O-ver there, o-ver there, send the word, send the word, o-ver there,
That the Yanks are com-ing, the Yanks are com-ing,
The drums rum-tum-ming ev’-ry where
So pre-pare, say a prayer, send the word, send the word to be-ware
We’ll be o-ver, we’re com-ing o-ver,
And we won’t come back ’til it’s o-ver O-ver There!
–“Over There,” 1917 song popular with United States soldiers in both world wars
Saving Abel lead vocalist Jared Weeks absolutely butchered the National Anthem before the CARFAX 400 at Michigan on August 15. Monte Dutton wrote about it thus in one of his after-race columns: “Imagine ‘The Star Spangled Banner’ by Leon Redbone. Drunk.”
Saving Abel. Singer Jared Weeks, center.
Yecch. This blogger opined more darkly:
In a time when NASCAR is keenly aware of protecting their image and that of the whole sport, even to the extent of fining drivers who speak negatively about it, maybe it’s time they took matters into their own hands and instituted an approval process by which anthem singers were screened, auditioned, and voted worthy of the honor that it is. If that means the people singing each week are names we’ve never heard of, who cares?
Ironically, Saving Abel, a hard- alt- southern-rock band (is there no permutation—-cowpunk, gangsta Nashville, salsa Tex Mex??–that can’t be squeezed into country musics’s vast crossover mainstream?) are just off a solo USO tour, playing in Qatar, Kuwait and Iraq, as well as on board the USS Carl Vinson.
Singer Weeks said about the tour,
The soldiers actually requested us to go over there and play. Usually with a USO tour, they do a whole set, like Kid Rock will come and they’ll have a comedian come out. Robin Williams was there in the past. Usually they bring a whole bunch of people and it’s like a whole show. This time the guys just wanted us to come play for them, so we just went out there solo and played by ourselves.
I mean, these guys wake up everyday and protect us. It’s the least we could do. We always talk about supporting our troops and it was always talk. We wanted to do something big and we got on a plane and went over there and we laid it all for those guys. Just some of the looks on their faces, I guarantee – I’ll speak for the guys – we could’ve been up there in our underwear playing banjos and those guys wouldn’t have cared. They were definitely appreciative of what we did.
It was awesome and it kind of opened my eyes to what these guys do. You don’t have to be a political person. In my book, you have to support the men and women that protect everybody else. So mainly that’s why we did it, because we love those guys.
Well, maybe Weeks had the right spirit, but he sure didn’t have the pipes to match. The obligatory military flyover by three Fairchild Republic A-10 Thunderbolts of the 107th Fighter Squadron of the Michigan National Guard (jets which have flown missions out of Kirkuk into Iraq and Afghanistan) came as some relief to his yowls about the bombs bursting in air. It was an odd pairing of civilian and military expressions of patriotism which left those of us both earthbound and stateside appearing sorely lacking.
Any vet will agree that I don’t know jack shit about war. My tale is typical: my dad was in WWII, but then everyone was. Knew a kid down the block who’s older brother went off to ‘Nam and didn’t return while we listened to Beatles albums. The mother of a friend of my younger brothers was said to slow dance alone at night holding empty hands while her husband, a ‘copter pilot, languished in a Hanoi prison for years. I missed the draft by a couple of years, never thinking, in my grand intellectual and then rock-wastrel youth, to volunteer. Watched the first Gulf campaign on cable news, that eager 24-hour eye for events gobbling up all the bombing sorties taking off from the decks of aircraft carriers. Watched bombs go off in the mountains of Afghanistan and watched American liberators in Iraq blitz the a country which turned around and rioted full-scale. Have heard the news of the conflict and its toll for years as I dove in to work at jobs wholly unaffected by war.
Watched it all from afar. War, for an American, has been since the Civil War, Over There, as distant from my suburban nest as a bridge or bunker is from the air when the smart bombs get loosed. No wonder Americans have loved fighting from the air, free of all the hell Down There, leaving the dirty work to grunts on the ground. Now the winged emissaries of death don’t even require pilots, those expensive bombers with human freight replaced by drones piloted by men in command centers hundreds of miles away from any action.
What does any of this sum for a guy who’s done three or four tours of duty, maybe sporting a prosthetic leg or a fake eyeball, whose memories of war are necessarily body-baggged into a dark place so he or she can go about the business of work and marriage in a country which doesn’t understand war, whose dark place unzips in sleep and crawls out in the form of nightmares — who dreams at night that everything is exploding and he is trying to fight back with no weapons and no ammunition other than a bucket of old bullets, or seeing his wife and friends in a cemetery surrounding a hole into which he is suddenly falling. The disconnect between civilian life Right Here and the military experience Over There has become so wide that a military flyover before a race is like Pentacostals speaking in tongues: the sound is human (louder than the collective throat of the Sprint Cup pack as it goes green) but the speech is foreign, lost to the ear, darkly angelic and gleamingly demonic. It just doesn’t make sense as we stand there listening to a butchered rendition of the National Anthem, “The Star Spangled Banner,” written in 1814 a poem written by Francis Scott Key, after witnessing the bombardment of Fort McHenry by the British Royal Navy ships in Chesapeake Bay during the Battle of Fort McHenry in the War of 1812 and set to a Redcoat drinking song.
The Ft. Henry bombardment which was the inspiration of our National Anthem. The caption reads: The caption reads “A VIEW of the BOMBARDMENT of Fort McHenry, near Baltimore, by the British fleet taken from the Observatory under the Command of Admirals Cochrane & Cockburn on the morning of the 13th of Sept 1814 which lasted 24 hours & thrown from 1500 to 1800 shells in the Night attempted to land by forcing a passage up the ferry branch but were repulsed with great loss.”
Originally there were four stanzas to the song (a fifth was added during the Civil War, including the lines, “Down, down with the traitor that tries to defile / The flag of the stars, and the page of her story!”), only the first is sung in the Anthem proper:
O! say can you see by the dawn’s early light,
What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming,
Whose broad stripes and bright stars through the perilous fight,
O’er the ramparts we watched, were so gallantly streaming.
And the rockets’ red glare, the bombs bursting in air,
Gave proof through the night that our flag was still there;
O! say does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
A proper salute to a battle-harrowed flag, punched through by shot, tattered by bursting shells, unrepentant and holding the line despite withering fire. And so we all stand and take off our ball caps in deference to the song and our country, silence eerily whipping the flags atop the speedway as one person alone sings for all of us the anthem, each time someone different—kid wonder, gossamer country girl, noble black baritone, or this, this, this stretch-of-a-license-to-sing punk, strangling the Anthem almost as badly as Roseanne Barr did in her rendition during the seventh inning stretch at a baseball game back in the ‘90’s: Call it art or call it mockery, but thank God for the 107th and those three A-10s shrieking over, symbolic a military which has gained superpower status, ensuring that no bombs burst in our air any more, keeping the fight Over There, on someone else’s back yard barbecue. We citizens who have been privileged (in the backhanded sense) to have grown up without the faintest whiff of sulphur or cordite not generated by our own gun-happy angst do not and can not understand how much it costs to keep the U.S. of A. in an airtight seal of defense by meeting the enemy abroad; and because we don’t understand that cost, can’t understand how the tab is bankrupting us along with spiraling healthcare costs and an economy which has been engineered tt profit only the rich and richer and richer.
But more on that later. Over there. Down this deep, war-ravaging page. So that we rescue the National Anthem from its latest shellacking by a shattered baritone and an indifference which creeps over the land like mustard gas.
* * *
At the other end of the race I watched Kevin Harvick in Victory Lane after his win, shouting and exultant, his entire crew assembled along with team owner Richard Childress and wife Delana in her matching firesuit, Delana supporting her man, the leader in Sprint Cup points and the one who appears to be poised to run away with the season and wrest the championhship cup from Jimmie Johnson’s hands at Homestead in November. Something about that jazzy image of kick-ass made me think of winning and losing’s bigger human picture. NASCAR wives like Delana Havick may kiss their spouses and say a prayer that their beloved race successfully and safely, but they do so with all confidence that they will manage the latter quite well. Military spouses have no such comfort, not even today with the best medicine available.
I know, I know – NASCAR is engaged in a far different battle – yet it and the military are united in the same war in ways so fleeting you can’t see them until you realize that NASCAR’s fan base is smack dab in the middle of the recruitment demographics for today’s professional military: 85 percent male; bottom two-thirds of the high school academic class; economically from the ranks of the lower middle class to the working poor.
NASCAR fans are a patriotic bunch – that investment of passion may be due to the large numbers of families which see both military service and NASCAR attendance. It must pain these fans when a top recording draw gets up and butchers the National Anthem. Another slap in the face, another instance of NASCAR’s growing distance from its fans.
