4/05/2006

hard Times on the frontlines

We tolerate banality in soldiers. Not only tolerate it, but expect it. That's the message I'm getting from The New York Times. TimesSelect, their online subscription site, invited four members of the U.S. military (but no Iraqis yet) to write about their daily lives. We have considerable nostalgia as a people for "our boys over there," and it really should be no surprise that TimesSelect did not ask any female soldiers to contribute, because in our nostalgic version there were no girls "over there". But there is a point at which nostalgia becomes an obscenity to the present and an insult to the past. And “Frontlines” is it.

What made the World Wars, and Vietnam, even, wars out of which great writing came was, in large part, I think, universal conscription. It spiced up the gene pool a bit, if you catch my meaning. It allowed for mixed emotions about war, and insights about the struggle for life and limb, instead of clichés and utter banalities about man’s oldest profession like First Lt. Lee Kelley's "things I miss" list. Among them: Being near his children. Eating a home-cooked meal. Fresh milk. Movie theaters. A nice, clean private bathroom with a porcelain toilet. Fast Food. Sex. A bathtub. His car. Highspeed internet. Sex. His dogs. Alcohol. Cable TV. Did he mention Sex?

Sex actually shows up three times on his list. With who, we don't know. "Wife" didn't make the list. It’s just the kids, the dog, the car, TV, and sex. Presumably there is a mother of his children, but nowhere is she mentioned by name, job-title, or even function.

And the last item on the list is very poignant, of course: freedom.

And it is poignant in a way, because we are all human, and we can all understand what it's like to be away from home, away from porcelain toilets, cable TV, and home pussy (‘cuz, as one freak I used to know used to say “ain't no pussy like home pussy”). But in a way it's pure cliché-laden bathos. It shows what some people want from this war, and wanting these things is the wrong reason to go to war. Sorry.

What adds to the theatricality (I hesitate to say phoniness, but if we are talking about a sort of childishly heightened sense of self-consciousness, there is that, too)—what adds to this are posts by folks back home in the comments section of the blog. The pandering and super-sized saccharine sentimentality of the entire project is most in evidence here, of course. This is a kind of liturgical exercise. A call and response. But it reeks of cheap sentimentality, too.

“Come home safe. Thanks for being there.” “Bless you and the troops. Get home safely.” “I’m crying so hard. Come home safely.” “your words stick like glue to my heart.”

What is understandable is a desire for service to a higher cause among soldiers and a desire for heroes back home, but this war makes a mockery of both. You either recognize that straight-up, or participate in the farce. Nothing you will say, as a soldier, will ring true without the recognition of that truth.

Warrant Officer Michael D. Fay, who has been home for a month or so, writes: “People have been constantly asking me…what it’s like to be home after being ‘there.’… If I were to answer with complete honesty (which I have a bad habit of doing) then the one word I’d use to describe how I now feel is homesick. Yes, homesick. Those who’ve been ‘there,’ meaning Iraq, would probably get it.” The truth is, those who have been to summer camp would probably get it. This is another cliché, another banality, that frankly does not justify all the effort that went into coming up with it. But the premise of Fay’s blog is that no one who has not been there can possibly understand what the soldiers are going through, and can therefore not comment with any authority on the war. But these are two utterly different things.

The purpose of war is not for the warriors to have something to bond over. That was Ghengis Khan and Attila the Hun. Or Crips and Bloods. It's the Mafia. Wholesone, corn-fed Americans: if you're looking to bond, join an intramural basketball team that isn’t costing America 150 million dollars a day, resulting in the loss of countless lives, and increasing the likelihood of terrorism immeasurably. Please.

The title of Fay’s latest post is “The Next ‘Best Generation,’” which clearly alludes to what Peter Jennings labeled the World War II generation, i.e., “The Greatest Generation,” and implies a comparison between the two that is not, despite what some would like to think, the least bit obvious. Any generation of men from anywhere can fight wars. Most have, in fact. This alone is commonplace.

In response to Fay’s post, among the usual schlock (“Roshan” writes: “We are embroiled in a task we must not lose, but the public… patience is ebbing badly exactly when we cannot afford to lose patience... Keep well, stay strong and know you are loved and admired by your fellow citizens.”), is a comment from an actual member of “The Greatest Generation” that’s worth quoting in full:
As an old soldier, combat parachute infantryman who lost a leg in Vietnam when commanding in the 101st Abn Division, I can empathize with the Iraq “heroes”. But I can not think about their “war” without recalling my years in WW2, Korea and Vietnam. And I recall experiences they never had…
living in a foxhole
going without a hot meal for ten days
worrying about enemy artilley and enemy aircraft
taking three days to get back to a MASH after wounds
not getting mail for two weeks and not ever talking to my home by phone
not even seeing a woman for months
losing friends who were captured and stayed as POWs
having the home front in the USA ashamed of me
getting $10 for monthly combat pay…not $750
getting nothing, not $100,000 for losing my leg
no rest every night with TV and maybe pool or ping pong to keep me happy until I slept in a cot with blankets
with so much more casualty in my commands that I can not write about it
Maybe that is why “war” and “heroes” are strange words for me.
Col (Ret) Mel Garten..CIB w/2 stars, MPcht Bdge with two stars for combat jumps
There is, finally, something supremely ironic, if not a little grotesque, in what has become an essentially mercenary army serving private and corporate interests, starting wars without provocation at great cost to the nation and great profit to said private parties, co-opting a nation’s patriotism.

I'm not so sure that universal conscription would not make us more cautious in the future. It would certainly not allow us the luxury of so easily sentimentalizing it.

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