"Don't Get It Dirty"

by Aleksandra Priestfield

November 17, 2003


There is just something about a man in uniform. People look good in uniforms.

Young men putting one on for the first time do it with pride -- the whole stiff, starched, knife-edge ironed outer shell that screams, "I am a soldier now, I am a man, I am a warrior, I am a proud son of my race!" Increasingly frequently, young women too are wearing khaki, a more feminine version, a different hat, no less stiff, no less starched, no less loud -- "I am grown now, I am a woman, I am a warrior who is just as good as my brothers, I can do whatever needs to be done, I am a proud daughter of my race!"

From time immemorial, for as long as there have been soldiers and uniforms and wars, mothers and fathers have dressed their children in the garb of the warriors of their country and sent them off, away -- to distant places, on ships and on trains and on trucks, in sunshine and in rain. The drill is always the same, whether it's with a full Souza marching band playing brave brass in the background or whether the only accompaniment to the leave-taking is the sigh of bitter wind in the treetops. Every time you have fathers taking their children by the shoulder and giving them a few last words of fatherly advice. Every time you get mothers trying to hold back their tears, to convince themselves that their fears have to take second place to the pride of having a child going out to Do What Must Be Done. And all those mothers have had a phrase that they give to those children as a gift, a simple little sentence, which means a great deal more than just the literal meaning of its component words. The mothers will pluck at the brand new uniform as the new soldier stands stiffly by the train about to depart and whisper, in a voice trying not to sound raw with pain and with terror, "Don't get it dirty. Promise me you won't get it dirty."

Don't get blood on this, my son.

Don't let them put bullet holes in this, my daughter.

Don't get it dirty.

I am not a mother, and I have never sent a child into battle. But by virtue of that fact I can now address all mothers, and all children. Here's a letter of my own. Tuck it into the breast pockets of departing soldiers as they leave for war.


My child --

Your country has dressed you in its colors and is sending you out to fight its battles. Here, in the familiar streets of your home town, the realities of war are dim and far away -- but it stinks of blood and faeces, it reverberates with the howls of the outraged and the moans of the dying, it is gritty with dust and mud and sweat, it will make you see the world differently as you look at it through broken windows and the smoke of someone else's burning homes.

You don't know any of this yet. It is going to be grim and dark and dangerous out there. But you are wearing a brand new uniform today, and none of it matters to you, not yet. All that matters is that the uniform, in this moment, is defining you as something you have never been before -- a soldier.

Promise me one thing before you go to war in my name, in the name of your little brothers and sisters, in the name of all the children of your nation yet unborn (for what you do today is their legacy tomorrow). Promise me you will take care of that uniform. Promise me you will not get it dirty.

No, you don't understand. If you bring it home streaked with blood I will wash it away with my tears. If you bring it home torn I will patch it with pride. If you bring it home caked with the dust of distant deserts I will shake it clean and let it dry in the fresh clean air under your home skies. That is not what I mean.

What I mean is far harder for you to do.

Don't get this uniform dirty, my child. Don't bring it back to me soiled with dishonor. Don't bring it back to me with the only things clinging to it being other people's hatred for what you have done, for what you are doing, for what you stand for. Do not bring me back the uniform of an oppressor.

Dishonor stains your spirit, and it seeps into your pores, and there is nothing on this earth that can wash that smell out of a uniform. It is a reek of other people's despair, a stench of other people's children wincing when they see you walk by -- or, worse, a narrowing of eyes in implacable vows of revenge.

Do not wear that uniform and pretend it is a saint's robe and you are holier than heaven. Do not use it to impose your will or your culture on other nations. Do not use it to start wars. Fight, if you must, in the defense of your own; take no pride in being an assassin or a mercenary.

Do not get this uniform dirty, my child.

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Iraq on Swans

The Balkans and Yugoslavia on Swans


Aleksandra Priestfield on Swans (with bio).

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Published November 17, 2003
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