This comes at a time when American support of—-and any interest in–the war in Afghanistan is on the wane, The latest Gallup poll found that 58 percent of the country favors Obama’s announced 2011 withdrawal timeline. Gen. David H. Petraeus has begun a campaign to convince the public that the American-led coalition can still succeed there though the timeline will have to be longer. In this current war without boundaries against an enemy without a face, the lack of any tangible goals – no cities to capture, no battles to be won except in the hearts of a stony local people – it’s hard to muster much support. Besides, the costs are astronomical, and the losses keep piling up, and it’s over there, so far, far away …
* * *
There’s a 40-year gap where you find no driver involved in any of the Gulf War conflicts or Vietnam or even Korea. Why? Darrell Waltrip and Dale Earnhardt Sr. are said to have dodged the draft to race.
It was before big money began to make an impact on racing that we see vets in NASCAR. Joe Weatherley served in the Army in the Second World War. He had a long scar down the left side of his cheek, which was said to be from a German sniper in the second world war, but it was actually the result of a 1946 street race in Norfolk, VA, that nearly killed him and injured five passengers.
Car owner Bud Moore served in the Army, landing at Utah Beach during D-Day. He recalls a shell hitting a man next to him who “just disappeared.” Over the next nine months he engaged in five major battles and was awarded five Purple Harts and two Bronze Stars. Moore had 63 wind and 43 poles as an owner, winning two Championship titles, one with Joe Weatherley and the other with Buck Baker. Moore is among the 25 nominees for the second annual NASCAR Hall of Fame, to be announced in October.
Driver Red Byron began racing in 1932 and saw rising success into the 1940’s until he volunteered for the US Army Air Force as a flight engineer during the WWII. His B-24 was hit by enemy fire and he suffered a serious leg injury. It took two years to rebuild his leg but he managed to recover, walking with a limp. Returning to racing in the late 1940’s, Byron had a special clutch fitted in his cars for his gimp leg but he went on to win two NASCAR series championships in the late 1940’s. Byron is also among the 25 nominees for the next class of five to be inducted into NASCAR’s Hall of Fame.
Driver Red Byron’s leg was shattered when running a bombing raid during the Second World War. The docs fixed his leg back up OK, but he had to have a specially-rigged clutch to race after coming home.
The gap is pretty amazing. I guess rich guys can buy their way out of the draft and have no financial inducement for volunteering for a professional military.
But hey — Joey Logano may have been a Cub Scout.
* * *
August 14 was the 65th anniversary of V-J Day – the day on which Japan surrendered to the Allies, just days after the nuclear bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. About
750,000 people had gathered in Times Square in New York City in anticipation of the news. At 7:03 p.m., the words finally blazed in a news zipper: “OFFICIAL – TRUMAN ANNOUNCES JAPANESE SURRENDER.” August 14, 1945 thus became V-J — “Victory over Japan” — Day.
Times Square burst into celebration. Shortly after the announcement the photographer Alfred Eisenstaedt saw a sailor running down the street kissing every girl. The photographer turned and caught the sailor bending a nurse over for a kiss, and he shot the picture.
By 10pm, the crowd had swelled to more than 2 million, as New Yorkers flooded the Square, a generation uniting to celebrate the conclusion of the 20th Century’s most devastating conflict. A week later Eisenstaedt’s picture appeared in Life magazine, and The Kiss, as it became known, became an icon of victory.
“The Kiss” (1945) and The Kiss (2010).
On August 13 of this year, a 26-foot statue titled “The Smootch” was installed in Time Square in preparation for a mass reenactment of the kiss by the Times Square Alliance. For the celebrations on August 14, hundreds of couples donned sailor hats and nurse’s caps and kissed, The Kiss-wise, around the 26-foot statue of The Kiss in Times Square.
World War II veterans and their children on hand for the kiss said they want today’s generation to remember the sacrifices of those who fought in the war.
“I want to keep that day alive,” said Rocco Moretto, 86, a retired infantry staff sergeant now living in Queens.
Moretto, who stormed Omaha Beach on D-Day and arrived in Times Square in his uniform, kissed his friend Margie Zwick, who served in the Women’s Army Corps.
“It was terrific,” he said of the kiss. “It’s been a long time coming.”
August 14, 1945, was a long time coming, too. Although the U.S. didn’t enter the conflict until 1941—two years after hostilities had broken out—it suffered some 418,000 deaths in the war with another 617,000 wounded. There had been some major losses along the way: 7,000 lost during the D-Day invasion; 3,000 at Pearl Harbor; 80,000 killed during the Battle of the Bulge; a total 114,000 casualties during the Italian campaign; 62,000 at Okinawa, 20,000 at Iwo Jima and 5,000 during the Bataan Death March.
So its no wonder that anticipation was running at a fever pitch on August 14, 1945. Word of Japanese surrender was immanent but it had been torturously slow in coming. The Germans had surrendered earlier in the spring after the fall of Berlin and the united campaign against Japan by the U.S., the Chinese and the Russians was crushing the island nation. The U.S. firebombed 62 Japanese cities that spring and early summer to no avail.
Atom bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August 1945.
Then came the nuclear bombing of the cities of Hiroshima on August 6 and Nagasaki on August 9, killing some 200,000 civilians. (Many more would die in the ensuing years from radiation-induced cancer and leukemia). After the Hiroshima bombing, President Truman issued a statement demanding Japanese surrender. In it he announced the use of the new weapon, and promised:
If they do not now accept our terms, they may expect a rain of ruin from the air, the like of which has never been seen on this earth. Behind this air attack will follow sea and land forces in such numbers and power as they have not yet seen and with the fighting skill of which they are already well aware.
More nuclear attacks were planned, with the next one on August 18, three more in September and another three in October. The Manhattan Project—begun as an attempt to beat the Germans to the creation of the world’s first nuclear bomb and eventually becoming a full-scale bomb-making facility, employing more than 130,000 people and costing some $2 billion in 1940’s valuation—was in full deadly swing.
On August 14, Japanese Emperor Hirohito recorded a surrender speech which was broadcast the following day to the Japanese people over the radio. In it he referred to the nuclear bombings:
Moreover, the enemy now possesses a new and terrible weapon with the power to destroy many innocent lives and do incalculable damage. Should we continue to fight, not only would it result in an ultimate collapse and obliteration of the Japanese nation, but also it would lead to the total extinction of human civilization.
Such being the case, how are We to save the millions of Our subjects, or to atone Ourselves before the hallowed spirits of Our Imperial Ancestors? This is the reason why We have ordered the acceptance of the provisions of the Joint Declaration of the Powers.
On August 15 the Japanese officially announced their surrender, signing the surrender documents on the deck of the American battleship USS Missouri on Sept. 2, 1945, officially bringing to an end the Second World War.
* * *
A woman named Edith Shain claimed to be the nurse in Eisenstaedt’s famous picture and says that after the kiss, she and the sailor went their separate ways, never seeing each other again. She died last June at the age of 91. According to a recent account in The New York Times, Gloria Delaney, 84, claims to have been a few feet away from that famous kiss and that it actually occurred some hours before the announcement became official at 7:03 p.m. The streets were milling with people excited about the announcement, and the sailor had simply jumped the gun in a moment of premature exultation.
The nurse didn’t seem to mind. “She wasn’t really struggling,” Mrs. Delaney said. “It looked to me like she was trying to keep her skirt down. I got the impression she was enjoying it. Maybe that was because I was enjoying all the excitement, so I figured she was too.” When Miss Delaney turned away from the spectacle to catch up with her friend, “They were still kissing.”
Still kissing in August 2010.
Nothing more American than a good, jubilant, jive-jumpin’ smooch to button – and silence — the horrors of war. Still, other nations suffered far worse. Japan: some 2.7 million deaths, including 500,000 civilian deaths. Germany suffered more than 8 million deaths, including 160,000 civilian deaths (10 percent of the ’39 population). There were 5.5 million civilian deaths in Poland including nearly 3 million Jewish Holocaust victims (military deaths totaled 240 thousand); Chinese citizens suffered worse in the hands of the Japanese, with some 17 million deaths. But the biggest punching-boy of war was Soviet Russia, which suffered almost 24 million deaths, including 1 million civilian deaths–14 percent of its 1939 population. In all, it’s estimated that about 60 to 70 million people were killed in the war, a number which bloated considerably afterwards due to war wounds, disease, and starvation due to famine.
VJ Day celebrations in Times Square, New York; Hiroshima victim, both from August 1945.
Far different the scene on August 6 of this year in Hiroshima, site of the 20th century’s most complete devastation (though some argue that firebombed Dresden or Staligrad after its siege rival for so dismal an honor). V-J Day is an American B-J; in Hiroshima, the Peace Ceremony was celebrated with high-ranking ambassadors from some 67 countries, including, for the first time this year, the United States. As a crowd of about 55,000 gathered near the city’s center in a memorial park, there was a gong from a Buddhist temple bell and a release of a pack of doves. The American presence renewed debate of whether the United States should apologize for the use of nuclear weapons in the war. United Nations secretary general Ban Ki-Moon, who attended the event for the first time, called on the international community to eliminate nuclear weapons, saying it was time to move “from ground zero to global zero.”
