Drafted: Diary of a Revolutionary Guard Conscript
by CORRESPONDENT in Tehran
10 Aug 2011 22:11
Eight months inside Sepah.[ personal history ] Day -4: This is it
In Iran, every man (or boy) has to perform military service when he turns 18. You can postpone it if you are accepted into university, but eventually it must be done and now, having finished years of academic study, it is my turn. Of course, there are ways to avoid it -- if you have a serious illness, if you are the caretaker of your family, if you are the only male child and your father is over 59 years old, and some others that I don't exactly know. I certainly did attempt to get out of it; I tried to convince the doctors at the conscription police headquarters (police nezam vazife) that the problems with my knees and back were serious enough to exempt me but, well, they didn't quite buy it and now here I am vaccinated, standing amid a crowd of anxious-looking young fellows. We are waiting in the conscription center for a guy to come and announce in which branch of the military we will be serving and at which base we will be trained.
I am anxious, as well. There are three main branches in which I might serve: The first is the police force, which is the one I (like almost everyone else) detest most. The training is hard and the duty is harder, usually involving serving in dangerous places, especially if you are unmarried, as I am. The second is the regular armed forces, which also has very strict training and where discipline is very important. It has a great advantage, though -- it is the least strict of the three when it comes to Islamic codes and you are allowed to shave. Then there is Sepah (the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which is the easiest when it comes to training but the strictest as far as matters such as Islamic codes are concerned. There are certain sections within these branches that are very sought after. For example, it is said that the easiest military service is in the Air Force, part of the regular armed forces, but that is definitely off the sheet for me, because the very few available places are filled with well-connected individuals. So despite my loathing of Sepah as an establishment, I really hope that I am drafted into it -- the service is easier. But getting drafted into Sepah is also hard; connections are very important, being a member of the Basij helps a lot, and I can claim neither qualification.
The guy comes and announces the names. I am drafted into the police force and the training base is going to be in Arak. I need to be there by tomorrow morning with my head shaved.
Day -3: A twisted turn of events
I arrived in Arak after a long journey by bus. I hadn't quite fully shaved my head; I just told the barber to make my hair very short. Then there I was last night saying goodbye. My mother had suddenly become religious and was reading a doa from a book she had found. My father was giving me last-minute advice. I had said goodbye to my girlfriend earlier that night; she was scared and sad and cried a lot. I tried to reassure her, but deep down, despite all the stories that were recounted to me over the past few days, I wasn't feeling reassured either. I have always considered myself a pacifist and a liberal, so I dreaded the discipline and severity of military training. I am also 28 years old, a bit old for it. And then, of course, there is the fear of unknown.
I arrived in the morning and immediately went to the military base. Without any introduction and without giving us time to think about what was going on around us, we were arrayed in lines and sent marching through the enormous compound. Next came the assignment to barracks. But then, surprise, ten people including me were left out. The overcrowded base had reached its capacity and so we were sent home. Now I am on my way back, rejoicing at the thought of some extra few days of freedom.
Day 0: A taste of Siberian gulags
After I arrived home to everyone's surprise, I went to the conscription center to tell them what had happened. They have reassigned me to Sepah, and my military training base will be in Yazd, in the middle of Iran. And so I arrived here early in the morning. After explaining the reason for my tardiness, I was assigned to a barracks and there I became part of the second company of the base's second battalion. Before I had time to settle down and inspect my new residence, we were ordered out. We marched in a clumsy column to the warehouse of the base and were given our military attire and personal effects -- two camouflage military uniforms which did not fit me well, two boots, some cheap soap, shampoo, towel, shoe polish, and so on. It was a heavy load to bear, especially under the scorching July sun. But after a lot of shouting by our company sergeant we made it back to the barracks, where we were told to change into our new uniforms and come back out and form a line in under a minute. Those who were late were punished by being made to crawl on the asphalt around the large court -- the customary penalty for any failure or misdeed, as we were to find out.
