Military economics: an equivocal song

The colonel was a friendly-looking man in his mid-40’s. He had made himself comfortable on the pretty glass veranda protruding from the temporary HQ building. This was where he received me, sitting behind a small table pretending to be a desk. Our Estonian unit was housed in three buildings of a middle-sized farm that had been made available for this exercise, whatever it was -- I had just arrived and was only vaguely informed. But it seemed all quite cozy and pleasant, considering that it was supposed to be some sort of a military maneuvers.

“The Finnish boys in the bunker, the one behind the birch grove, probably have to be reinforced by our guys,” he said slowly, without any sign of urgency. “They must be bored to death by now, alone and without anything happening. Could you take care of it? Seven men or so will probably be enough.”

I was an officer in the infantry reserve. But I wasn’t quite sure about my rank. I was just called in to serve one month every few years, not often enough to hold a civilian’s interest in matters of military hierarchy. They also kept changing the insignia all the time, I never could keep up. Anyway, it didn’t look like I would have been a mere lieutenant, the colonel treated me in a too relaxed fashion for that. So I was probably a captain. Well, who cares, I still had to attend to the task at hand.

“Right. I’ll have them crawl along the ditch and then dash into the woods, once we are close enough.”

“OK. And to make it realistic, dig a few meters of firing trench from the woods to the bunker, about waist deep, or so. The bunker is far too small to take both the Finns and your people, with weapons and all. Get the Finns to help you. And see to it that they enjoy themselves. They are our guests, after all.”

So I was apparently some sort of a liaison officer between the Finnish unit and our Estonian boys, the lot of us engaged in some kind of international maneuvers. I got together a group of seven men from the house next to the colonel’s headquarters, all smartly dressed in blue and looking eager too see some action. Some of them I recognized from civilian life, singers in a pop group. I was rather proud to lead smart guys like these, on my first day of my one month of reservist duty. Maybe I was a bit bewildered about the blue outfits. This was the infantry, or wasn’t it?

The ditch-crawling and dashing into the woods went without a hitch. Once we came out on the other side of the grove, the Finns, nice-looking young boys, quite similar to ours, were unmistakably happy too see us. Nor did they mind the digging. On the contrary, they were actually humming happily while shovelling damp black dirt over their backs. So I didn’t have to make them enjoy themselves, as was the wish of the colonel. They already did.

In spite of all the contentment, or maybe because of it, I still thought that a song might befit the occasion, so I broke into an old student song, in a rather quiet tone of voice at first. Our boys, with the professional pop singers in the lead, took it up immediately, soon singing at the top of their voices. The song was hardly over, before they started the next one, of their own choice this time. The Finns were in raptures, being saved from what for a while had looked as sure death by bunker boredom. They obviously didn’t know the Estonian songs, but were overjoyed to listen to them, waving to the rhythm with the handles of their shovels. It became a fabulous impromptu concert before an appreciative Finnish audience. A resounding success it was, quite in the spirit of the colonel’s orders. Or so I thought.

Once the guys were installed, my presence wasn’t required any more. So I strolled slowly back to headquarters, taking in the fresh air of early summer. It didn’t enter my mind that it was probably not advisable to walk upright in full view of the imagined Russ-, well, enemy. I was simply too filled by the nice warm feeling from the performance that the boys had put up, bristling with pride. It had been my ingenious initiative, after all. And this was my civilian lunch hour.

An hour or so later, when I finally reported back to the colonel’s veranda, the colonel and one of our generals were busying themselves with a group of loud-spoken civilians of both genders. Spotting me from the corner of his eye, the general looked as he wanted to give me the evil one -- by high-power laser, to boot.

“This is a Finnish parliamentary committee", the colonel said tensely. "They came to inspect our joint maneuvers. But they somehow got wind of your lunatic singing performance back at the bunker! So now they are dead set to return the compliment by letting their boys sing some Finnish songs. They want you to pick out the repertoire.”

A moment later the general joined us, dragging the three of us into a corner of the veranda, away from the Finnish parliamentarians. He didn’t speak, he rather forced words through his teeth, staccato-like: “This is a damned nasty incident you have created here. These here maneuvers were supposed to demonstrate how little we can contribute to the synergy of our combined forces, thus getting us sympathy from the Finnish public and hence more foreign money. But what do you think people in Helsinki will say when they see tabloid headlines like “Our armed forces outsung by supposed allies”?

I felt a bit uneasy, without exactly fathoming why: “But aren’t we supposed to join forces to be more effective against the Russ -, sorry, enemy? And singing is supposed to boost morale, isn’t it?”

“What a supreme simpleton you have on your hands!” the general spat out in the direction of the colonel, then turning to me: “The Russians are clearly no problem, unless they suddenly would stop being a problem. And they can be depended on remaining a problem. Zhirinovsky only says out aloud what they all secretly think -- ‘Finland and the Baltics are age-old Russian lands’."

"Keeping the Russian problem in plain sight covers our basic military budget. Even as a reservist you should understand that much! But the extras come from our foreign friends. Getting foreigners generous-minded to our desperate defence situation absolutely requires that they see us as harmless, backward yokels to be pitied. Showing off -- singing or otherwise -- that’s not grasping the first thing of our military economics! I trust you’ll put it right this very instant!” The general took the colonel curtly by his arm and went back to the parliamentarians.

I stayed in the far corner, rather ill at ease, nervously shifting my weight from one foot to the other. At long last two men came forward from the parliamentary delegation, now with broad smiles all over their faces. “We have brought along a few records, for you to choose from. But I don’t think it will be necessary to play them. Pekka here knows them all by heart, so he can give you a vocal demonstration.”

I was handed a pack of old vinyl records and didn’t quite know what to do next. I half-heartedly pointed to one of them at random. Immediately Pekka started singing at the top of his voice. I had never heard the song before, but the other parliamentarians chimed enthusiastically in, with intensely querying looks on their faces.

They were apparently waiting for a sign of my approval or disapproval. I continued slowly browsing the records and again happened to pick one at random, this time one with a cover that depicted two men with huge accordions. The previous scene, like from a Hollywood musical, was repeated, with Pekka loudly leading the new song and the rest of the politicians singing along. Whatever record-cover I happened to touch it always brought forward a new song – a tango, a waltz, a ballad, whatever, all in unfamiliar Finnish.

I sensed that this had turned into an international incident beyond the competence of a mere reserve officer of unclear rank in the Estonian infantry. I was forced to turn the matter over to the colonel.

Inspired by a dream -- my real-life military experience is zero.

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