The days are long past when the fear of global nuclear annihilation was an icy thread in daily life – it was, back in the late 60s when I was growing up; and although the Cold War has become mostly a thing of the past, the terrfiying idea of rogue nations like North Korea and Iran armed with nukes and attitude, or even worse, a nuke in a shipping container parking in New York Harbor, sent there by Bin Laden & Co., is all too real.
But let’s go back to America’s exultation over the war’s end on August 14, 1945. Perhaps the effervescence of American celebration – symbolized, quintessentially, by The Kiss — could find no rival because our homeland had come out of the conflict almost unscathed by enemy fire (except for the bombing of distant Pearl Harbor). Owing to our country’s relative geographical isolation, there hadn’t been any local consequences of war either in World War I or the Spanish-American war. Experience of war in our back yard can’t be found until way back to the Civil War, and it wouldn’t be for another 55 years after V-J Day that it would come again, when domestic airliners were hijacked and flown into the Twin Towers in New York City and the Pentagon in Washington, Molotov cocktails brimming with screaming passengers.
On Sept. 11, 2001, a series of suicide attacks by al-Quaida in hijacked passenger airliners upon the United States resulted in the destruction of the World Trade Center towers in New York City and a section of the Pentagon. In all, some 2,995 were killed, including the 19 hijackers.
The sense of bewilderment and violation we experienced on Sept. 11, 2001, was real and harrowing, yet it was only a small taste of what London experienced during the Battle of Britain or Stalingrad in its siege or Berlin after Hitler finally committed suicide in a bunker on a cold spring day in 1945. What two cities in Japan experienced as the only populated areas in the world to be targeted by nuclear bombs.
That’s not to say the jubilation of The Kiss wasn’t real, just a bit more exuberant for winning a war with so much of the homeland intact. That had a deciding affect on all of our military scrapes since—Korea, Vietnam, the first and second Gulf Wars, including our current counterinsurgency campaign in Afghanistan.
After Hiroshima, Japan became a decidedly un-militaristic society, cauterizing that impulse with the images of nuclear devastation. America became a military superpower, armed past the teeth. War-ravaged countries suffered depression and an agonizing rebuilding after the Second World War, while America floated up out of its Depression into the dream-years of the ‘50s, GIs flooding colleges on the GI bill, everyone attaining the middle-class dream of house in the ‘burbs with wives in perky dresses cooking up all that food lonely GI’s dreamt of in the frozen forests of The Bulge, with kids who all looked like the Beaver as said “aw Geez” as they walked back from sandlot baseball games.
Happiness on the post-war home front.
America’s halcyon 50’s were a product of the Kiss—for better and worse. I was born in the month which was the apex of the baby boom – August 1957 – back when the military-industrial complex was becoming the economic engine of our country. My Boomer generation is the one which is watching the middle-class dream created by that engine deflate due to bloat and excess—the Iraq conflict alone is estimated to have cost some $2 trillion off-the-budged bucks, and our health care system is spiraling out of control as we try to live forever, at least long past any semblance of life. Perhaps if we had been more ravished by war the dream of the 1950’s wouldn’t have become such a nightmare. We are as removed from the facts of war (our fighting is now outsourced to a professional-class army) as we are from the butchering of our chickens.
A lot was silenced by that Kiss–or seduced the wrong way.
* * *
A congressional resolution widened the scope of festivities earlier this month declaring August 14 “The Spirit of ’45 Day” in honor of the sacrifice of 400,000 American soldiers in the war, as well as the “the courage, dedication, self-sacrifice, and compassion of the World War II generation” – an example which saw us through the Vietnam conflict and into the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Did you know about this event? The first I heard about it was on August 15, researching the events of Times Square Kiss Day 2010. But then, like most Americans these days, I live far from the reach of war. I follow the news, which doesn’t much cover the Iraq-Afghanistan conflicts any more as they drag on through their first decade of engagement (longest continuous war in U.S. history, you know). I know of a few guys who have deployed overseas. I’m sure the pre-race festivities for Nationwide and Sprint Cup series races at Michigan International Speedway had a nod to the official day. But except for bubbling about Kiss Day in Times Square, I couldn’t find a single mention online of commemorative festivities.
V-J Day was 65 years ago. That’s a long, long time for American memories which have a hard time recalling who was last year’s ‘American Idol.” Most of the surviving veterans of that war are in their eighth decade-lots of ‘em still around thanks to contemporary healthcare, but Alzheimer’s obliterates a lot of the mnemonic landscape. Not that the WWII generation cared to remember the events of their war. “Don’t ask, don’t tell” roots back to the attitude of GI’s who were so ready to volunteer for service and came back with their lips sealed tight, never speaking of what they saw on the battlefield. Impregnate The Kiss with that silence, a shared pact to bury the past and get on with things.
That unwillingness to tell the truths of World War II was nowhere more evident than in Hollywood, which didn’t get around to attempting to re-create the actual conditions of battle until 1998 with the opening sequence of Steven Spielberg’s “Saving Private Ryan.” The moment is the landing of American soldiers on Omaha Beach on June 6, 1944, and for 24 minutes sheer hell erupts in total chaos as soldiers leap from landing craft to be strafed by withering machine-gun fire and grenades from dug-in German defenses. The absolute mayhem and reckless turns of fortune’s wheel – this one shot, the next saved, the water churning red with blood, men screaming where they lay with limbs missing – was captured in maniacal perfection by Spielberg, who eschewed Technicolor presentation for the desaturated look of color newsreel footage, grainy and shaky as the operators of hand-held cameras were fighting for their lives as well. (The image I most remember from the sequence is that of a GI who gets pinged in the helmet by a bullet; he takes the helmet off in amazement to look at the dent and is promptly shot between the eyes.) Esquire magazine called it the “greatest battle scene of all time”; for GIs of the era, it was the first real attempt by Hollywood to tell their truth, the one they had not spoken of for decades.
Stephen Spielberg’s 24-minute opening sequence of the D-Day invasion in “Saving Private Ryan” was heraled by Esquire Magazine as “the best battle scene of all time.” It’s awful hard to watch because it’s awful real.
Literature had been going at World War 2 for some time, but books like Norman Mailer’s The Naked and The Dead (D-Day) Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five (fireboming of Dresden), Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 (bombing missions against Germany), Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (German rocket program) and Elie Wiesel’s slim Night (Jewish Holocaust) did not make it that far into the mainstream. Perhaps its because we know our sacrifice in the war was much smaller than we boasted, and our complicity in its greatest horrors was far greater than we care to admit. The ever-buoyant American dream takes a load of carbine-fire to think of good American boys become scorched-earth killers.
But I’m not here to pick on soldiers, those ever-lovin’, eternally-bloodied pawns in a game whose benefits serve the interests of Powers that Be—corporations, governments, banks. The shared humanity of soldiers surviving a conflict is readily shown by the friendships which sprang up between former aggressors -– Japanese, Germans and Americans all shaking hands once the fight was declared over. I’m not sure that nations share that humanity with each other, derringers concealed behind waistbands and big Bowie knives strapped to their shins as they meet and greet in the great commercial square of the present.
The great tragedy of war is the endlessness of it—-to steal a saying from the working world, it’s always been same day, different war. Since earning our independence from the redcoats during the Revolutionary War, the United States of America has been involved in 23 extraterritorial and major domestic employments lasting some 60 years—about a quarter of our entire existence.
James Hillman writes in A Terrible Love of War (2004),
Achilles was in Vietnam and the U.S. Marines were in Try. The normalcy of war’s madness does not change. All wars are the same war because war is always going on. As Clausewitz implied, peace is merely a superficial and temporary hiatus, an armistice, in the everlasting war. In its elemental nature, war is Freud’s repetition compulsion enacted, Vico’s recorso confirmed, and it validates Thucydides’ thesis that history demonstrates the general consistency of human nature: we can imagine what will happen by studying what has happened.
“War is always going on”: so much so that the news from the Afghanistan conflict is barely heard because it’s been going on for so long, and being fought not by draftees but volunteers (albeit economic volunteers, there not being many opportunities for young people elsewhere these days). It’s old news. The release last June of the Wikileaks papers (revealing, with some substance, the difficulties and hidden crimes of our occupying military in that eternally conflict-ridden country) barely roused a yawn from Washington and public alike. Well duh: war is bad.
The more disturbing truth in Hillman’s statement, “war is always going on” is that it’s always going on in our heads, at some level or another.
Perhaps its because Americans haven’t seen their homes and cities destroyed by war that the fantasy of war is so easy to come by, so separate from daily realities unmarred by war. The disconnect has strange effects. As the public bullhorns of this political season shrieks about tax increases—in a country which has one of the lowest taxation rates in developed countries—so the bandwidth for gun rights is weirdly wide, given we’ve never had occasion since the Revolution to arm up local militias.
