I heard from Jeremy last night. They laid his friend Charlie to rest. Beautiful ceremony he told me; held at Arlington. Two months ago in Afghanistan his squad was ambushed by the Taliban and he bravely laid down his life. He killed three of them before taking a bullet to his head and in this process saved the leader of his team. We should sing nothing but sweet songs for fallen soldiers like him after we’ve finished sounding out our half strangled cries.
Lament. Sit in the shadows and howl at the moon. Another soldier has died.
Grief for dead men whose bosoms carried our hopes as well…And when they pass we feel as if we’ve lost some of that pregnancy too. It’s been a long time since I’ve had anyone die on me, and even then I wasn’t very close. Only for a girl friend that passed when we were both 19.
Here in the comfort of our tent, I’ve already discovered how much some soldiers value their life and they’ve yet to leave the safety of this place. I’ve become a magnet for the confessors and sometimes I feel unqualified to listen.
Sometimes that’s just the thing to do. How do I help silence the uncomfortable murmurings of fear I spy as they wake or shave or when they walk or talk on the phone with their wife? I scan their faces and wonder in my silence, exactly what their ancestors were like. What fears did their forefathers have as well? What spirits do these soldiers believe guide their choices…
Fears, which are no different now for men in the modern world.
Precious secrets come from their lips and into my ears. Dying men sometimes flee through crowds with the knowing they’ll be dead moments before their time has come. But, this isn’t now. They took what they could get when they signed their enlistments and this bargaining began even before they gave their oaths; hoarded what they could while other soldiers’ names were being carved across slabs of stone.
My team leader is one of them.
He mumbles his phrases and jumbles his words when he speaks to me. He’s a double-thinker. Afraid that he hadn’t truly lived yet too scared to try, feeling that he was marketable yet never asking himself why. Men sometimes lose their shoes and lose their purpose. He was unwilling to make the difference in a place that needed men whose actions would be like an eloquent thunder to waken a crass, deaf world. He needed waking as well.
“I’ve got too many things to do here.” He tells me.
I know he’s lying and I know why. He won’t go outside the wire. I listen quietly to him. He hesitates and waits for my reaction but I don’t give him the one he’s looking for and this makes him nervous. I don’t speak. I don’t even move. I just study his face in the darkness of our tent. It’s early morning and the men are asleep. The sun will rise soon.
“I” he stalls, hardly able to finish his sentence. “I gave up leading the detachment.
I knew why he was released from his command. Rumors here are hard to hide and if a man pokes about enough he just may find one of those long forgotten streams of truth made dry by boulders of lies. I hope my understanding will free just one of those many stones of deceit.
My gutters were often dry.
He’s been my Team Leader for 15 months now. A quiet man with a gangly stride. Always walking as if he had thistles between his toes or embers beneath his heels. Perhaps too eager to run when he should have been walking, perhaps too eager to walk when he should been learning to crawl. Seems as if he’d forgotten to turn around and see the important things he left behind.
I hope he never leaves a man behind.
Useless working with the Marines on one of the training missions he was tasked to lead; his admittance for being incompetent was no saving grace at all. His subordinates mutinied subtly, moved into opportune places quickly and took control of his command. They were puppet masters in training. His objections about it remained unvoiced and he was happy to be demoted into our little element. The little world of soldiers saw his bespectacled face daily but it became a visage people wanted to forget.
He’d been my boss for over a while now and it was clear to me that he had little comprehension of how to lead men. He lacked the rudimentary understanding of social graces that leaders are heir to; unable of gauging their character while he looked upon their faces. Lost in disconnecting wit and Manga cartoons, content on keeping the same comfortable mode of living though we’d all changed into a far away zip code.
Our talks began here, in Iraq. I’d mention to Reggie before our arrival in country that he’d get the chance to see what people are really like in a stressful environment. I believed some talkers would become cowards, some cowards would become silent and the twain met in the middle. It was necessary to love the weak as much as the strong because to me they were the same people. Beliefs might change for people, but I couldn’t be unsure where I stood with my morality.
The consistency in all of this was how the pleasantries once so abundant to us, began to slowly disappear. It was clear to me that we needed to band together and decide just whom it was with that we’d align. Weak people changed loyalties like they changed a dirty shirt and it was best to learn what talents a man had, even if he was unlikable. The young ones were easiest to mold; it was with the eldest with whom I had to learn how to bury the hatchet. I felt that everyone was an asset, even the unlikable.
