There is a scene this summer during my Greek army service that I won’t forget. About 200 of us had returned to Kalamata Military Base, after a four-day break at our homes and having completed our five-week basic training. Today was the day we were going to get our transfer papers, to be redeployed: some would be sent to the border with Turkey, others to the Greek islands, perhaps an inland army base or to Athens- where the cushier postings were, back in the capital.
After our 7AM roll call, a sergeant began to call out the names of the first group to be sent off. Most of us were a bit anxious, because we had no idea how far and for how long we would be gone for. On that list was our destiny in the surreal adventures of Greek military life.
The first few soldiers of this first group gathered in a small circle, in front of the rest of us as they heard their names. I quickly recognized a couple faces, a mental connection sparked in the back of my brain, and I recollected a new word I learned this summer: “visma.” Visma is not one of those eloquent Greek words that a Philhellene professor at an American university will ask you if you recognize its ancient Greek roots. Bit less sexy. Visma means plug-outlet. But it wasn’t being used in reference to where you charge your iPhone. A visma, in the world of the deep Greek bureaucratic state, is your connection, your contact, that “plugs-you-in” to the connected world.
The sergeant called out a few more names. Seven or eight more soldiers joined the group and I knew now that this little entourage was not going to be sent off to the border with Turkey to patrol the people-smuggling and narcotic routes of the Balkans. These dudes were the ones, in between our cigarette breaks, during training, that had mumbled discreetly that they had called their visma and had arranged to be ‘taken care of’.
One of my buddies at the base, Dimitri, gave me a crash-course on 101 Visma Rules. “A visma can be several things: a politician, a parliamentarian, an army official. Priests are a great visma too,” he told me, “weddings, funerals, baptisms. It’s the best type of networking. They know everyone in town. A minister is a heavyweight visma; might even be able to arrange a “fantasma” or ghost posting for you, where you just show up for a few hours at an office and don’t have to do the other menial tasks regular soldiers do.” Yes, this is summer 2013, real-time, real-world Greece. This culture is still alive.
I then heard my last name. I was surprised because I didn’t have a connection. Maybe I was a lucky one I speculated. Or maybe, they throw in a few random names to make the process look semi-legitimate. Perhaps my American university degree caught someone’s eye at the transfer office, or maybe when my application hit the desk, an officer took a sip of his frappe coffee at that instant and in a caffeine-rush high said, “I like this last name, throw this guy on the VIP list too.” I don’t know how it went down. It’s all a bit opaque here anyway.
The twenty of us gathered in this small circle in front of everyone else, and we stood back and looked at the rest of the soldiers. The sergeant glanced over at us and said, “Ok. You guys are headed to Athens. There’s your bus. You’re leaving in fifteen minutes. Everyone else, you’ll hear your name tomorrow.”
I should have felt lucky. But I was a bit dazed. I was part of a system that was completely broken down. I had gotten to know most of these kids during training. I knew who was a hard-worker and I knew who was looking to cut corners. And I now saw, that it wasn’t the most talented, the most courageous, the most intelligent that were getting the top postings in Athens, it was the visma community, the “plugged-in class”.
I initially joined the army because I was curious to see what it would be like and it also felt like the right thing to do my civic duty. But soon after I got acclimated in this environment, I questioned what are we really doing here anyway? What is the strategy? Who is in charge and are they living in the same Greece that I am living in?
Tens of thousands of young, healthy, strong men do their mandatory civic service every year. They interrupt their lives for nine months, and for many at a personal financial cost. They could be helping their country with real-life 2013 problems: infrastructure projects- regenerating public spaces, initiating recycling programs, building bicycle lanes, neighborhood security programs; helping the homeless, poor, hungry, drug addicts.
But we’re not doing any of this. We’re on auto-pilot mode from another bygone era, and the plane has disappeared off the radar screen. We do tasks to do tasks. We keep busy to keep busy.
I remembered a chat I had with another soldier, Gianni, one day when we were out “cleaning the military base” for the fiftieth time. And he nodded his head when I claimed, “the reason why morale is so low in the army is because we barely have a purpose. During basic training why aren’t the skills of each recruit properly identified and matched up with real social projects that Greece needs right now? This is supposed to be civic service: let’s help a country in dire need of help! Instead,” I looked at him, “I left New York to come to Kalamata to pick up Karelia cigarette butts and plastic water bottles from the bushes? This is how I’m helping Greece right now? Give me a break!” Dimitri attempted to console me, “We have a saying here, have you heard of it?” “What?” I asked. “Where the army starts is where logic ends.”
When you live in this environment you come to realize, its not that Greek people have a bad work ethic, like some in the sensational international media like to portray. Greek people are not inherently corrupt. They are not inefficient. It is Greek institutions, like these, that encourage Greek people to be corrupt, inefficient and have bad work ethic.
The driver beeped the horn on the bus and it was time to head to Athens. I threw my green military sack on the bottom carriage and went to say some last good-byes to some of the kids that had made my time a bit more entertaining with their jokes and pranks in between our long 6am to midnight, memorable and hot summer Kalamata days.
I got on the bus and we drove out of the base. I looked back at the “un-connected class”. I wasn’t proud. I felt privileged, elitist, a lucky bastard. In a real-world war scenario, we would have left for our air-conditioned offices to watch the war on TV and they would have risked their lives at the front lines. I’m not sure if I want to be part of this culture.
Overall though, despite the troubling picture I portray, I am glad I went through this experience. I made great friends and was impressed by the caliber of the average recruit. Also many of our seniors were cool and bright guys. It wasn’t the people that were the problem. We were all in the wrong place at the wrong time.
I re-entered civilian life in Athens a few weeks ago, and I had a chat one night with a group of young Greeks and I told them about this experience. Another one-time conscript replied, “the army, you know, is a unique institution, it’s the deep Greek state. That’s as worse as it gets here. Nowhere else in Greece will you encounter such an outdated, backwards mentality again.” He paused, “Imagine if you were a heroin addict. That was your last overdose. Now you’re done. From here on, it gets better.”
I truly wonder if it will get better and when. I hope that my generation makes a difference. But how many more years will this mentality continue? When will this old-guard, this empty-shell, these archaic institutions die-away? The young, enterprising youth in this country want to change Greece, but with our institutions in paralysis, many times our efforts feel helpless and hopeless.
I do want to stay in Greece, but I have a fear if end up making a life for myself here and if I have a family one day- what if, after all these euro-reforms, investment projects, tourism campaigns- what if, twenty years from now, my son is doing his military service and he calls me from his army base and says, “Dad, we’re not doing much here. Just picking up cigarette butts. Can you call our visma and get me a better posting?”