Violence is rife in American life, wherever you look, from those home armories of assault rifles to violent video games and movies, on to the pornographic “eye candy” of images of rotting headless corpses and burnt-beyond-recognition buddies in blown-up Humvees on laptops and cellphones of GI’s on deployment. (Count the damning evidence of abuses at Abu Ghraib upon Iraqi prisoners by American MPs as not that much different from the storied horrors of that jail under Saddam, where torture was de jour and an executioner named Sword would leap onto the bodies swinging hangropes, assisting the damned to their deaths).
Fast Times at Abu Ghraib High.
Fascination with the horror of “ultraviolence” (as the droogie Alex put it in Kubrick’s “A Clockwork Orange,” a futuristic meditation on violence in a rotting society) – the “eye candy” of violent fantasy — is part of the juvenile male psyche, I think, rooting way back to the primal horrors of the predatory male simian waving, with such relish, a bloodied bone-club in our deepest brainstem.
When I was a kid – I must have been seven years old or so – I remember a coffee-table book at someone’s house we visited occasionally of paintings and lithographs of battle scenes from American history, from the Revolution through the Second World War. Every time we went there I headed straight for that book and laid it on the floor, turning the pages slowly, my eyes filling their awakened thirst for the mayhem of battle, gunfire everywhere, grim men thrusting bayonets into pleading men, hats and helmets askew, blood patching on cannon-split tree-trunks and staining the snow of midwinter. Most indelible the images of after-battle scenes, thousands of dead at Gettysburg and the Somme and Okinawa, the ultimate sacrifice of so many accomplished, left behind like so much trash after a concert as the theater of war moves on to the next inevitable explosion of cordite and guts. I’ll never forget those images, nor the wide-eyed, terrified relish I had in soaking in them, imagining the unimaginable.
Civil War Battle of the Wilderness, 1864.
It is one thing to imagine hell – our literature is most livid and gothic and thrilling with those accounts – yet it is another thing altogether to live it, to harrow the hells of battle, to come home with a brain full of horrors which have no ground or roof in our obese, superficial, trash-talkin’, hedonistic and opinionated free society. War’s wounds gash deeper than whatever implements furrowed them – knife or AK-47 round or IED, more than the fragmented milliseconds of a firefight in which enemy or comrade or both were killed. Back in the Second World War, you went home and never talked about it and suffered the night sweats and nightmares with a culture-wide stoicism; in the Vietnam War you took lots of dope; in the Gulf War, the Army discharged thousands of soldiers for what they called “personality disorders” when they were actually suffering what just about any soldier who gets dipped in hell for a night becomes sick with, post-traumatic stress disorder. Symptoms of the disorder include intense anxiety, persistent nightmares, depression, uncontrollable anger, and difficulties coping with work, family, and social relationships.
David Finkel’s book The Good Soldiers (Farrar Straus Giroux, 2009) is about U.S. Army lieutenant Ralph Kauzlarich and the battalion of some eight hundred soldiers he led into Bagdhad as part of George w. Bush’s 2007 surge. They were on a peace-making mission of sorts, crushing resistance on the one hand while trying to gain the good will of the people so essential in counterinsurgency efforts in the other. It meant facing the daily truth the people they were trying to help were as likely to shake their hands and detonate a roadside bomb under their Humvee.
One incident from the book—on May 7, 2007–conveys the perfectly ripe ingredients of PTSD inherent of the mission: the constant sense of impending danger and doom, the sudden irruptions (and eruptions) of enemy fire and bombs, the wholly random nature of war—lucky today, snake eyes tomorrow—all the while having to check one’s own trigger finger, erring on the side of trust with often disastrous results.
Wynona’s sister Morrigan– war’s own goddess of fate–smiles at the luck of racear drivers before turning her eyes back on this scene:
As usual, before leaving, Nate Showman gathered other soldiers in the convoy to brief them on the latest intelligence reports. He had been awake since dawn, when an IED had blown up outside the FOB on Route Pluto as soldiers from another battalion rolled by in a tank. Badness circling, closer and closer – that’s how 2-16 soldiers were starting to feel. Now they watched Showman trace a road on a map he was holding. “First Street is closed off because of an IED. First Street is black. We’re not going that way,” he said. Next he pointed to a spot on the edge of the FOB. “Two days ago, on the fifth, this guard tower on the very northernmost section of the FOB was engaged. One round went right through the ballistic glass, impacted on the right side of one of the guard’s heads. All it did was hit his Kelvar,” his helmet. “He received minor scratches from it, will be all right.” Next he pointed to a spot on Route Pluto. “Hey, that thing that woke us up this morning was One-eight hitting an IED just north of Checkpoint Five-Fifteen.
“On Pluto?” a soldier said.
“No shit?” another said.
“It hit a tank. The thing blew up, and they just burned right on through. The tank didn’t even stop rolling,” Showman said. “The bigger thing for us is the fact that in the last three days there have been about six EFP’s on Route Predators, right up by Kamaliyah.”
“Right where we’re heading,” another soldier said.
They decided to bypass Predators and take Berm Road, the only other route to Kamaliyah, (an) elevated dirt road … No road frelt worse to travel than Berm Road. There were only so many points to climb onto it and drop off of it, and once up there, the feeling was of being utterly exposed and vulnerable, that the places to hide a bomb were limitless, including in the soft dirt underneath. The surrounding landscape didn’t help, either: pools of fetid water, dead animals, vast piles of trash being picked through by families and dogs, grotesque pieces of twisted metal that in the dust clouds kicked up by the convoy reminded some soldiers of pictures they’d seen of the wreckage of the World Trade Center after 9/11. On Berm Road,, Iraq could not only seem lost, but irredeemable.
But on this day it was the better way. As the convoy inched along, reports were coming in of yet another IED explosion on Predators; on Berm, meanwhile, the worst of it was some kids who paused in their trash-picking to throw rocks at the convoy as it passed them and coated them with dust.
Kauzlarich, looking out the window, was uncharacteristically quiet. He had slept badly and woken uneasily. Something about the day didn’t feel right, he’d said before getting in the Humvee. Once he saw the COP, though, his mood brightened. In a week’s time it had gone from an abandoned building with nothing inside of it other than a family of squatters to a company of 120 soldiers. Cots stretched from one side end to another. Genreators chugged away so there was electricity. There was a working kitchen, a row of new portable toilets, and gun nests on the roof behind camouflage netting. The whole thing was enclosed in solid perimeter of high blast walls, and even when Jeff Jager mentioned the isolating effect this was having regarding the relationship with the adjacent neighborhood, it was clear that Kauzlarich’s confidence about what he was accomplishing in Kamaliyah had returned.
“I’d say about forty percent of the people who live around here are gone,” Jager said.
“Forty percent?” Kauzlarich said.
“They’ll be back,” Kauzlarich said.
“Maybe,” Jager said.
“Six weeks, they’ll be back,” Kauzlarich said, and soon after that he was again in his Humvee, now passing the spaghetti factory, now passing the little house that showed no signs of life, now climbing back up onto Berm Road to leave Kamaliyah – that that’s when the EFP exploded.
And was he in the midst of saying something when it happened? Was he looking at something specific? Was he thinking of something in particular? His wife? His children? The COP? The shitters? Was he singing to himself, as he had done earlier, when the convoy was leaving Rustamiyah and he sang, to no reocognizable tune, just sang the words he had been thinking. “Oh, we’re gonna go to Kamiliyah, to se what kind of trouble we can get in today?”
It wasn’t that loud.
It was the sound of something being ripped, as if the air were made of silk.
It was so sudden that at first it was a series of questions, none of which made any sense: What was that flash? Why is it white out? What is that shudder moving through me? What is that sound? Why is there an echo inside of me? Why is it grey out? Why is it brown out?
And then the answer:
“Fuck,” said Kauzlarich.
“Fuck,” said the gunner.
“Fuck,” said the driver.
“Fuck,” said Showman.
The smoke cleared. The dirt finished falling. Throughts slowed. Breathing returned. Shaking began. Eyes focused on arms: there. Hand: there. Legs: there. Feet: there.
“We’re okay,” Kauzlarich said.
“We’re good,” Showman said.
It had come from the left.
“Stay put,” Kauzlarich said.
It had come from the left, where someone had stood watching while holding a trigger.
“Look for secondary,” Kauzlarich said.
It had come from the left, where someone had stood watching while holding a trigger and pressed it a tenth of a second too early or a tenth of a second too late, because the main charge of the EEP passed through the small gap in between Kauzlarich’s Humvee and the one in front of it. And though there were flat tires and cracked windows and a few holes here and there from secondary effects of the explosion, all of the soldiers were okay, except for the shaking, and blinking, and headaches, and anger that began to rise in their throats.
