In wartime, the walls of the latrine provide a rare opportunity for self-expression.
“It is the soldier, not the poet, who has given us freedom of speech,” as a patriotic poem by Charles Province has it. That presumption is a point of pride among service members, who defend civilian rights and privileges they’re often not afforded themselves. You don’t have the right to foment a strike in the military. You don’t have the right to a trial with a jury of your peers. You can’t sue the military. You don’t have the right to peacefully assemble. There is no such thing as freedom of speech. But self-expression is like hydraulics: plugging one hole only builds more pressure somewhere else. In my own experience as an infantryman in Iraq, the only place where the stress of combat found unfettered freedom of expression was on the walls of the latrine.
You begin to notice it as soon as you hit the staging area in Kuwait. At places like Camp Buehring, a crossroads where battalions came and went on their way to different operating areas in Iraq, American troops are sheltered under the anonymity of massive logistical bureaucracies. A port-a-potty next to a chow hall could be used by any number of soldiers, sailors, airmen, or marines passing through. Unlike a permanent duty station, where bathrooms are assigned to specific companies and any defacement is easily traceable, there simply wasn’t any way to catch someone scrawling on the walls of a well-trafficked latrine. The situation wasn’t very different once one finally got to Iraq, where the bases were just as large and sprawling, and combat outposts were constructed in the half-destroyed hovels of what had been private residences. In the former, the anonymity was conducive to getting away with latrine graffiti; in the latter, no one cared if you wrote on some walls. Read More