo. Whenever there was another officer, sailor or marine around, we were to stand at attention with our noses pressed against the bulkhead, eyes straight ahead. We were allowed outside contact only with the assistant chaplain, who would ask if we had any problems or if we needed anything. These were, as you might imagine, pro-forma questions only. This seventeen or eighteen year old hadn't understood the program and actually complained about being beaten to the assistant chaplain one day. I heard him complain but had no way of stopping him. Thirty minutes after the chaplain's assistant left, the guard shouted "Officer on deck!" and we sprang to attention, noses to the bulkhead. The Lieutenant in charge of the Marine detachment on board walked past me, spun and slammed his forearm into the back of Jimbo's head, breaking his nose, spraying blood on me and down Jimbo's front. Before he could collapse, the Lt. spun him around, gut punched him and hit him in the chin with a right cross, knocking him to the deck. "Am I beating on you, puke?" Jimbo knew he wasn't supposed to lie and responded "Sir, yes sir!" I stayed still, nose to the bulkhead, hoping Jimbo would catch on soon. The Lt. grabbed him off the deck, spun a half circle, bounced him off the bulkhead, hit him with two short jabs to the floating ribs, held him up with a forearm over his windpipe: "Am I beating on you, motherfucker?" Jimbo chokes "Sir, yes sir!" So now the Lt.'s mad and he knees Jimbo in the groin who wheezes down the bulkhead in stages. "Am I beating on you, fuckwad?" Dimly, a light flickers for Jimbo and he finally gasps "Sir, no sir!" Lt. spins towards me, but I know the drill: his hammer fist hits the back of my head as I turn slightly at the last moment so my head bounces off the bulkhead with a rich hollow sound, bending my glasses but not breaking my nose; he kidney punches me and asks "Am I beating on you, asshole?" "Sir, no sir!" I shout. "Damn right, I better not fucking hear anyone is getting beaten on in my brig, do you understand?" Jimbo and I are together: "Sir, yes sir!" The Lt. is gratified at the clarity of his message and leaves.

We used paper towels to wipe up most of the blood, and some scrapers to get it out of the metal seams of the bulkhead and deck; blood clogs up steel wool, and makes a mess.

This is what I mean by isolation.

The brig is the worst duty for a Marine on board ship; it is just as hot for them as us. No one visits, there's no one to bullshit with, not much to do except read and make the prisoners jump. Jimbo and I were the only prisoners, so we normally just had one guard. They worked shifts but, essentially, Marines who were being punished or who were slackers, those were the guys who ended up guarding us. My least favorite was a guy I'll call Scooter.

Scooter was from Texas or Alabama (I forget), one of the Deep South states, young and lean, the kind of guy that you often see shirtless on television with a beer going "Woooo!" in that silly high pitched voice guys use when showing off. Regular good ol' boy, likes to shoot stuff to see it die, especially useless critters like coons and possum, small shit. Tough guy, cigarettes in one hand and billy stick in the other, always puffing himself up, talking about how he's gonna kill him some gooks, etc. etc. (Now, of course, it is a different vindictive invective…)

Scooter had "a real fun time" with me because we were so different from one another. That, and, of course, cause I was a traitor trying to sneak out of the military as a CO. He told me a lot about himself, not that I wanted to know anything at all about him; he was just bored. He regaled me with his understanding of The War and Religion and Our Place, crap like that. He was also an inventive sadist.

The doors to our cells were sheets of painted steel, drilled through with half inch holes "for ventilation", I guess. The cells were the hottest place in the brig which made it difficult to sleep. The heat and the banging on the cell doors every couple hours by the guard who pulled the night watch. Scooter would prop the doors open and have us do standing pushups with our index fingers stuck in the holes. The part that Scooter liked to show off to any other Marine that happened by at shift change or whenever was, if you take some spray boot polish and spray it through the flame of a lighter, you could get a flame that shot out two feet or more. He would play this back and forth across our fingers in the cell doors until we fell against the door trying to stop the pain. What a hoot.

But here is the interesting thing about Scooter. After I got out of the brig and before I was transferred off ship, I had opportunity to pull liberty in Hong Kong. I was sitting on the ferry, waiting for the quick trip across the Bay when who comes up and plops down beside me but my old buddy Scooter! "Hey, where ya goin'? No hard feelings, right?" If I hadn't been gritting my teeth, my mouth would have fallen open. The guy was truly guileless; he really thought "no hard feelings" would cover it.

At that time in Hong Kong, I had heard it said that you could have someone killed for fifty dollars. I had a couple hundred in my pocket: I told him to fuck off, instead. He got up, shaking his head somewhat sadly at me and sat down a couple rows away.

There are no seats left in the ferry.