“Fucking dirty cocksucker,” one soldier said as the convoy moved off of Berm Road and into a place safe enough for the medic to check for signs of concussions and ears for hearing loss.
“When it blew up, everything turned black,” another soldier said.
“I just saw a bunch of dust.”
“Everything was like fucking crazy.”
“I was shaking like a fucking …”
“We’re alive, guys. That’s the name of the fucking game.”
“ … like a fucking …”
“Trust me. The situation could have been a lot fucking worse.”
“It’s luck. It’s fucking luck. That’s all it is.”
“I can tell you I’ll be glad when these days are done fore me. Fuck this shit.”
“All right. We’re going to stay focused. We’re in a war,” Kauzlarich said, but he was shaken, too, and now, as the convoy limped away from Kamaliyah through a maze of dirt trails and more trash mounds, everything was anger, everything was fucking, everything was fudk.
The fucking dirt.
The fucking wind.
The fucking stink.
They passed a fucking water buffalo.
They passed a fucking goat.
They passed a fucking man on a fucking bicycle an didn’t give a fuck when he began coughing from the fucking dust.
This fucking country.
They neared a child who stood by herself waving. She had filthy hair and a filthy face and was wearing a filthy red dress, the only bit of color visible at the moment in this entire place, and as she kept waving at the convoy, and now at Kauzlarich himself, he had a decision to make.
He stared out his window.
He raised his hand slowly.
He waved at the fucking child.
“Going Back In” by Steve Mumford.
* * *
Support of a war effort engaged overseas – far out of sight and almost out of mind, given the surface normalcy of life-as-usual U.S.A. – was something different years ago. Wartime production all but eliminated the unemployment of the Great Depression.
Civilians were heavily engaged in the war effort, making what sacrifices they could to support the troops overseas. A Civil Air Patrol was established, which enrolled civilian spotters in air reconnaissance, search-and-rescue, and transport. Towers were built in coastal and border towns, and spotters were trained to recognize enemy aircraft. Blackouts were practiced in every city, even those far from the coast. All lighting had to be extinguished to avoid helping the enemy in targeting at night. There was little actual threat; the main purpose was to remind people that there was a war on and to provide activities that would engage the civil spirit of millions of people not otherwise involved in the war effort.
Women staffed millions of jobs in community service roles, such as nursing, USO, and Red Cross while the men were at war. And they were in the workplace, helping to fill millions of new jobs created in the military manufacturing machine. In 1943, almost 30 percent of the workforce was populated Rosie the Riveters.
“Rosie the Riveter” working on an A-31 “Vengeance” dive bomber. Tennessee, 1943.
Rationing in the U.S. during World War II was widespread: tires, passenger automobiles, typewriters, sugar, gasoline, bicycles, footwear, fuel oil, coffee, stoves, shoes, meat, lard, shortening and oils, cheese, butter, margarine, processed foods (canned, bottled and frozen), dried fruits, canned milk, firewood and coal, jams, jellies and fruit butter, were all on the list by 1943.
War bonds were a major source of funding for the war, and everyone got into the act of selling them. Nearly a quarter of a million dollars of advertising art was donated. Norman Rockwell created four paintings in 1943 titled The Four Freedoms, and the exhibition raised some $132 million in bonds. A total 85 million Americans bought war bonds equaling $186.7 billion dollars.
Norman Rockwell’s “Four Freedoms” series.
Try to imagine that sort of civilian effort after 9/11/2001. The mood was there—who wasn’t affect, enraged and/or engaged after the horrible images broadcast on that fair sunny morning in New York City as one Trade Center Tower than the other was hit by passenger planes, burned a good while, saw people leaping in desperation from the 90th floor and higher and then fell, one after other, in an imploding collapse of death and dust?–but “go shopping” was the only word of sacrifice and patriotism uttered by the Bush Administration. Meaning, keep the economy flush with consumer spending. An outsourced military would handle all of the dirty work, and every effort was made to keep that work invisible from everyday life stateside. (Remember the ban on photographing coffins being unloaded stateside from transport planes?) Unless you had a family member overseas, the ripples from 9 years of Gulf War – the longest sustained U.S. conflict ever – have been tiny, almost imperceptible.
So try to imagine what a civilian life would be like in a country getting torn apart by war, as Londoners were during the Battle of Britain. There the burden of sacrifice was real and tallied in nightly death tolls from bombed houses and schools and churches.
Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow (1973) offers one of the best accounts of what civilian life is like in a war-ravaged country, just barely off the map of battle and engagement, suffering casualties almost greater than the men and women in uniform. It’s set, primarily, in England in the final months of the war, after the bombers of the Luftwaffe were all shot down in the Battle of Britain and then were replaced by A-2 bombs of the fledgling German rocket program (whose brain trust was appropriated by the Americans following the end of German hostilities and put to work making all of those nuclear missiles which proliferated into the Cold War). The book’s main protagonist, if there is one (a meta-narrative in early-postmodernist style, there are multiple stories and personae which weave through each other) is Tyrone Slothrop, part of U.S. intelligence operations in the OSS (precursor to the CIA) stationed in London; the American presence there allows the author to play Samuel Clemens observing Life Abroad – Over there. The book travels then into Germany after the war—a Zone of desperation, yes, but also of wild yet temporary freedoms which blossomed while the Powers decided how to carve Germany up. A wonderful, massive, maddening, harrowing, delightful book, written at a desk in Mexico while the Vietnam War raged on with no end in sight and the sum of nuclear firepower stored in siloes and subs around the world so great that the world could easily be destroyed hundreds of times over.
Anyhow, I present the following passage from Gravity’s Rainbow to catch the deep inner chill and savage beauty of war as experienced by the collaterals, or rather, an American imagining that strange, uber-local, un-rootless- American experience of war on the homefront:
Advent blows from the sea, which at sunset tonight shone green and smooth as iron-rich glass: blows daily upon us, all the sky above pregnant with saints and slender heralds’ trumpets. Another year of wedding dresses abandoned in the heart of winter, never called for, hanging in quiet satin ranks now, their white-crumpled veils begun to yellow, rippling slightly only at your passing, spectator . . . visitor to the city at all the dead ends. . . . Glimpsing in the gowns your own reflection once or twice, halfway from shadow, only blurred flesh-colors across the peau de soie, urging you in to where you can smell the mildew’s first horrible touch, which was really the idea–covering all trace of her own smell, middleclass bride-to-be perspiring, genteel soap and powder. But virgin, in her heart, in her hopes. None of your bright-Swiss or crystalline season here, but darkly billowed in the day with cloud and the snow falling like gowns in the country, gowns of the winter, gentle at night, a nearly windless breathing around you. In the stations of the city the prisoners are back from Indo-China, wandering their poor visible bones, light as dreamers or men on the moon, among chrome-sprung prams of black hide resonant as drumheads, blonde wood high-chairs pink and blue with scraped and mush-spattered floral decals, folding-cots and bears with red felt tongues, baby-blankets making bright pastel clouds in the coal and steam smells, the metal spaces, among the queued, the drifting, the warily asleep, come by their hundreds in for the holidays, despite the warnings, the gravity of Mr. Morrison, the tube under the river a German rocket may pierce now, even now as the words are set down, the absences that may be waiting them, the city addresses that surely can no longer exist. The eyes from Burma, from Tonkin, watch these women at their hundred perseverances-stare out of blued orbits, through headaches no Alasils can ease. Italian P/Ws curse underneath the mail sacks that are puffing, echo-clanking in now each hour, in seasonal swell, clogging the snowy trainloads like mushrooms, as if the trains have been all night underground, passing through the country of the dead. If these Eyeties sing now and then you can bet it’s not “Giovinezza” but something probably from Rigoletto or La Boheme–indeed the Post Office is considering issuing a list of Nonacceptable Songs, with ukulele chords as an aid to ready identification. Their cheer and songful ness, this lot, is genuine up to a point-but as the days pile up, as this orgy of Christmas greeting grows daily beyond healthy limits, with no containment in sight before Boxing Day, they settle, themselves, for being more professionally Italian, rolling the odd eye at the lady evacuees, finding techniques of balancing the sack with one hand whilst the other goes playing “dead”–cioe, conditionally alive–where the crowds thicken most feminine, directionless . . . well, most promising. Life has to go on. Both kinds of prisoner recognize that, but there’s no mano morto for the Englishmen back from CBI, no leap from dead to living at mere permission from a likely haunch or thigh-no play, for God’s sake, about life-and-death! They want no more adventures: only the old dutch fussing over the old stove or warming the old bed, cricketers in the wintertime, they want the semi-detached Sunday dead-leaf somnolence of a dried garden. If the brave new world should also come about, a kind of windfall, why there’ll be time to adjust certainly to that. . . .But they want the nearly postwar luxury this week of buying an electric train set for the kid, trying that way each to light his own set of sleek little faces here, calibrating his strangeness, well-known photographs all, brought to life now, oohs and aahs but not yet, not here in the station, any