When I was alone, without kids, I had a lot of time to float around. But I longed to be weighted down. I longed for a cast iron center to my life, something strong and smelted from pain. I remember asking around about the military life, wondering if f could hack basic training, l imagined mud and cold and mean girls much bigger and tougher-minded than I would ever be. I visited one recruiter. I was scared of getting hurt.
I took to hoarding war paraphernalia, war movies, box sets of World War II newsreels, newspaper clippings on Vietnam. I watched them alone in my apartment before my waitress shift at a bar in downtown Atlanta, and when I came home sometime before dawn, unable to sleep, I would open up my papers, lay them on the floor and study them. I was searching for a soldier, for that frame where he flashes through the grainy black and white, no longer one dimensional but full-blooded and in color, someone you know, no different from the guy playing Frisbee down at the park at this very moment. I rewind and pause, rewind and pause, wondering who were you, did you die, what was it like, where is your body?
The bodies, the youth in those bodies. Those blackened hands braced around artillery were hands that once entwined another’s, those strong backs and rumps a mother had aged her hands patting and spanking, those squinting eyes were memorized by a lover somewhere, forever smiling back in a picture flame beside a bed. Each shadowy speck staggering in the distance was somebody’s jewel. Swallowed up in the darkness, they vanished. For every young man who dies with his blood and limbs blown about like litter, thousands of miles from home, there is also a woman who is sitting at home on the porch on a beautiful sunny afternoon, frozen in agony. She can never trade her own limbs in, can never be there to pick up the pieces, the slaughter of sinew and helmet laced with fragments of brain that were knitted together in her womb, that contain the only copy of their shared memories. The strong limbs that she nourished are now broken, splintered, and unreachable except in the darkest snapshots of her imagination. Is there a deeper hell? I can’t name it.
I had a photo of an American Marine in Vietnam, clutching his rifle, holed up in a mission church that was surrounded by Viet Cong. He is dirty, handsome, both tired and full of adrenaline, not looking at the camera but right through it. The caption mentions that he and the other soldiers had spent that long night plunging back out into the darkness, under fire, to collect the dead and wounded from the grounds outside the church, dragging them back in, getting shot, dying. Back in America, the throngs of Americans screaming and chanting with their bright banners and disheveled clothes, filling a city street at noon. I’d probably be there too, if I’d lived then, I’d be marching with my fist in the air. But I always notice the greenness of the trees in the background, and then the fact that they’re not being shot at, and it renders them, me, all of us – ridiculous. Of course we’re not ridiculous. It is not ridiculous to want peace. But what do I do with the haggard misery of the boy in the church, or the mother and father who endure the murder and burial of their child. I feel ashamed of their innocence, then my own. And decide maybe I would’ve been a soldier.
The first time I saw an image of a POW was during the first Gulf War. The local paper printed their four snapshots as they had been seen on TV, bruised, cut up, frightened. I tore out the pictures and taped them to my wall where I could see them from my bed. At night I would weep over them, dramatically beg God to bring them home. I was just a stupid kid, but I loved them. I needed to tend to their fragility, carry their seed of horror with me. What was it like to sit helpless and bound by the enemy? Today would they drag you out and shoot you, would it be quick, would they torture you, could you handle it? And at home, his wife’s fears are suffocating, violent. She is in America, surrounded by strip malls, landscaping and yellow school buses, but she is vanishing, she is looking right through you, staring down a barrel with him . Is he still alive? Is he dying right now? What are they doing to him while I cannot help him? An outsider, I watched and shuddered.
PEOPLE I RESPECT are going to peace marches. I don’t admit it, but I’d never go to one. I don’t want anyone confusing my particular brand of disgust with disgust for those soldiers, whom I love with a loyalty that is dead serious and personal. They are always my men, my children. As our new war unfolded with all the pageantry of the Christmas shopping season, here were new seeds of horror, more POWs, which I regarded from my breakfast table like one might a call from the doctor: I’m sorry to inform you, the disease is back. Inside you are breaking, but somehow you knew this was going to happen again, didn’t you? It was only remission.
Like bookends to the day are news stories of more men lost, this one was a devoted family man who leaves behind a 7-week old son, here is the picture of his newborn for you to ponder, and here is another, leaving four kids and a wife. Here is a 30-year-old soldier, speaking her name into the camera while the whites of her eyes flash and roll at the gunman we cannot see. Here is a building full of 200 enemy combatants, now you see it, now it’s just a fireball, but the Iraqis burning alive inside the crumbling floors have no news coverage to rival 9/11, just a hazy rather colorless satellite photo for our comfort and viewing enjoyment.
As I watch I wonder, who chose the Font for the “War with Iraq” logo? What sort of style do you look for when designing a title for war? And what does it mean, these flag-colored bumper stickers, United We Stand? Back here on the home front, war gives rise to more opinions than floaters in a dead pond, and if everyone is as right as they think they are, what exactly are we united on? Soldiers suck it up, follow orders and get killed. But if I put little flags on my car windows like we’re headed to the Saturday football game, does this make it all better? United we stand. I thought I loved this country, too, but I am too horrified to stand. I am that 22-year-old mother, clutching a baby who wears the smile of a man I will never see alive again. My lover will never walk back through that front door, and I could
not even so much as hold his hand as his blood emptied into the sand. The relatives will stay with me for a little while, but what then? Little baby, you and I are alone, alone, alone.
I SEE OUR COMMANDER IN CHIEF talking and I am paralyzed with embarrassment. This spokesman for the American way of life, ambassador to all nations of the world, with his incredible edible Texas schtick. If he could form at least one unscripted sentence that had any depth to it, it wouldn’t hurt so much. Somebody gives the man five or six one-liners to memorize, which he repeats in different sequences until it becomes obvious he isn’t really listening, and then the question-answer session is cut short, God bless America. The menu at Shoney’s Bar-B-Q has more original thought to it, and at least you know what the hell you’re getting.
I sometimes wonder what goes on in his mind as he rides on his aptly-named Bushhogger back at the ranch, in the heat with the loud motor roaring and the grass flying, where does his heart settle when no one else is around? What if he doesn’t have one, what if he’s just a clone, a sack of impulses and a pulse. His handlers stand like gods against official blue curtains, snapping at the questions for him, steely and powerful. There are little flag pins on the lapel of their dark, designer suits. They make war. They love Jesus. They remind me of robots.
It is much more soothing to watch the average guys in their desert uniforms, dusty, familiar, maybe a genuine smile for the camera as he gets out of the Humvee. He is the brother of your best friend from high school and his wife is sitting at the kitchen table somewhere in Virginia or Connecticut or California trying to balance the checkbook, the kids screaming from the swing set. He has already taken fire. In a quiet moment, he wonders what the hell he’s gotten himself into. He dreams of home. But he endures for reasons that have nothing to do with the script, with the empty speeches. He endures for the warm, shady spot by the coast where he took her on the honeymoon, for the view from the top of the overlook that he used to climb by the old farm, for the smoke-filled dive downtown, for the holy space where the light comes through the window on his sleeping baby. He has no power, no fame and another dismal checkpoint ahead, but he has some honor. He is somebody’s jewel, he is my cast iron center, my lover, my loved one. I cradle his image with my eyes, hoping for him, but they break for commercial, and he vanishes.
copyright © Dawn Goodwin 2010-2011
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