Letter from Prague

There is a classic saying that there are three types of intelligence, human, animal, and military, in that order. Although I don't know exactly who said it, I do know it's true. I've been in the Army.

A couple of days ago, the cat was let out of the bag and the astonished general public learned from the press that the young, tall and handsome members of the Prague Castle Guard - the army unit supposed to protect the President of the Czech Republic - are either perpetrators or victims of some of the worst cases of hazing, or bullying. That the barracks practices often border on torture, theft and tyranny. That the poker-faced dummies, standing on guard at the Prague Castle gates in their neatly pressed uniforms and polished boots are either slave-drivers or slaves in their private time, when they're off-duty or between tattoo and reveille. The longer-serving conscripts make their younger comrades-in-arms' lives miserable by making them bring them money and food, keep them amused by eating toothpaste, drinking aftershave, staging bizarre strip shows, humbly reporting their every move to their tormentors a thousand times a day, and yes, even masturbating until they are ordered - and here's an authentic quote - to stop that silly thing and lick it up.

The military, Talleyrand wrote, is that which is not civil. A young man who served with the Prague Castle Guard some years ago wrote to a respected national paper last week that criticism should be directed primarily at commanders. I know from my army years, and that was 23 years ago, what happens in the barracks when all the day's officers leave for home, and the sergeants take over and raise hell. Some of my friends were tried for desertion when they couldn't bear any more hazing. The preferred, and very mild form, of treating fresh conscripts was to constantly order them to recite their number. That figure indicated how many of the 730 days, or two calendar years, was left for them to endure in the army, for in the old days, conscription duty extended to two years, plus time served in the barracks jail where one could land up for even the slightest misdemeanour. I remember myself standing in the guard of honour for a guy, from another barracks in town, who simply cracked and shot himself dead on duty. The investigation revealed nothing, nobody was punished and the poor soldier hadn't had a single minute of counselling from the unit's psychologist. He'd been too scared to say what was happening to him, and even if he had plucked up all of his courage, no one would have listened to him.

That, of course, happened almost a quarter of century ago, when my country was a totalitarian state, its army a cog in the wheel of the Warsaw Pact, and its political scene was ruled by the third and lowest type of intelligence. Eleven years ago, my country broke free of the Warsaw Pact. Democracy has made a tremendous advance since then. The Czech Republic and its army are members of NATO, in theory.

I am not naive - I've read "The Long Grey Line", "The Lords of Discipline", "The Draftee's Confidential Guide to the Army", and "The Good Soldier Schweik". I know that hazing is, and probably will continue to be, a very characteristic feature of army life.

When I was in the army, a sympathetic young third lieutenant, whom I taught English when we were on duty together, expounded on the theory of positive bullying. The man had a penchant for British cigarettes (which I was supposed to buy for him), rock and roll records (I happened to have a small supply at home), and tasty food (there was a decent restaurant just round the corner). He told me one thing: "Be a bully, but don't overdo it. Give them the stick but don't forget about the carrots." The Communist Party badge shone on his lapel, when he thanked me for an excellent dinner. Rothmans were his favourite brand of cigarettes.

A few days ago, I almost bumped into him at a busy Prague crossroads. I said almost, because my wife, who was giving me the lift, swerved her humble little Skoda just inches past his brand new Toyota Accord. We recognised each other instantly. The captain in a spotless new uniform of the Czech Army was genuinely happy to see me after all these years. We went to a café. He'd been exposed to severe harassment in the dying years of communist rule. He'd even contemplated... leaving the army! But then he persevered and I should see him now! He's a captain today, four ranks up in just ten years, isn't the world wonderful? Bullying? Of course it happens, but, confidentially speaking, the President's Office is taking resolute steps and heads will roll in the Prague Castle Guard... but he wasn't allowed to say any more.

We had a good laugh. He, the better, although the Rothmans he smoked were his own. Yes, he'd put on some weight since the good old days - but I myself have developed a bald spot, and a beer belly!

P.S. My nephew got his honourable discharge a few months ago. One whole year, he had served three 24-hour duties a week and did so-called voluntary work for the rest of the time. He didn't complain to me. He said his friends had been bullied much more severely. It appears that my nephew's intelligence borders dangerously on human...

Author: Libor Kubík
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