During the year I served as a rifle platoon leader with the 5th Battalion 87th Infantry Regiment, we had the distinction of being the only jungle battalion in the Army and the only infantry unit in the Army’s Southern Command.
Oddly, although we were specialists in jungle warfare stationed in the Republic of Panama, our unit crest featured a ski pole, ice ax and snow-capped mountain. This was because before becoming the jungle battalion, we were known for something else—being the only battalion trained in mountaineering, Alpine and Nordic skiing, and cold-weather survival. Because of this, our Latin motto was Vires Montesque Vincimus: "We Conquer the Strength of the Mountains."
Once we moved to Panama, there was talk of changing the motto to “We Conquer the Strength of the Jungles” until a bright E-4 volunteered that there is no word for jungle in Latin. The only thing that ended up changing was the translation of our Latin motto, which a field-grade officer objected to as being obtuse.
He proposed as an alternative: “We Conquer Power and Mountains.” As there were no Latin scholars among us to demur, and the E-4 had been sent to clean the latrine, his translation was adopted. This is known as the tyranny of rank.
Once established in Panama, our training included platoon exchanges with our Latin American counterparts in Argentina, Belize, Brazil, Bolivia, Chile, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Paraguay, Peru and The Dominican Republic.
There was no shortage of inquiries about our crest, as well as our Latin motto. Since the Spanish-speaking soldiers of these various countries had never skied or used an ice ax, and they were no more Latin scholars than we, some fun was had explaining our coat of arms, which included a single red horseshoe at the bottom for good measure.
Most of the explanations, not surprisingly, were lewd.
But all was not fun and games in the infantry. Before I was able to attend Airborne training—commonly known as jump school—I had to have a rectal exam. The rectal exam was standard procedure for those of us who wanted to become paratroopers and consistent with the general unpleasantness that characterized life as a grunt. I mention this because at the time, back in the last millennium, a rectal exam was something unusual.
This was before the 5-4 decision by our Supreme Court on the day after April Fool’s that all persons arrested can be subject to a rectal search even if authorities have no reason to suspect the presence of contraband.
It is my understanding that none of the justices have ever served as paratroopers, so it is likely none of them have undergone a rectal search. If they had personal experience with such a search, no matter how cursory, I think the majority would have reservations about ruling that such searches should be given the green light as a perfunctory matter.
For instance, if you get arrested for not wearing a seat belt—rectal exam. If you get arrested for not having your dog on a leash—rectal exam. If you get arrested for unpaid parking tickets—rectal exam. If you get arrested for resisting arrest—double rectal exam. You get the picture.
Now, there may be some among us for whom this is not humiliating or intimidating, but it is for me.
I am also not among the people that buy the justices’ explanation for their ruling.
"Correctional officials have a legitimate interest, indeed a responsibility, to ensure that jails are not made less secure by reason of what new detainees may carry in on their bodies," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the court's decision, speaking for the majority.
Really? They’re motivated by concern over the health and welfare of other inmates? How compassionate of them. Still, I don’t buy it.
In fairness to the Supreme Court, four of the nine got it right. Justice Stephen Breyer, writing for the dissenters (which included all of the women on the bench: Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan) said rectal exams are “a serious affront to human dignity and to individual privacy” and should be used only when there is good reason to do so.
Unfortunately for those of us with rectums, the dissenters in the Supreme Court don’t make law. They, like the rest of the American public, are just along for the ride.
If anyone warranted having their rectums searched for contraband, it was my platoon in Panama. They were a rowdy bunch and given to all manners of excess. But there wasn’t enough money in the U.S Treasury to compensate me for looking at the rectums of my soldiers—even if just in a friendly towel-snapping way and not in the ugly authoritarian way the conservatives on the Supreme Court envision it.
Normally, given this decision, I would say that Justices Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito, Kennedy and John Roberts should have their heads examined. But I also think, like any aspiring paratrooper, they should have other parts of their bodies examined as well.
My battalion is still looking for a lucky red horseshoe that went missing from the headquarters following a particularly rowdy deployment to Puerto Rico in February 1999—back when it was still considered un-American to have to stand and spread your ass cheeks for the government like an Abu Ghraib prisoner.