of the moves most necessary: the War has shunted them, earthed them, those heedless destroying signalings of love. The children have unfolded last year’s toys and found reincarnated Spam tins, they’re hep this may be the other and, who knows, unavoidable side to the Christmas game. In the months between-country springs and summers–they played with real Spam tins-tanks, tank-destroyers, pillboxes, dreadnoughts deploying meat-pink, yellow- and blue about the dusty floors of lumber-rooms or butteries, under the cots or couches of their exile. Now it’s time again. The plaster baby, the oxen frosted with gold leaf and the human-eyed sheep are turning real again, paint quickens to flesh. To believe is not a price they pay-it happens all by itself. He is the New Baby. On the magic night before, the animals will talk, and the sky will be milk. The grandparents, who’ve waited each week for the Radio Doctor asking, What Are Piles? What Is Emphysema? What Is A Heart Attack? will wait, up beyond insomnia, watching again for the yearly impossible not to occur, but with some mean residue-this is the hillside, the sky can show us a light-like a thrill, a good time you wanted too much, not a complete loss but still too far short of a miracle . . . keeping their sweatered and shawled vigils, theatrically bitter, but with the residue inside going through a new winter fermentation every year, each time a bit less, but always good for a revival at this season. . . . All but naked now, the shiny suits and gowns of their pubcrawling primes long torn to strips for lagging the hot-water pipes and heaters of landlords, strangers, for holding the houses’ identities against the w inter. The War needs coal. They have taken the next-to-last steps, at tended the Radio Doctor’s certifications of what they knew in their bodies, and at Christmas they are naked as geese under this woolen, murky, cheap old-people’s swaddling. Their electric clocks run fast, even Big Ben will be fast now until the new spring’s run in, all fast, and no one else seems to understand or to care. The War needs electricity. It’s alively game, Electric Monopoly, among the power companies, the Central Electricity Board, and other War agencies, to keep Grid Time synchronized with Greenwich Mean Time. In the night, the deepest concrete wells of night, dynamos whose locations are classified spin faster, and so, responding, the clock-hands next to all the old, sleepless eyes, gathering in their minutes whining, pitching higher toward the vertigo of a siren. It is the Night’s Mad Carnival. There is merriment under the shadows of the minute-hands. Hysteria in the pale faces between the numerals. The power companies speak of loads, war-drains so vast the clocks will slow again unless this nighttime march is stolen, but the loads expected daily do not occur, and the Grid runs inching ever faster, and the old faces turn to the clock faces, thinking plot, and the numbers go whirling toward the Nativity, a violence, a nova of heart that will turn us all, change us forever to the very forgotten roots of who we are. But over the sea the fog tonight still is quietly scalloped pearl. Up in the city the arc-lamps crackle, furious, in smothered blaze up the centerlines of the streets, too ice-colored for candles, too chill-dropleted for holocaust . . . the tall red busses sway, all the headlamps by regulation newly unmasked now parry, cross, traverse and blind, torn great fistfuls of wetness blow by, desolate as the beaches beneath the nacre fog, whose barbed wire that never knew the inward sting of current, that only lay passive, oxidizing in the night, now weaves like underwater grass, looped, bitter cold, sharp as the scorpion, all the printless sand miles past cruisers abandoned in the last summers of peacetime that once holidayed the old world away, wine and olive-grove and pipesmoke evenings away the other side of the War, stripped now to rust axles and brackets and smelling inside of the same brine as this beach you cannot really walk, because of the War. Up across the downs, past the spotlights where the migrant birds in autumn choked the beams night after night, fatally held till they dropped exhausted out of the sky, a shower, of dead birds, the compline worshipers sit in the unheated church, shivering, voiceless as the choir asks: where are the joys? Where else but there where the Angels sing new songs and the bells ring out in the court of the King. “Eia” — strange thousand-year sigh-”eia, warn wir da!”, “were we but there”. . . . The tired men and their black bellwether reaching as far as they can, as far from their sheeps’ clothing as the year will let them stray. Come then. Leave your war awhile, paper or iron war, petrol or flesh, come in with your love, your fear of losing, your exhaustion with it. All day it’s been at you, coercing, jiving, claiming your belief in so much that isn’t true. Is that who you are, that vaguely criminal face on your ID card, its soul snatched by the government camera as the guillotine shutter fell-or maybe just left behind with your heart, at the Stage Door Canteen, where they’re counting the night’s take, the NAAFI girls, the girls named Eileen, carefully sorting into refrigerated compartments the rubbery maroon organs with their yellow garnishes of fat-oh Linda come here feel this one, put your finger down in the ventricle here, isn’t it swoony, it’s still going. . . . Everybody you don’t suspect is in on this, everybody but you: the chaplain, the doctor, your mother hoping to hang that Gold Star, the vapid soprano last night on the Home Service programme, let’s not forget Mr. Noel Coward so stylish and cute about death and the afterlife, packing them into the Duchess for the fourth year running, the lads in Hollywood telling us how grand it all is over here, how much fun, Walt Disney causing Dumbo the elephant to clutch to that feather like how many carcasses under the snow tonight among the white-painted tanks, how many hands each frozen around a Miraculous Medal, lucky piece of worn bone, half-dollar with the grinning sun peering up under Liberty’s wispy gown, clutching, dumb, when the 88 fell-what do you think, it’s a children’s story? There aren’t any. The children are away dreaming, but the Empire has no place for dreams and it’s Adults Only in here tonight, here in this refuge with the lamps burning deep, in pre-Cambrian exhalation, savory as food cooking, heavy as soot. And 6o miles up the rockets hanging the measureless instant over the black North Sea before the fall, ever faster, to orange heat, Christmas star, in helpless plunge to Earth. Lower in the sky the flying bombs are out too, roaring like the Adversary, seeking whom they may devour. It’s a long walk home tonight. Listen to this mock-angel singing, let your communion be at least in listening, even if they are not spokesmen for your exact hopes, your exact, darkest terror, listen. There must have been evensong here long before the news of Christ. Surely for as long as there have been nights bad as this one-something to raise the possibility of another night that could actually, with love and cockcrows, light the path home, banish the Adversary, destroy the boundaries between our lands, our bodies, our stories, all false, about who we are: for the one night, leaving only the clear way home and the memory of the infant you saw, almost too frail, there’s too much shit in these streets, camels and other beasts stir heavily outside, each hoof a chance to wipe him out, make him only another Messiah, and sure somebody’s around already taking bets on that one, while here in this town the Jewish collaborators are selling useful gossip to Imperial Intelligence, and the local hookers are keeping the foreskinned invaders happy, charging whatever the traffic will bear, just like the innkeepers who’re naturally delighted with this registration thing, and up in the capital they’re wondering should they, maybe, give everybody a number, yeah, something to help SPQR Record-keeping … and Herod or Hitler, fellas (the chaplains out in the Bulge are manly, haggard, hard drinkers), what kind of a world is it (“You forgot Roosevelt, padre,” come the voices from the back, the good father can never see them, they harass him, these tempters, even into his dreams: “Wendell Willkiel” “How about Churchill?” “‘Arry Pollitt!”) for a baby to come in tippin’ those Toledos at 7 pounds 8 ounces thinkin’ he’s gonna redeem it, why, he oughta have his head examined. . . . But on the way home tonight, you wish you’d picked him up, held him a bit. Just held him, very close to your heart, his cheek by the hollow of your shoulder, full of sleep. As if it were you who could, some how, save him caring who you’re supposed to be registered as. For the moment anyway, no longer who the Caesars say you are.
0 Jesu parvule,
Nach dir ist mir so weh . . .
So this pickup group, these exiles and horny kids, sullen civilians called up in their middle age, men fattening despite their hunger, flatulent because of it, pre-ulcerous, hoarse, runny-nosed, red-eyed sorethroated, piss-swollen men suffering from acute lower backs and all-day hangovers, wishing death on officers they truly hate, men you have seen on foot and smileless in the cities but forgot, men who, don’t remember YOU either, knowing they ought to be grabbing a little sleep, not out here performing for strangers, give you this evensong, climaxing now with its rising fragment of some ancient scale, voices overlapping threeand fourfold, up, echoing, filling the entire hollow of the church-no counterfeit baby, no announcement of the Kingdom, not even a try at warming or lighting this terrible night, only, damn us, our scruffy obligatory little cry, our maximum reach outward — praise be to God! — for you to take back to your war-address, your war-identity, across the snow’s footprints and tire tracks finally to the past you must create for yourself, alone in the dark. Whether you want it or not, whatever seas you have crossed, the way home …
* * *
“Baghdad ER,” Steve Mumford
4,440 Americans have been killed in action over in Iraq since hostilities began in 2003 – another 1,227 in Afghanistan; with a total number of wounded of about 32,000 (10 percent with serious brain or spinal injuries). However, the total number of brain injuries (including PTSD) is estimated at 320,000. About 18 veterans commit suicide every day. Credit medical advances that the death toll isn’t higher, but it puts a disproportunate number of severely handicapped soldiers back into the mainstream.
