GI PartyLambert and I were the company Sh—birds in Navy basic training. Boot camp. Too many years loping around in the mountains had lent me a long, arm-swinging stride that failed to adapt to the 30-inches-all-around cadence of military marching. I wasn’t much on protocol either. I went to great lengths to avoid saluting officers or calling them “sir.” It seemed belittling for one man to humble himself before another.

Lambert was the guy muggers rolled in the park. Bullies beat him up in bars. My old Indian grandma meant him when she said everyone served some useful purpose, even if only as a bad example.

One night, something fouled the air in the barracks like the stench around a dead cow. The other recruit trainees whispered conspiratorially about giving their Sh—birds a GI Party. A sister company had dragged their scrounge to a shower. They beat him and scrubbed him with wire brushes until he bled from very pore.

Chief Birkes, the company drill instructor, started it off earlier after the duty day ended. “These two sorry Sh—birds just can’t seem to get with the program,” he said. “They are not team players like we need in the United States Armed Forces. What are we going to do?”

He looked at Lambert and me. He looked toward the showers and left it at that.

That night, movement in the barracks awoke me. It was Kelmer. “We don’t want you. We’re having a GI Party for Lambert.”

I mustered some courage. “I ain’t part of this thing. I ain’t going to no barn burnings.”

“Some of the guys want to include you,” Kelmer threatened.

“There’ll be a fight.”

After a moment, his big shadow moved down bay. I retrieved my M1 rifle, gripped it across my chest ready to butt-stroke any hostile face that appeared unexpectedly.

A thick gunk-oil of anonymous danger filled the bay. Shadows glided on bare feet toward Lambert’s end of the barracks.

I stared into the darkness and listened because I couldn’t not listen. I felt fear like something alive curled up inside my gut.

Lambert almost screamed. Not quite. Something—a hand over his mouth—stifled him as the mob rolled him into a blanket and dragged him to the showers. The showers were almost soundproof.

Recruits fell upon Lambert in the showers and beat him with bars of soap dropped into the toes of socks. They grunted and snarled like coyotes gnawing on a bloodied carcass. Lambert’s whimpering threaded its way from the showers. I flinched every time a bar of soap struck flesh.

Afterwards, the vigilantes stole back to their bunks. Lambert sobbed as he dragged himself to bed. I lay with my rifle. I felt smothered by shame. Shame for them, shame for myself. Even Don Quixote, that jouster of windmills, would have donned his rusty armor for combat and rescue. I had been too afraid.

Some hero. I buried my face in my pillow from shame.

War is insanity. Men who devote their lives and energies toward the preparation for death and destruction cannot be totally sane.

From Always A Warrior, autobiography by Charles W. Sasser. Available from Amazon.com