We were sorted according to our height and each assigned a number based on that order. So I became number 58 in a company of 106. We were told that from then on we were to be known only by our personnel number, which for me was 2-2-58. Sure enough, I was thereafter referred to only as number 2-2-58 by our superiors. Then came the inspection. The battalion commander, an angry-looking major with a heavy beard who was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, came and looked us over. Four of us, including me, were pulled out and given the regular punishment. Afterward, I found out that it was because my hair was too long and the fact that I had shaved the day before (my last chance to do so). Out came the sergeant with an electric hair clipper and we were sheared.
The sun had almost set when we were allowed back in the barracks. Assigned the top bunk, I jumped on and looked all around the room, crammed with bald, weary young men looking all the same in their uniforms, and then it struck me. We resembled a flock of sheep. Piece by piece we were stripped of our identities as individuals -- first our clothes, then the hair, and then our names. But before depression could find a chance to set in, we were again ordered out to march in a single column to the military base's mosque for evening prayers. This is a feature of life in Sepah that is very hard for an agnostic like me. Afterward came supper. Like prisoners in a Siberian gulag, we waited in line for half an hour to be fed an awful looking, smelling, and tasting meal that hardly satisfied our hunger. Now we are back in the barracks and I have only seconds to lights out...so this is me signing off for today...
Day 7: Life on the base
The past seven days have passed like seven years. I have a beard now; we all have. My skin is burned; so is the skin of all the others. What we're receiving is a mix of political and religious indoctrination with basic military training. There is no talk of military tactics, just simple facts such as how to use light weapons and so on, but the indoctrination is serious. Most of the time is spent talking about the enemies of religion and the state -- everything from the Fetne 88 (the so-called "sedition" following the disputed election in 2009) to the Baha'is. A very simplistic attempt at brainwashing is going on. They try to convince us that all is well and that the events of recent years have all been a conspiracy by the West; the same worn-out rhetoric that you hear from every propaganda outlet of the regime. The theory classes, however, are a hoot. Most of the time we are napping or chatting and despite all the threats of punishment, nobody really listens. When we do tune in, it's sort of light entertainment. You hear medieval ideas being explained by someone who really believes in them, some notions so outrageous that it is very hard to imagine anyone really giving them credence.
But it is not all laughs and fun, as you might imagine. We have to get up very early, 4:30 in the morning. We tend to our personal needs until 5 a.m., go for compulsory morning prayers, then tend to our barracks, which are inspected daily. Every little thing that does not correspond with Sepah's military codes (boniane marsus) is supposed to be punished, but the codes are not enforced as rigorously as they are in the Army. For example, we get away with regular armed forces salutes most of the time and nobody really cares, except at formal events such as classes or inspections.
At 6:15, the physical exercises begin, which usually last for half an hour. Then we have a low-quality, very insufficient breakfast. At 7 a.m., the morning ceremony is held: a few verses of the Qur'an are read, followed by the national anthem, and then the commander gives a speech and usually reprimands a few guys for different reasons, maybe inspections findings or because he simply doesn't like someone. Next we go to the base's parade square to practice the military step, the only aspect of the training that is taken seriously. We go round and round until we either get it right or the sergeant gives up, usually the latter. It is very hot and the goose step is a very hard exercise.
By 9 a.m., we are done and after a brief break we attend morning classes. At noon, we attend the prayers (again compulsory) and the base commander gives a speech. He's a colonel who was a POW for nine years -- he was released five years after the Iran-Iraq War ended. Then we have lunch, followed by the afternoon classes. The classrooms are stifling, and as a result most of us doze off. Classes are finished by 4:30 and we attend the evening ceremony, which is the same routine as in the morning. The rest of the evening we have to ourselves. We rush to the showers. Due to the high ratio of conscripts to showerheads, we have to wait in long lines. Usually, if you are far back in line, by the time your turn arrives, the water is cold and so it's not hard to understand why we rush to the showers like it's a sprint.
