Friday, November 20, 2009

The Return 1

*The below is fiction. Maybe...

Hall remembered when he liked being called insane. By his interpretation of the accusation, people were impressed that he was willing to do creative things, but they were entirely too weenie to try such things themselves. It invariably took them too far from the comforts of their suburban neighborhoods with neglected little lawns, overweight and emotionally disengaged husbands yelling at a football games on TV, and their disillusioned wives attempting to keep the kids from climbing the walls while they struggled to cook dinner. He enjoyed not being like that. But now, the prospect of drinking his cheap beer, watching his game, and disliking his frantic wife seemed appealing.

Absently grinding the curved magazine of his AK—47 into the top ledge of the mortared half wall, he looked behind him to confirm if Tucker was asleep. As expected, he was. Despite frequent eminent danger, Tucker still considered any lull as a superb opportunity to catch up sleep – a puzzling trait considering that he never appeared to exert more than the very minimum required energy to stand from his bed in the morning, eat something, drink a strong coffee, and drift back to sleep. Hall had more than once accused him of being a waste of carbon.

He flicked his still-lit cigarette back towards Tucker, hitting the low wall above his head. In the dark, red embers showered onto his head and shoulders and he stirred, eventually lifting his head to stare groggily at Hall.

“They coming?” he managed to ask around a yawn.


“They why’d you wake me up?” He vigorously brushed cigarette ash from his hair.

“Because if I have to be alert up here, so do you.”

Tucker stood with monumental effort, slung his rifle on his shoulder like a shovel, and shrugged. He remained silent, unwilling to concede that Hall was right.

He peered off the roof into the dark. “Anything to see out there?”

“Just jackals. I haven’t heard anything else, and no car’s come near for an hour, but they could be walking in this time.”

“We’ll see, I guess. Hand me a smoke, will you?”

In silence, they looked out into the desert, listening to jackals bicker over which one owned what piece of empty desert. Hall thought about the suburbs again and realized with irony that he was doing exactly the same thing the jackals were doing – only with guns. Being insane had disadvantages.


It had begun as a barroom joke years before. US commanders often made shabby attempts at humor when addressing their troops. “I’ve been here so long, I ought to buy real estate and build a house.” Nobody would laugh, afraid to give them any license to continue. It was true, though. They’d ALL been there too long.

Hall and Tucker, along with five other escapees from the infantry ranks, had repeated the joke over drinks one evening in Oceanside, California and wondered if maybe the commanders’ jokes were more reasonable than they had previously been willing to admit. Tucker thought it would be funny – the ultimate middle finger to a country he had visited repeatedly, never liked, but strangely would be willing to visit again. Hall considered it an adventure. Burr, always eager to horrify people, thought it was a splendid opportunity to wear a “man dress” and get away with it. The rest, judgment blurred by varying quantities of beer and discontent at the prospect of living in their parents’ basements and attending community college, quickly agreed. It could be done, maybe, with the proper funding, careful planning, and a certain death wish.

“Why?” was the question they were asked with incredulity when they tried to explain their reasoning. “Why not?” however, was the best response they could summon. It satisfied them, but not “normal people.” They always seemed enthusiastic to provide a long list of reasons why it was a stupid idea. Most of them were valid, too. If they were so enthusiastic about visiting the sandbox again, why not stay in the military? Each quickly fired off his own reasons for getting out. After Hall mentioned his intentions to one friend, who looked at him with incredulity, he determined it was better to simply not talk about it. He’d wait until he’d done it, grew bored of it, and came back home. He was eager to further distance himself from the weenies.

They concluded that the logistics would be bloody awful. To anybody’s knowledge, no US servicemembers had ever decided to return to Iraq as residents. Tourists had traveled through the relative safety of Kurdistan, yes, but nowhere else – at least not without securing large compounds, hiring enormous guard forces, driving exorbitantly expensive armored vehicles, and living in terror. One American guy had tried to motorcycle the country, but he’d been arrested by Iraqi forces, handed over to the US military, and quickly deported. He was clearly insane, and not in a good, adventurous way. This would be more calculated, and methodical – and still seemed absurdly dangerous. But, that was part of the thrill.

