“People aren’t supposed to look back. I’m certainly not going to do it anymore.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
Ten years, nearly, since I came back from my first experience of war. I’ve learned a lot since then. About the lies society breeds into us.
About flags and nation-states. I hope I’ve learned a bit about honor and what it means to live meaningfully.
I won’t discuss my worst memories of war, although they still trouble me at times. Mostly I want to discuss the utter banality of modern evil. On the eve of a decade back in relative peace, a state I don’t really know what I’ve done to deserve, I mostly wonder about the people I left behind. The ones trapped in Baghdad. I wonder how many of them are alive. How many of them are sane. How many of them have been broken beyond repair.
It is, I think, our nature as human beings to live in the moment. We try to survive as best we can. When opportunities allow for it we thrive. Sometimes the thriving leads to dancing and parties. I’m all for that.
One of my most poignant memories of war is that of a moment when we were gathered to go out into the place we called the red zone, which was almost all of the country. The irony of living in a space designated the green zone has never escaped me. The irony of my existence there was amplified by the fact that everyone who hated what we represented, our flags, and our imperfect ideals, and the way we saw god. Those people had our coordinates dialed in. The so-called green zone was a shooting gallery where death consisted of a moment of awareness and then shattering. The missiles and rockets came in like random horsemen of the apocalypse riding on the wings of death. They lobbed the hate when they could. Every time they could.
I’m sure someone was tracking the inbound hatred on a screen. It wasn’t me. In such an environment, one must, of necessity, become numb. In some human environments, one can use blending as a survival technique. In the green zone surrounded by the red zone that was not the case. We went about our business and blindly hoped that the airborne anger wouldn’t choose us on any given day. It never directly chose me. I watched them land a few times, these explosive daggers made of death. I felt them in my core, ran from them, thought about their nature, and from some numb place inside, I feared them. But I had my distractions. Enough so that unlike one fellow soldier, I didn’t wake up on any given morning and simply refuse to get out of bed.
I put on my uniform, strapped on my battle rattle, met the day.
Surrounded by concrete t-walls and well meaning bureaucrats with guns, most of us, I think, believed we were making the world a better place. A freer place. Looking back, that seems naive.
My first war was predicated on manufactured facts that weren’t. Iraq’s involvement in fostering terrorism against the United States was marginal at best when we invaded the country. That is not to say that I regret my service. I did nothing I am ashamed of in my first war. I hope that it has made me more thoughtful. I hope that it has made me more compassionate. I hope that war has grown my empathy for all the human beings I will encounter today and tomorrow for all long as I shall live.
One memory, one that I want to revisit with you in this moment, is that of a noisy, dusty morning at the edge of the green zone. Preparing to dance with death and chance, we did all the things required of Americans saving the world from terror in 2006. We checked our combat loads. We coordinated our communications. We made sure that our maps were up to date and that our vehicles were fully fueled and in proper running order.
It was a scene of professional chaos full of barked orders, frenetic activity and people living on the edge of war’s numb reality. The memory of the kid sitting with his back against a t-wall calmly reading Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse-Five stays with me and it always will. I had experienced a close call with a mortar two days prior. We briefly made eye contact. He went back to reading his novel.
I remember. Now I share the memory with you.
There is always an aftermath. I’ll always wonder what the kid I saw that day thought of Vonnegut. That kid saved me from something. I’m not quite sure what.
“It was a movie about American bombers in World War II and the gallant men who flew them. Seen backwards by Billy, the story went like this: American planes, full of holes and wounded men and corpses took off backwards from an airfield in England. Over France, a few German fighter planes flew at them backwards, sucked bullets and shell fragments from some of the planes and crewmen. They did the same for wrecked American bombers on the ground, and those planes flew up backwards to join the formation.
The formation flew backwards over a German city that was in flames. The bombers opened their bomb bay doors, exerted a miraculous magnetism which shrunk the fires, gathered them into cylindrical steel containers , and lifted the containers into the bellies of the planes. The containers were stored neatly in racks. The Germans below had miraculous devices of their own, which were long steel tubes. They used them to suck more fragments from the crewmen and planes. But there were still a few wounded Americans though and some of the bombers were in bad repair. Over France though, German fighters came up again, made everything and everybody as good as new.
When the bombers got back to their base, the steel cylinders were taken from the racks and shipped back to the United States of America, where factories were operating night and day, dismantling the cylinders, separating the dangerous contents into minerals. Touchingly, it was mainly women who did this work. The minerals were then shipped to specialists in remote areas. It was their business to put them into the ground, to hide them cleverly, so they would never hurt anybody ever again.”
― Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five