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    Monday, June 05, 2006

    You Know It's Bad When ...

    The number one search is "Supporting Our Troops Over a Cliff".

    I heard this NPR program called "To the Point with Tom Ashbrook" where the asshat host (he always is, not just this time) asked a call-in veteran, newly-returned from Iraq, about Haditha. Their interaction over the issue (whether or not there could be an explanation for actions, etc) showed one of the things I find so frightening about war. The way that it divides us, psychically.

    Though the way Ashbrook handled the veteran was shockingly disrespectful, I agreed with him, content-wise. I, too, thought this situation was hard to find any justification for. I, too, was sort of angry at the caller for acting as though there could be an explanation for what I see as an atrocity. I found myself thinking the caller was, well, a bit sick.

    But he kept saying that, having been there, he believed there was no one an American soldier could trust over there; children wore explosive devices and lured troops into enemy fire. He was, probably, a bit sick. I mean, he'd watched children be played as pawns like this. Of course he'd be a bit fucked up.

    Which brings me back to some thoughts I've had over the years. When I read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried in my junior year of high school, something clicked for me. As a teen girl, I was made extremely uncomfortable by the sexism that ran deep through the book. But there's one piece, I think it's called "Ambush", wherein the pretty young blond Midwestern girlfriend of one of the soldiers comes to visit and becomes herself crazed with and by the war. They think she's sleeping with another man, but she's actually ... I could be wrong on this ... but I think she joined the Cong.

    And then I began to think about how women were doing the jobs men had done during WWII and then the men came back and took over. Though I understood the economic reasons, I'd always had a little anger about how that worked. One of my grandmothers was a radio disc jockey in New Orleans during the war and was booted the minute of Armistice.

    But the thing that has been, historically, so scary about wars as large as WWI, WWII and even Vietnam is that the misogyny of some soldiers actually makes perfect sense. They hate the women who don't have a clue what they went through, who want everything to go back to normal, who weren't expected to risk life and limb to protect their country. Of course they wanted to see women suffer; they'd suffered and they'd watched suffering and now they were expected to play house with these people who thought like aliens. Of course they didn't want to work side by side with these people.

    Not long after one of my grandfathers returned from serving as a Marine combat medic in the South Pacific, he disappeared. My great-grandfather (my grandmother's dad) spent a fortune trying to track him down. Eventually he found him, sitting in a bar somewhere in California. (My grandfather was from Mississippi.) He dragged him back to his wife and the two had four children. But my grandfather was always a very disturbed person. He was painfully private, often refusing even to interact with his wife and children for weeks at a time. Even by the time I knew him, he was most often dead silent, stone-faced, and scary to me, as a child. I only began to bond with him through playing music together, which was the only time I ever saw him express pleasure. He grimaced through his food, even his football games. When he died, I got his Bible, the one he'd taken with him through the war. Though my grandmother on that side was a loud and proud (and obnoxious) atheist, my grandfather's death revealed he'd given money to the local Methodist church quietly throughout his adulthood.

    My other grandfather returned, also from the South Pacific, though he was infantry. He quickly found my grandmother, who had rejected him before the war, and cleaned up his act (he'd been an alcoholic), and opened his own business (a pool hall) in his hometown. They too had four children and he was, by all accounts, an involved and caring father. I never met him, but pictures show him energetic and fun-loving, as do all the anecdotes about him as the town joker. Even pictures of him at his children's First Communions and Confirmations show him far from solemn, though everyone says he was a very religious man.

    I don't know why these men, who served for just about the same amount of time, in just about the same region, both on the front lines, emerged from the experience so different from each other. But what amazes me most is, perhaps, their similarities despite seeming night-and-day.

    Not just their reliance on their faith.

    Both men died as a result of lifelong chain-smoking, a habit both picked up in the foxholes; one died of lung cancer, the other of emphysema, and both experienced drawn-out and painful deaths.

    Another thing they shared was their utter conviction that their sons would not serve in Vietnam. One, the pool hall owner, was lucky: his kids were not drafted, though he'd set up plans to send them to Canada if their numbers were called up. The other, the former combat medic, saw one son enlist in the Army, against his wishes, and serve in Vietnam, from which he went AWOL in months and was discharged. My grandfather was still pained by the memory of my uncle's enlistment, thirteen years ago when he died.

    And my uncle that went to Vietnam, upon his return, moved away from everyone he ever knew, took a job unloading trucks, and withdrew almost completely from the world. All anyone knows of his experience in uniform is that, when asked about it, he says it was just like Apocalypse Now.

    These days, without a draft, when women are serving, the distance between people isn't marked by gender, or even by politics. Plenty of veterans are railing against Haditha, those who served in Iraq are divided amongst themselves as to whether or not the war is justified. But there's no doubting that those who have been there are made different by the experience.

    A close friend of mine is in law school here in NYC and she shares a class with a man who got back from Iraq about a year ago. She says that he doesn't talk about anything but the war. Regardless of the topic, he brings it back to the time he spent in Iraq. The class was interested at first, but then began to weary of his one-track mind. The professors stopped calling on him at some point, knowing the direction he'd take the discussion.

    I am not the sort of Lefty who thinks we should never go to war. Some things are worth fighting for. I even think that oil could be worth fighting for, in the right circumstance, handled the right way, neither of which is true in this instance. (As in, I'm not sure, but it's possible.) But to expect soldiers to return from war experiences just like the rest of us is ridiculous.

    Ever since the war movies made in the 70s, there has been this push to make war on film, in television, and even in novels and memoirs, appear as crude and frat-house as possible. At first, stripping some of the power and glory away, showing that "war is hell", was a breakthrough. But these days, having seen Jarhead and Gunnar Palace fairly recently, I am surprised by how important it seems to folks that we hang onto this crudeness, basically at the expense of all glory or honor. What has become the important experience of war is the absolute saturation of toilet humor and misogynist jokes.

    Men see themselves portrayed as bumbling gross-out morons, whether they're portrayed as soldiers or fathers. They could stay home, get a steady job, get married and have some kids, and act like pigs with their buddies while playing video games of war, or they could do all that with real war. Abu Ghraib, Haditha may be a consequence of war or they may be, in part, related to our stripping soldiers of any honor and respect and seeing them all as frat boys living their video games.

    Yes, of course, there were atrocities in every war, but this war is relatively small, troop-wise, with supposedly greater oversight than ever. And yet, we manage these rather large-scale problems.

    These days, the number of people who actually serve is small enough that the impact it makes on the day to day lives of those who don't is measured. Is almost ignorable. What do we do to acknowledge this and deal with it? Is there anything we can offer our returning troops for their having done the dirty work for the rest of us?

    I know nothing I say here is original, but I am consumed by these thoughts lately. That there is something most of us will never understand that is in our midst, that is seething beneath our cultural surface. And we can't let it stay buried.


    Blogger belledame222 said...

    Hard and uncomfotable stuff, but important.

    You know what else I think is the problem, a problem: our collective deep discomfort with death.

    maybe if we were better at facing up to its reality, death (collectively), we wouldn't be quite so cavalier about handing it out, or about the people we've assigned to be the ones to hand it out.

    11:26 PM  
    Blogger EL said...

    I think you're right. We don't acknowledge death in any healthy way. When we do acknowledge it we have to cloak it: heroism, duty, or even the way it's handled by anti-war people as always wrong. Maybe it is, but I think that both sides need to be more thoroughly investigated.

    10:45 AM  

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