Sgt Peterson was an enlisted man. 10 years of service, 5 years with the infantry yet he acted like he was two years of age. He was the highest ranking of our group and I generally liked him, even from the beginning. I felt that he was always struggling to be fair. He was a nerdy boy, lost in his hobbies of Sci-Fi and Japanese anime. I’d seen it many times before. His was a revolt against Catholicism and he nurtured the longing to live the superhero’s dream. A fantasist whose desire was to live the code of a samurai warrior but he had no clear idea of what he should resist or seize. The mind of the mob here made him a scapegoat and now he sat with me, without a real aim or plan.
What was I doing talking to NCO’s who were steps above my rank?
“I never thought it was going to be this difficult to deal with people I so despise. I thought that even if I hated them, and they hated me, at least they’d recognize the work I’d done.” He said, as if he were pained. “And the thing is. Even though I hate Sgt Stevens, he’s totally able to do his job well.”
“He lost his credibility with everyone.” I said to him.
“What do you mean?” Peterson asked me.
“He was obligated to lead.” I said bluntly. Peterson’s eyes looked quickly at me and then looked away.
“Do you remember the day he broke down and cried when they said he was picked to lead a team?’ I asked. ‘and then he refused the position?”
“Yeah, but he’s good at this job.” Peterson said.
“No, he’s unfit to lead. He’s a good leader from the rear perhaps but the real battles are outside this ring. People finally saw through his constant bullying. Getting yourself out there’s a different story. Look at pretty, boy Averly or even Charlie Robins. They were scared as hell, but they are out there!”
“I suppose you’re right… They put Sgt Jameson in command. Stevens went and traded positions with someone else in order to stay behind the wire. He didn’t want to lead a team.” He said.
I thought about Sgt. Bradley. ‘Remember Sgt Bradley? He went and made it clear that he was too incompetent to lead. What kind of nonsense is that? What the hell is wrong with these people?
“I don’t have any skills and I’m going to get someone killed.’ He repeatedly said after he grabbed people in order to make them listen.
Peterson looked uncomfortable. As a soldier, I didn’t think much of Bradley. Whether he was a kind man to the soldiers wasn’t important to me. I was concerned with his ability. These young men were NCO’s and their duty was to train and guide soldiers. We were failing here. I wasn’t certain what to do. I had opinions, but they weren’t fully formed.
“Sgt Peterson, how do you feel?” I asked him.
“I’m glad that you’re talking to me. I was beginning to feel alone since the day we got here. I felt like I had no one on my side.” He said.
We sat in the faint light. A stream of it cut across his face in the darkness outlining his bespectacled face. Long pause… and then he spoke.
“I don’t want to die.”
I wasn’t surprised.
I don’t think that anyone wants to die. Some fantasists dream about it and the romantic soldier doesn’t want that dream to go away. He hungers for the accolades which can only be gotten waging a war, nurturing his belief that it’s better to die fighting a foe than it is to run away. And at what cost comes this obliteration? I’ve heard it said that courage is almost a contradiction in terms. It means a strong desire to live taking the form of a readiness to die. The reality of Iraq becomes a wake up call for many when they go out that gate.
“I don’t want to go outside the wire. I don’t want to die.” He looked as if he were relieved to give this to me, the heavy weight off his chest. I’d written my brother a few weeks ago, the week that Charlie Wycoff died. I ended up crying for part of the day and sent out a letter saying that I didn’t know why. The environment can do that to a man if his heart is open.
My eldest brother wrote back to me.
Imagine how we’d feel if you were gone, right? That’s part of the emotions that you are experiencing; aka “transference”. Of course we’d [ your family ] feel sick to our stomachs and weep like children were you to die in some inane manner. And in the end it probably makes it easier for us to hate those who would have done such things. It’s shaking the fist at our own powerlessness. Well, I’m here to state that – quote from “Oh brother, where are thou?” movie – you’re in a tight spot. Your colleague probably has many friends, and so it is with you. You will lose many friends, and many elders that you respect. The young ones will go. Perhaps even GI Joe X that you mention. “Things fall apart, the center will not hold.” Such things are inevitable. I do agree with you; we all shall die inevitably. Up until then we can agree that at least we shall try to make our lives worthwhile and our deaths meaningful. It is tragic when our efforts are stopped in mid-stride. Michael, if there ever was a person that I met that has tried to make his life meaningful, it is you. The turmoil you had experienced as a younger person churned your thoughts to lead you into the direction you are at. And along the way you have positively influenced others. As long as you can continue to provide consolation and guidance for the others, you will not have failed and have none to worry about to your lack of influence upon the course of their lives. Albeit there are no “good deaths”, at least you can justify that you’ve encouraged resolve, compunction, and awareness in your peers. That’s a life better led, a loss better embraced, a death better welcomed. That is where your mind is to be at; to enable courage, to drag forth the reluctant but powerful, to call others to action, and to be exemplary in your own conduct the sake of others. A bright voice in the din of war – figurative or otherwise – will be heard. “ R.
