Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Another American Story

After I decided that I would not plunge into the void by way of suicide, to escape my anxiety packed situation, things got better somehow. I had already made my official departure, as far as my father was concerned. In his mind I was well on my way to a year in Thailand.

I knew that the number one way you got caught was by staying around your home town.
I was a bit too low class for Hueytown. It was a bedroom community of union and lower management people from the steel mills and iron foundries, a couple of miles away. Their kids went to college.

Most of my friends lived in Dolomite, a neighborhood much less prosperous than Hueytown. It was a mix of steel and iron workers, auto shop workers, part time mechanics, and industrial laborers. Several local families were getting government "relief", a nice word for welfare. Government handouts was the term often used.

Dolomite seemed to have a lot of it's young guys in the military. You might expect such a neighborhood to have a lot of flag waving, support the boys patriotism among folks on those shabby streets, but it was not so. There were those with that mind set but many felt real ambivalence toward the war.

Among the guys my age, there weren't a lot of hero stories going around like the year before. Someone's older brother was in the 101st Airborne, the Screaming Eagles. We all knew this boy, a year or two older than us. He had been part of the one and only big airborne assault in the Vietnam war. It was a horrible disaster for our guys. The 101st Airborne was slaughtered. "Hung up in the trees and blown to shit. And what the fuck for?" our local survivor was quoted as saying.

Last years heroes were coming home from South East Asia, telling stories even more terrible than on the news. Last years heroes telling any guy that would listen. "Don't go.
Don't join, do anything you can, but don't go."

That was the clear message from more than one returning veteran. A message that was heard by even the toughest boys on the street. The message was coming from macho big brothers, from the idolized older cousins and football heroes. The ones that could talk about it. Some returned in boxes some wounded so badly they were talked about only in hushed whispers among the boys.

The heroes came back telling the parts of the story most had not heard. About the reality of what was being done, the reality of being a completely expendable game piece in a delusional political game. A game that none of us understood. As one returning vet put it, "Even if we win, what do we get?"

None of us knew an answer to that and neither did the government.. Patriotism seemed to be the only reason to go fight. Flag waving patriotism, backed by no discernible need or danger, with nothing to gain, seemed a weak reason to "sign your life away" as we called signing the enlistment contract.

Recruiters always smiled and said that when they give you the pen and hand you the contract. Big smile. "Here you go young man, sign your life away." The only time a recruiting officer is 100% honest.

I knew the Air Force would not contact the FBI or local police until my AWOL date hit thirty days. I used part of that grace period to hang out with friends in both Dolomite and Birmingham. Things had changed a bit in my year away with the Air Force. A subtle difference. Guys that finished high school last year were all coming up for the draft. Much of the post high school exuberance was already replaced with a certain dread of the near future.

Most had already passed their selective service physicals, in spite all the flat feet, weak lungs, trick knees and such, many had hoped would exempt them from the dubious thrills of the Army.

A few more had joined the Navy or Air Force, mostly to avoid the army. The thinking being that four years in the Air Force or Navy beats a year in the jungle.

While the recent returnees had cast a pall on the thinking of the boys, the heroic war stories did not disappear. Almost all American boys were big on the hearing of, repeating of, and enlargement of real war stories. Even those most terrified were mesmerized by the battle stories told by returning friends and relatives. I used to do the same.

One way to make such a future bearable is to imagine yourself a victorious hero, returning with medals, stories and only minor wounds. Maybe a manly but not disfiguring scar.

It was a way of facing a dangerous crossing, to envision yourself being heroic, victorious, and invincible. Only the very young can do that in the face of the harsh reality. That is why the military likes to get them while they are young.

Some guys are good at maintaining that victorious vision of themselves. It gives them a false sense of courage that makes it easier to face the inevitable. That vision tends to disappear sometime between basic training and the first instant of combat.

A year before, I had attempted to sweeten the bitter pill of losing the life I wanted to make, by entertaining fantasies of heroism and lascivious Asian pleasures. Somehow I would not miss my real life or hear it calling to me. It didn't work, of course. For me, the cushioning fantasy disintegrated immediately upon contact with the military.

A year later I was listening to the next crop of ' abductees ', about to be conveyed into the guts of the machine. To be broken and remade. To be trained, indoctrinated, and cowed into submission. And the question, "What do we get if we win?" kept resounding as I talked to and listened to these kids, with lives hardly started, facing a hell whose purpose none of us knew.

I felt strange among them. At most, one or two years older, I felt some how removed from my friends and the place. Already separated by both the past and the future.

I remember these things and I am filled with a sense of urgency. Driven by a desire to remind, especially those Americans of my generation, that we must not do this to another generation of young Americans. Not for the greed of a few, not for the ambitions of the rich and powerful, and not for the mad hollow rhetoric of demagogues with messianic delusions.

We keep saying "never again". But, we keep doing it, again and again. New victims, new excuses and rhetoric, new justifications for barbarism. In the name of Allah, in the name of God and Christ, in the name of loyalty to leaders loyal only to themselves and their cronies.


At 7:34 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Reading the thread of articles, here and on Thom's, I wanted to thank you for saying some hard things that ought to be said. We all worship the young hero and disregard the old vet. Noone wants to remember My Lai and the Tigers, who killed for no reason and no one did a thing about it. No one remembers this week's version of those events and no one counts the corpses. Insurgents (some in swaddling clothes) die defending their country from American style democracy. Some people just don't want to subsidize Haliburton, started by the Bush families maternal grandfather, the Walker name is the origin of W, don't ya know? Good work.


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