I wasn’t looking for a rite of passage when I joined the army, but I sure as hell found it.
A rite of passage was once upon a time a given in any man’s life. At some point in his teenage years, he would be taken from the tribe by elders to somewhere remote where he would go through the initiation that would transform him mentally, emotionally and spiritually into a man. He would go through discomfort, hunger, lack of sleep and even pain before the transformation would be complete. He would then come back to the world a different person, capable of making adult decisions and functioning as such within the tribe.
Being one of the rare men in modern society that has experienced a rite of passage, I can’t help but speak up and inform people that it was actually the most important thing I’ve done in my life. More important than school, university and anything else I’ve ever thought of as worthwhile because it gave me the tools to really be a producer in society, rather than a mindless consumer.
I’m talking, of course, about joining the army.
Obviously the army is not a rite of passage intentionally, nor did I see it that way when I signed up. The fact of the matter was, however, that I was a 26 year old boy and I was in serious need of some discipline and direction in my life. I had a good upbringing with excellent parents and I never got in trouble with the law or anything like that, but I was lost. I had never really bothered to study at school because I didn’t need to, which meant that my first shot at university turned out to be a disaster. I took a year off, did some travelling and then managed to get a liberal arts degree which was about as useful as a heater in Florida. This hardly solved the problem because, after a short trip to Japan I was largely in the same boat, with no idea of what I wanted to do, living with my parents (I did work part time on a bar) and no direction. So I did what many other guys lacking direction have done before me, I joined the army.
You never really know what you’re signing up for when you join the military. Oh, no doubt you’ve seen plenty of war movies with scenes involving boot camp and think you have an idea, but until you’re there you really can’t understand. The first few days are like being born again—you feel as though you’ve been ripped out of the womb. You go from this comfortable life where everything is easy, you know the rules and you function almost automatically to a completely different world. The harsh light of being born is replaced with screams from military instructors at 6am, those agonising first few breaths replaced with trying to just get a sense of what the hell is going on and not get in trouble.
I found myself tested more in those first few days of recruit training than the next 3 months. During the first few days you aren’t actually training yet, so you don’t have any sense of progression. All you’re doing is administration, so you’re now in this world where you’re getting yelled at all the time, being rushed from one thing to another, wearing new clothes with a shaved head and being told you are nothing more than a number without actually accomplishing anything each day. I found myself questioning more than once if I should actually be there and if this was really for me. While I may have lacked direction and discipline, I certainly didn’t lack pride and I simply told myself to stop being such a weak piece of shit. In hindsight I’m glad I at least had the strength of character to do that.
This is, to me, what makes military recruit training such an effective rite of passage. You are gone for three months and that entire time you are in another world. Any transformation program out there is likely to be incomplete unless you are separated in some way from your previous life. In recruits, you have no choice but to learn, adapt and overcome. Tests are thrown at you on an almost daily basis and you have to pass them. You are in incredibly uncomfortable environments on a daily basis, as most military training facilities are located where extremes of temperature occur. This means you are either freezing cold or stinking hot most of the time. Things that were once a basic right of living in a first world country, like having a shower whenever you please, getting up at a time of day that you choose, even calling someone and being able to walk around while you’re on the phone, those things are all of a sudden privileges. I remember one guy went to get a soda during lunch in our first 2 weeks there, he was screamed at by a recruit instructor telling him he didn’t have that privilege yet.
And then there was the lack of sleep. Oh, you were budgeted 7 hours most nights, but you were marching upwards of 10 miles a day in addition to physical training. Before bed you’d also have to sing rousing songs or be screaming at the top of your lungs, so the last thing your body was ready to do despite being dead tired was go to sleep straight away. As the lack of sleep increased you developed a mental haze of sorts that never went away because there was no chance to catch up. It was always after a night of little sleep out in the field that you’d have an important test of your will, like a long pack march. You had no choice but to suck it up, put one foot in front of the other and keep going until you were finished.
That last sentence sums up the military recruit experience – just keep going. Looking back, none of the tests that were thrown at me were difficult in and of themselves, they were difficult purely because they were part of a larger experience designed to make you uncomfortable from the outset. And this is, for me, the crux of the recruit experience and why it is so successful in transforming people. In a world full of air conditioners, smartphones, fast food and essentially anything you want a quick Google search away, these comforts are all stripped away from you. You learned to survive in a harsh world with no possessions except what they give you and no one to rely on except yourself and your teammates.
Would I recommend everyone join the military? Hell no. My contract was for 6 years and that’s a long time to spend for the privilege of a rite of passage. Not only that, you may end up paying for that rite of passage with your life if you’re sent to a war zone. Being that there are new experiences for men seeking a rite of passage starting all the time, I’d highly recommend you give one of these a shot. The Australian Defence Force offers probably the best of both worlds – the gap year program. You commit for 1 year only, which means you get all the benefits of a rite of passage and excellent training, without having to put your life on the line or spending years of your life.
Having said that, I wouldn’t change the decision I made to sign on that dotted line for anything. It may sound clichéd or corny, but those three months and the years that followed transformed me completely from a boy to a man. In just 6 years I’m pretty sure I matured double that and had my personality change significantly for the better. I was a lost man-child when I joined the army, when I discharged I was essentially a new person. My parents weren’t quite sure how to talk to someone that now spoke up when he wasn’t happy about something and who wouldn’t just back down if they expressed disapproval. Many of my friends were surprised at how driven and goal oriented I had become, and the amount of things I could achieve in a very short time. Now it’s mostly them living their lives without direction since they have done all the usual things society expects of them. I hope they don’t wake up at 40 or 50 feeling lost and having a mid-life crisis, because I know having gone through the military experience that I won’t.
To be honest, I feel sorry for any man out there that hasn’t had the chance to go through some rite of passage. Until you are really put through what it puts you through, I feel like you don’t truly know yourself. It is an incredibly powerful experience that will stay with you the rest of your life. Wherever you are and whatever your age I urge you to seek one out, you owe it to yourself.
Photo courtesy of author: “Me during bayonet assault training.”