The most significant problem for me is communication with the outside world. Having no cellphones or Internet, the only other way is the few payphones in the base. There are long waits, and when your turn arrives you have just a few minutes. It is a huge emotional burden not to be able to talk freely with your loved ones; you have to sum up everything in less than ten minutes and give your place to the next person in line and the phones are monitored, as the rumor goes.
We don't eat well, hygiene is lacking, and we have no privacy. Even the lockers are inspected on a daily basis and anything that doesn't please the sergeant goes into the bin. I feel like I am in Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket. However, the sergeant does not shout profanities and the barracks are far more crowded and the basic amenities are far more lacking and the irony is that everyone -- from the commanders on down -- knows that they can't make soldiers out of us; the training is perfunctory, the mood is somber, and discipline is mostly nonexistent. So far, we are more a circus act than real soldiers. Most of us are so disgusted that we have been drafted into this life that we try to resist everything, from obedience to discipline; all suffer because of our reluctance.
We were handed military equipment: a hard hat, a backpack, a flask, a shovel, a gas mask -- all ragged and dirty -- and, of course, a rifle. The rifles are AK-47s -- Kalashnikovs, the official Sepah arms -- and very old; mine was made in 1967 in Hungary. They are relics from the war with Iraq; after their firing pins are removed they are given to conscripts in training. We must learn to clean and take them apart, and we are required to take them everywhere with us. The sergeant told us that the rifles are our "namus" (honor) and we have to guard them with our lives. It reminded me of a line of Sergeant Hartman's in Full Metal Jacket: "You're married to this piece, this weapon of iron and wood. And you will be faithful. Port, hut!"
Day 62: Mass-produced cheap-quality soldiers
The training is over. The last days were the hardest but nonetheless...it's over. I don't feel like a soldier, but I have a new respect for the life I had outside. And though my training is finished, my military service is not. I am going to have to serve the country for 14 more months, for which I will be sent to the west of Iran.
I am weary and tired. All of my body aches and I feel dirty in every pore. Just as I am boarding the bus to go home, I take a one last look at the base and feel simple relief. After practicing the goose step for most of the past 60 days, I can still hear the drums in my head and I keep counting with them (One Two Three Four...the big drum with the left foot...) and my left big toe is completely numb.
The last days of training were the hardest. We camped out in the open and then took part in a military exercise complete with explosions and us attacking uphill and shooting at imaginary foes. That was followed by a long march through the mountains which took all day. By nighttime, we were falling apart. It is interesting that when conditions become really harsh, your mind just shuts down. You don't think about how hard it is, you just focus on getting through it and, well, here I am through it all.
During our training, many top brass military officials visited the base and gave speeches, mostly on the topic of the Fetne 88. The most important speaker was Ayatollah Khamenei's representative in Sepah, Mojtaba Zolnour. He gave a speech demonizing Mousavi, Karroubi, and Khatami, and said that when the time is ripe they will be dealt with effectively. He also talked about Rafsanjani and said, "Rafsanjani should be judged as three men: first, the fighter before the Revolution until the end of the war, whom I respect; second, the president after the war, whom I criticize; and third, the man he is now, who has lost his way."
I was given a scorecard to present at the military unit to which I was assigned. In it, my score for religious beliefs, my score for competency at saying prayers, and my score at the shooting range are reported -- all that matters to Sepah. Because I can say my prayers in Arabic and because I have fired a mere 64 bullets from old and rusty Kalashnikovs, I am considered a soldier fit for duty.