I was certain that I was doing that now, helping guide him. My brother in law John had once said that I had the ability to embolden a man because I was an encourager, but it wasn’t always so.
I once thought that I’d lost my mind the last few years and realized then how I’d really only lost my nerve. I once had so many hesitations about leaving America, forever, but those hesitations were forever gone. I once had so many confused beliefs that pained me about who I believed I was. I didn’t think it was possible to explain my departure well enough to satisfy everyone concerned and so I didn’t. My beliefs, I felt…as if I had seized them, where it felt like once they had seized me.
I once felt that walking the path which led to the bourgeois dream would eventually lead me past it and into unhappiness; I was wrong. I desired some power of harmony, but understood that I was just trying to delay myself from being responsible. I refused to allow any line define me or let any contour shape me because I didn’t want to be held down to anything or anyone. I’d been displacing happiness for any romantic notion because I wanted to hide my cowardice behind heroics in order to stop the unmatchable longing in my heart for love. I tried, I tried and I tired of attempting what I considered to be needless advances climbing an ant hill of a life rather than a volcano. Since my childhood years I felt there was a vagabond living inside my soul, and he’d been demanding for me to travel a different avenue of existence.
This desire to flee, to flee every grey sidewalk which flanks every boulevard, of every Main Street, of every city from here to Paris never stopped growing inside of me. The fond feeling that I once had for travel became a hostile purposive thing that wouldn’t die inside of me; I felt unable to ignore the obsession, this grotesque obsession, this implacable obsession, and it required so much attention from me. I refused to live like that. My ability to understand my life in terms of dualities made it such that I felt resolved either to embrace the man inside of my soul and kill him, or to let his ideas live. I couldn’t deny that somewhere after Lisa I lost the taste for the poetic. And, between my affair with Danica and my working with Jerimiah I acquired the taste for what was coarse.
I can easily mark the place of those events in my life. It didn’t matter anymore. I stood too long in the quadrivial moment and no longer wanted to be trampled by the hooves of time. On a certain day in September I promised myself that I would always confront my fears when I was faced with choosing between a lie and a truth, regardless of how painful it would be. And so I became resolved to put my childish fears behind me.
I wrote in my journal-
Xerxes at Abydos
Men sheathed their fears
Their swords drawn for war
Our eyes without tears
My brothers, we’ve always believed that we were warriors who struggled in the greatest battle of all and I wanted to obtain the complete salvation of my Spirit. I’ll most likely endure a life of complete boredom or hell upon earth; I might likely experience both, but I do believe that a greater option has made a reservation for me.
I don’t know what safety we left behind us when we strode through the door of our father’s home and out into another world. I don’t know what wisdom any of us hoped to learn. I never thought to consider a thought at all.
As you once felt, and as you still do, I seek the power of harmony, but the sleeper inside of me is enraged and I can no longer lull him into resting again. The brutal examination of my life will continue. Greater life must hold greater meaning. May God have mercy upon my soul.”
I was wrong about what I wrote. But it would take just one moment for me to calculate all my wasteful time spent living so freely.
I brought myself then into the vastness of Paris one warm evening while her shining lights sparkled coolly and things seemed the darkest in my resentful life. When the splendid things vanish in the heart of the most impatient of men some of us try searching, for just a trace of otherness, by serving in a foreign army in order to catch a fever for anything that just may be everlasting.
I thought perhaps when I entered through the gates that I’d turn around one last time and take a contemplative look at the vital world I was leaving behind. I stood looking face to face with my abortive hopes. I didn’t feel all that compelled to begin over again. I ignored the slur in time which I reasoned wrongly had held me sustained in glorying but for my efforts gave me so few positive results.
I once had read there are some things which might conceivably and truly make men forgive their enemies. That we can only turn hate to love by understanding what are the things that men have loved; that it isn’t necessary to ask men to hate their loves in order to love one another. Just as two paratroopers are most likely to be reconciled when they remember for a moment that they are two brothers, so two soldiers are most likely to be reconciled when they remember (if only for a moment) that they are two patriots. As the writer Chesterton wrote, Humanity wasn’t just us minus the masses.
I thought more than once, that Sgt Peterson, in his weakness was a lot like me. Heaven laid down some laws we might complain against. Regardless, I believe a man must sturdy himself for war and leave behind all that is ignoble. We are required to rise up and stand with a royal command. It would be difficult for me but my goal was to raise Sgt. Peterson up as well.