It would take years to research and execute, obviously. Not so much because it was difficult to visit a dangerous area of the world, but because certain things needed to transpire first. The conflict as a whole, specifically as it pertained to US presence, needed to change first. Very simply, the longer they waited, the less likely it would be that they were marching blithely to their own deaths. Time would change the situation on the ground, no doubt, and give them ample opportunity to prepare. Something as complex as this deserved a little forethought. With refilled glasses and even dimmer thinking, they toasted to their health, their success in future exploits, and to hell with everybody else.

To be continued...

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved

Monday, November 16, 2009

The Glory Days

Over the course of the Marine Corps Birthday (Nov. 10th) and Veterans’ Day on November 11th, I, and millions of other veterans did what they seem to do best: occupy poorly-lit, smoke-filled bars, buy drinks for strangers and poison ourselves. Amid all the conversations, all the speeches about honor and service, all the toasts to friends who never made it home, and the poorly-remembered second and third lines of the Marine Corps hymn, it was one Vietnam veteran who I most noticed. Despite the blur of alcohol, whenever something meaningful was said, he adjusted his campaign cover (drill instructor hat), snapped to the position of attention, and executed a sharp salute. His behavior loosed a cascade of difficult questions I don’t particularly want to address. Do I want to be like him in thirty years?

For how long can we look back on our service as the most meaningful, memorable experience of our lives and remain uninterested in other memories? For how many years is it acceptable to introduce ourselves as veterans and not simply by our names? When will something else be more important?

How many free drinks can we accept from strangers and older veterans before we drop the title of returned heroes and become the ones buying drinks for others? How long is it appropriate for us to live each day like our last and drink ourselves into a stupor? How much longer will people excuse us for it because we’re veterans and deserve to live a little after all we’ve lived through over the past few years?

How long can we legitimately be angry about at leadership decisions that we’re convinced killed our friends, or bitter at a government that really seemed to have little idea how to properly employ us? For how many more years will we visit the gravesites of fallen comrades before our obligation and guilt fades? For how much longer can we reminisce about out glory days at war and sincerely believe that we’re fundamentally different and don’t want to fit in again? How many more nights can we get away with puking ourselves or wetting the bed? How many more mornings can we justify reeking of booze?

When will we stop devoting all our time to news stories about the war before we grow tired of it and conclude that there are other things happening in the world that deserve attention? How much longer will we watch war movies even though they take us to places we don’t particularly want to be? When will we drop the military jargon and acronyms and make an attempt to speak like everybody else? When will we grow tired of wearing paraphernalia from our uniforms and dress like those around us?

How long will it be before we can no longer hide the secret that we actually enjoy peoples’ sympathy, as much as we may insist we don’t want it? When will we stop telling people we’re deaf because of IEDs and machine guns and simply lean in a little closer? When will we throw away all our old uniforms or stop putting military bumper stickers on our cars? When will we quit limiting our closest friends to veterans and grow comfortable speaking with those who haven’t served? When will we stop wearing combat boots? When will we no longer want to be different?

How much longer will we sputter, “I’m a combat veteran” whenever we’re insulted and conclude that most people really don’t care? When will we grow tired of muttering, “fucking civilians” and remember that we, too, are civilians? When will we stop missing the military? When will we lose interest in being identified by our rank? When will we stop trying to explain?

When will we determine that our short years of service aren’t who or what we are, but instead something adventurous that we did? When will we be interested in seeking out other adventures? When will people no longer ask us our opinions on the war? When will we no longer want to talk about it? When will our stories be about other things? When will we grow our hair back out to normal lengths?

How much longer can we ride the wave of quasi-fame because we’re veterans and instead set out for greater things? When will our service evolve into a memory and cease being an identity? When will we no longer try to defend ourselves when somebody accuses us of being warmongers? When will we move forward? When will we stop abusing ourselves? When will we stop killing ourselves? When will we awaken?

When we are older? When we are old? Tomorrow? Next year? When there is another war underway? When we accept defeat? When we acknowledge smallness? When nobody cares anymore? When we have other things to occupy our thoughts? When we hit rock bottom?

Inarguably, many of these changes, both good and bad, are irreversible. It is impossible to simply forget participation in a war. It’s just hard to see other things. I don’t have answers to any of these questions, but one thing is certain. For us, the generation of warriors who are prone to self destruction, time is definitely running out.

Copyright © 2009, Ben Shaw, All Rights Reserved