Now I am off to go home, for some R&R. and within a week I head to Kurdistan for the rest of my service. During the last day, all of the members of my company, the second company of the second battalion, were very emotional. We exchanged contact information and wished each other well, but at heart we knew that almost certainly we wouldn't hear of each other anymore. I thought of something Private Bozz said in the movie Tigerland: "No more phony army buddy crap..." It's true. We became buddies over the two months at the base, but there was no time or energy for true friendships to be forged. We will be left only with some anecdotes to recall to others when they are going to do their training: "In our company, the second company, we held a birthday party for one of the guys. We sang and danced. Yes, you wouldn't believe it, in Sepah we sang and danced and our sergeant even joined us for a brief few minutes before he ordered all of us out for a collective punishment. We all crawled around the court still laughing and singing..."
Day 240: Westbound for the last time
I was sent to a military unit in Kurdistan province. At the foot of the Zagros Mountains, known as the agricultural heart of Iran, the province has been a military stronghold for millennia. From ancient times, this was the western passage to Iran and thus there has always been a heavy military presence in the region. I served there for 180 days and now I am going there for the last time, because I have been transferred to a unit in my hometown. In the past six months, I have been at my unit's base for 15 out of every 30 days.
Serving in my unit, I learned that things do get much easier after training. There is no strict discipline involved; just respect the boniane marsus (wear the uniform, have short hair, have a beard, be there on time) and almost everything else is overlooked in Sepah. It is forbidden to have cellphones, it is forbidden to smoke, it is forbidden to listen to music, but we smuggle in everything. I have a cellphone, I have my MP3 player, I bring in all the books that I want.
Life on the base consist of two parts: During the formal part, which starts at 7 a.m. and lasts until 4 p.m., you do what you are assigned to and because the cadre are present, you need to wear your uniform and refrain from any public display of banned items. And there is the informal part -- after the cadre leaves, the base is left to the conscripts and a few supervising officers, and so the mood changes; you can wear regular clothes, go for a free walk around the large compound, and so on.
Here there are no strict rules. Every regulation can be bent or broken if you have the right connections; you need connections with the cadre for the formal part of the day and connections with the conscripts in strategic parts of the base for the informal part. Almost everybody needs a favor, and if you can scratch their backs, yours will be scratched in turn. I haven't directly bribed anyone but I have provided my commander with free insurance for his car and now I have it easier. He even helped me to get a transfer -- I am being sent to a unit in my hometown for the rest of my service. As for the conscripts, knowing someone in the kitchen gets you extra rations and fresh fruit, knowing one of the MPs (military police -- dezhban) means you can smuggle things inside, knowing a guy in the infirmary means visits to the city and getting out of the base whenever you want, and the list goes on.
The reality is that the military cadre of Sepah, especially at the lower ranks, are mostly either war veterans or connected to war veterans or martyrs in some way. They are not the military type. Most chose Sepah because there was no other work available. Although they are paid higher on average than those in other branches of the military, still it is far from a luxurious career. In my unit, most of the cadre, with the exception of a few in the political and cultural divisions, the military intelligence unit, and the representative of Ayatollah Khamenei, the Vali-ye Faghih, did not care about politics. A few who participated in the crackdown on the protesters were enticed by the promise of money and the warning that the protests would mean no more Sepah and thus no more cash. The top brass are of course fanatics and very well paid, but the rank and file of Sepah is a semirigid military establishment that more resembles a militia -- the equipment is old, the training is inadequate, and the salary is low. Where I served, despite warnings, the conscripts were not made to participate in the prayers, but the cadre had to go, because their employment depended on it. Some of them were even visibly reluctant to take part.
Our unit has lost several soldiers in raids by PJAK. All of those killed were conscripts drafted and sent here by force rather than of their own free will. Overall, while I still believe in the might of the Revolutionary Guards, now I have seen their strained inner workings. I think Sepah as an establishment should be distinguished from Sepah as an army. The establishment is strong, both politically and economically. It rules the country from behind the scenes and actively participates in suppressing freedom and human rights. But the top brass aside, Sepah as an army is filled mostly with normal individuals who go about their everyday lives, and when it fights, it fights with the manpower of the conscripts, half-trained soldiers who may be our brothers, our cousins, our friends, or in this case: me.
* Some details have been changed.
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