(And for a little more perspective, what about the other guy in this conflict. One statistic puts the total number of Iraqis killed in the conflict so far at 1.3 million, with about 2.6 million displaced and another 1.9 million refugees)
“Dying Insurgent,” Steve Mumford (2006).
About 1.6 million men and women have served in Iraq and Afghanistan. A recent report by a special Pentagon Task Force found that 38 percent of soldiers and 50 percent of National Guard members coming home from Iraq or Afghanistan have mental health issues, ranging from post-traumatic stress disorder to brain injuries. Only 27 of the VA’s 1,400 hospitals have inpatient post- traumatic stress disorder programs.
In May, President Obama signed legislation that expands mental health and counseling services to veterans of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including National Guardsmen and reservists. It also allows the Veterans Administration to use hospitals outside the VA network to treat more returning soldiers suffering from brain injuries, eliminates co-payments for “catastrophically disabled” veterans, increases housing and transportation assistance for veterans living far from hospitals in rural areas, and expands health care services for women veterans, including maternity care for newborns. The bill will begin a pilot child-care program for veterans receiving intensive medical care and expand support for homeless veterans — “because,” Obama said in a White House signing ceremony, “no one who has served this nation in uniform should ever be living on the streets.”
Unfortunately, decent care of our servicemen has a high price tag. A dead soldier is worth about $500,000 in government survivor benefits. Projected total healthcare benefits for disabled veterans range from $422 billion to $717 billion.
The annual defense budget is around $700 billion. The war currently costs about $300 million dollars a day, with a total cost so far of as high as $2 trillion.
Yet, as usual, some of the only bright spots in our dismal economy are places where military spending is in full swing. According to an analysis by USA Today, 16 of the 20 metro areas with the largest jumps in per capita income had military installations nearby. Better pay and the weak economy has helped the Pentagon meet all of its recruiting goals since 2009.
And the cost of one dead or mutilated or nightmare-ridden soldier back stateside?
* * *
Last night before heading to bed I watched two enormous ghostly thunderclouds just to the west, their billowy heights still visible in the last of the day’s light, flashing with lightning here and there in their towering sails of cumulus, rumbling low and faint, too far away to be of much import for us (though we did get a brief shower after days of impotent, mid-90’s heat). It made me think of a battle between two big-gunned man-o-war’s, fighting old-school-style: side by side and just blasting away, ripping each others bulwark of oak and flesh to shreds.
Courage was of a different order in wars past, when soldiers were expected to walk in ranks into withering lines of buckshot and bayonet: the sum of battle was tallied by force, always of arms (the great battleships had row upon row of cannonade) but also torsos and legs and fragile brainpans, I mean the men who were expected to stand and deliver at whatever cost. Civilian populations too: it wasn’t until the Gulf War that great pains were taken to limit collateral damage with “smart bombs” and “precision raids.” War was much more total engagement, and as I watched those two thunderclouds last night I was gripped by the wide-eyed terror inherent in bravery, of that moment of madness where the former decides (or is whipped into deciding) to fight rather than flee, stare down all those fire-spouting cannon mouths and the shriek of incoming 40-lb lead balls that could splinter a main mast or catch a man in the chest and blow him through the opposite side of the ship.
There is the engagement-either between two ships or a sortie of both sides or between entire fleets—whose name is enshrined in the bloody book of war (Salamis, 480 BC; Lepanto, 1571; Trafalgar, 1805; Hampton Roads, 1862 (in the Civil War, between the new ironclad Monitor and Merrimack); the engagement of the British and German fleets off Jutland in 1916; Coral Sea, 1942); and there is the aftermath, victor steaming away to jubilant cheers, the loser thrashed or trashed, adrift or sunk, left like a stripped whale to be feasted upon by the tides.
So James Russell Lowell wrote in “On Board the ’76” in 1864 about that long sad drifting farewell:
Our ship lay tumbling in an angry sea,
Her rudder gone, her mainmast o’er the side;
Her scuppers, from the waves’ clutch staggering free,
Trailed threads of priceless crimson through the tide;
Sails, shrouds, and spars with pirate cannon torn,
We lay, awaiting morn.
Awaiting morn, such morn as mocks despair;
And she that bare the promise of the world.
Within her sides, now hopeless, helmless, bare,
At random o’er the wildering waters hurled;
The reek of battle drifting slow alee
Not sullener than we.
Morn came at last to peer into our woe,
When lo, a sail! Mow surely help was nigh;
The red cross flames aloft, Christ’s pledge; but no,
Her black guns grinning hate, she rushes by
And hails us:–‘Gains the leak! Ay, so we thought!
Sink, then, with curses fraught!’
I leaned against my gun still angry-hot,
And my lids tingled with the tears held back:
This scorn methought was crueller than shot:
The manly death-grip in the battle-wrack,
Yard-arm to yard-arm, were more friendly far
Than such fear-smothered war . . .
Indeed, it is the scenes of the results of war – battlefields stewn with the dead and dying fixed in odd postures or crying out incoherent fading nothings, cities in smoking ruin, bloated corposes picked by crows and vultures – it is these scenes which the eye knows it must not look upon but cannot help peeking, supping on the full horror of war with visions (and nightmares) to last a lifetime.
So Stephen Crane writes in media res of a Civil War skirmish in The Red Badge of Courage:
The captain of the youth’s company had been killed in an early part of the action. His body lay stretched out in the position of a tired man resting, but upon his face there was an astonished and sorrowful look, as if he thought some friend had done him an ill turn. The babbling man was grazed by a shot that made the blood stream widely down his face. He clapped both hands to his head. “Oh!” he said, and ran. Another grunted suddenly as if he had been struck by a club in the stomach. He sat down and gazed ruefully. In his eyes there was mute, indefinite reproach. Farther up the line a man, standing behind a tree, had had his knee joint splintered by a ball. Immediately he had dropped his rifle and gripped the tree with both arms. And there he remained, clinging desperately and crying for assistance that he might withdraw his hold upon the tree.
… Under foot there were a few ghastly forms motionless. They lay twisted in fantastic contortions. Arms were bent and heads were turned in incredible ways. It seemed that the dead men must have fallen from some great height to get into such positions. They looked to be dumped out upon the ground from the sky.
Though many of the rules of engagement have changed, not a single note of the same bugle-taps is present when another Humvee in David Finkel’s The Good Soldiers is caught dead-on by a perfectly-timed IED while on patrol in the early morning hours of April 6, 2007 (my sister’s 48th birthday).
A wire ran from the trigger to another shadow, this one at the edge of the road. Almost certainly the man couldn’t see the actual IED, but he’d line it up beforehand with a tall, sliding, broken, otherwise useless light pole on the far side which he could use as an aiming point. The first Humvee arrived at the aiming point, and, for whatever reason, the man didn’t push the trigger. The second Humvee arrived, and again he didn’t push. The third Humvee arrived, and, for whatever reason, now he did push, and the resulting explosion sent several large steel discs toward the Humvee at such high velocity that by the time they reached (PFC) Cajimat’s door, they had been reshaped into unstoppable, semi-molten slugs. At most, the IED cost $100 to make, and against it the $150,000 Humvee might as well have been constructed of lace.
In went the slugs through the armor and into the crew compartment, turning everything in their paths into flying pieces of shrapnel. There were five soldiers inside. Four managed to get out and tumble, bleeding, to the ground, but Cajimat remained in his seat as the Humvee, on fire now, rolled forward, picked up speed, and crashed into an ambulance that had been stopped by the convoy. The ambulance burst into flames as well. After that, a thousand or so rounds of ammunition inside the Humvee began cooking off and exploding, and by the time the Humvee was transported back to Rustamiyah toward sunrise, there wasn’t much left to see. As the battalion doctor noted on Cajimat’s death report: “Severely burned,” and then added: “(beyond recognition).”
Nonetheless, there were procedures to follow in such circumstances, and (Lieutenant) Kauzlarich now got to learn precisely what those involved.
They began when the Humvee was unloaded at Vehicle Sanitation, a tarped-off area with decent drainage just inside the gate. There, hidden from view, photographs were taken of the damage, the holes in the door were measured and analyzed, and the soldiers did their best to disinfect what was left of the Humvee with bottle of peroxide and Simple Green. “I mean, it’s clean. It’s cleaner than when it comes off the assembly line,” the officer in charge told Kauzlarich of what his soldiers usually accomplished – but in this case, he said, “You’re more consolidating it and getting it ready for shipment, because you can’t really clean that.”
At the same time, Cajimat’s remains were being prepared for shipment behind the locked doors of a little stand-alone building in which there were sixteen storage compartments for bodies, a stock of vinyl body bags, a stack of new American flags, and two Mortuary Affairs soldiers whose job was to search the remains for anything personal that a soldier might have wanted with him when he was alive.
“Pictures,” one of the soldiers, Sergeant First Class Ernesto Gonzalez, would say later, describing what he found in uniforms of the bodies he has prepared. “Graduation pictures. Baby pictures. Standing with their family. Pictures of them with their cars.”
“Folded flags,” said his assistant, Specialist Jason Sutton.
“A sonogram image,” Gonzalez said.
“A letter that a guy had in his flak vest,” Sutton said, thinking of the first body he worked on. “This is to my family. If you’re reading this, I’ve passed away.”
“Hey, man. Don’t read no letters,” Gonzales said.
“It was the only time,” Sutton said. “I don’t read the letters. I don’t look at the pictures. It keeps me sane. I don’t want to know anything. I don’t want to know who you are. I want the bare minimum. If I don’t have to look at it, I won’t. If I don’t have to touch it, I won’t.
Meanwhile, the Explosive Ordnance Disposal team was finishing its report about the explosion:
“Blast seat measured 8’ x 9’ x 2.5’ and was consistent with 60-80 lb of unknown explosives.”
The platoon leader was writing a statement about what had happened:
“PFC Cajimat was killed on impact and was not able to be pulled from the vehicle.”
The platoon sergeant was writing a statement, too:
“PFC Diaz came running out of the smoke from the explosion. Myself and CPL Chance put him in back of my truck where CPL chance treated his wounds. I then saw to the left of the HUMV three soldiers, one being pulled on the ground. I ran to the soldiers and saw it was CPL Pellecchia being dragged, screaming that he couldn’t get PFC Cajimat out of the vehicle.”
The battalion doctor was finishing his death report:
“All four limbs burned away, bony stumps visible. Superior portion of the cranium burned away. Remaining portion of torso severely charred. No further exam possible due to degree of charring.”
The Pentagon was preparing a news release on what would be the 3,276th U.S. fatality of the war:
“The Department of Defense announced today the death of a soldier who was supporting Operation Iraqi Freedom.”
And Kauzlarich, back in his office now, was on the phone with Cajimat’s mother, who was in tears asking him a question.
“Instantly,” he said.
* * *
My father served as a pharmacist’s mate in the Navy at the end of the Second World War. After hostilities ended, he served out his tour at Great Lakes Naval Hospital in Lake Forest, IL. He worked at “repatriation” of GIs who had been imprisoned in Bataan and Corregidor as well as other wounded. He told me of dealing with “guys who came up after their ships were sunk, and had their features burned off because of all the burning oil. They looked like something out of a horror movie. They’d ship back the bad ones. I remember one man in an oxygen tent who was having a hard time breathing. I went in to check on him and he asked me to hold his hand. So I reached over, took his hand, and he kind of pulled me toward him. And then he died just like that, holding my hand.”
He also did morgue duty at the hospital, working 12-hour shifts with the eventual dead, fingerprinting deceased sailors and Marines for reports to be sent to Washington. “Cherry Coke” was their handle for all the blood they had to mop up from the floors after autopsies.
My dad was 18. To keep his spirits up, he and one of the other guys he was doing morgue duty with began discussing Augustine’s City of God. He says the experience – of working amid so much death and dying, at the same time reading one of the most celestial texts ever written – is what led him to become a minister, attending Northwestern University and then Princeton Theological Seminary on the GI bill. War ended up being good for my dad, though there was a certain hell to be paid.
* * *
Stateside, the Maui News ran in April 2007 the following story about the death of local son PFC Cajimat:
LAHAINA – A 2005 Lahainaluna High School graduate who was described as a “loving son,” a “role model” to his siblings and the “unspoken leader” among friends died last week while fulfilling one of his dreams.
Pfc. Jay S. Cajimat, 20, died Friday in Baghdad of wounds suffered when a roadside car bomb exploded near his unit. He was with the 2nd Battalion, 16th Infantry Regiment, 4th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 1st Infantry Division at Fort Riley, Kan.
“He was a good soldier, and he loved to serve his nation,” said his mother, Lilibeth Cajimat, holding back tears.
“He always said he wanted to be in the Army,” added his 16-year-old sister, LC.
Cajimat is also survived by his father Dionie Cajimat and two other sisters Kaya, 18, and LJ, 3.
Dionie Cajimat said his son always set a positive example for his three younger sisters.
“He was a good son, always talked nice about his sisters and always advised them to be good,” he said.
LC said her brother had a “positive personality and was always easy to get along with.”
“He was really funny, lovable and just a fun person to hang out with. He loved to play and joke around,” she said.
Jay Cajimat was born in Manila, the Philippines, and his family moved to Maui when he was 3 years old. He enlisted in the Army immediately after graduating from high school.
Anne Goff, an 18-year English teacher at Lahainaluna, recalled Cajimat as being “very sweet, hardworking, very respectful.”
“His dream was to go into the military to serve his country,” she said. “He could hardly wait to graduate to join up.”
On a MySpace Web site page apparently set up by Cajimat, the soldier expressed his admiration for soldiers and other service workers. He wrote on the site that his heroes are “Past and Future veterans of the United States Armed Forces and all police officers, firefighters, and anyone who puts their lives on the line to save lives every day.”
… Even after his death, Cajimat seems to be helping his friends cope with this tragedy, Saribay said.
“We still confide in him and still go to him, even though he’s not here,” he said.
… Lahainaluna classmate Eileen Domingo, a 20-year-old sophomore at St. Martin’s University in Lacey, Wash., said Cajimat seemed to have a premonition about not surviving the war.
“He knew that it was going to happen,” she said. “He knew he was going to die for his country . . . It was brave of him going in (to the military) knowing that.”
Taccuban said that when friends saw Cajimat in December on Maui they asked him if he was scared to go to Iraq.
“He said, yeah, but he was excited,” she said. “I guess he had mixed feelings about it.”
Classmate Tuan Pham, a 19-year-old student at Maui Community College, said Cajimat called him about a month ago in tears, saying he was worried about his family.
“He had an emotional breakdown, and he asked me to watch over his family if anything ever happened to him,” Pham said.
Another longtime friend who knew Cajimat since elementary school, 19-year-old Walter Batarina, said Cajimat “had his good and bad days” while serving in Iraq, but that he was very proud of the work he was doing.
“He was definitely proud of it,” Batarina said.
He added that Cajimat regretted being so far away from his 3-year-old sister, LJ, because he was afraid that he wouldn’t be home to take care of his baby sister as she grew up.
“She was attached to him, and he would always take care of her,” said Batarina. “I guess he was scared he wouldn’t be there as she got older.”
Cajimat’s sister Kaya Cajimat agreed that he wanted to be there for LJ.
“I think he regretted going because he wouldn’t get a chance to see her grow up,” she said.
LC said she kept in contact with her brother through a MySpace networking site on the Internet. The last time they communicated was last week, she said.
“He told me that Iraq was getting to him . . . It was getting hard for him, but he said don’t worry about him,” she said as she fought back tears. “I just told him to hang in there, and that we all love him.”
“He’s a hero to all of us,” said Kaya Cajimat.
“He’s such a loving son, I know he loved everybody so much,” added his mother.
She said the family will bring her son’s body back to Maui to be with friends and family. On Sunday, family members were undecided whether to bury Cajimat in the Philippines, where he was born, or in Hawaii.
The cemetery of Tyne Cot in the Ypres salient where 325,000 Allied and Axis soldiers lost their lives in five fruitless battles during the First World War.
Where can we find closure for the monster post (again, yet again, my apologies my dim distant friends) but in the graveyards for war’s dead? There is the multi-national cemetery of Cassino in Italy where 16,000 WWI and 107,000 WWII dead from 32 nations are buried. There is Tyne Cot in the Ypres Salient in Belgium, where 325,000 Allied and Axis soldiers were killed in five fruitless trench offenses during WWI (nearly 12,000 soldiers are buried there, with another 35,000 commemorated on rear walls). In 2000, Russia opened a war cemetery for some 80,000 German soldiers who had lost their lives during the 900-day siege of Leningrad (now called Sologubovka) in WWII. (Russia has a total of 89 cemeteries for foreign soldiers, containing the remains of an estimated 400,000 people.) In France there Etapales (12,000 WWI graves) and in Germany there is Halbe (22,000 WWII graves). And in the United States there is Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where some 300,000 veterans and military casualties from each of the country’s wars ranging back to the Civil War are buried over 600 acres.
Arlington National Cemetery.
To walk in these graveyards – imaginatively here yet surely over there with feet on such soft, tended grass – is to experience the odd peace of great death, the receipt of battles of such ferocity and magnitude and senselessness and cruel certainty that men and women swore never to forget, else such massive sins be repeated again. Yet the dead fall off the deep shelves into oblivion, the past quickly forgotten, the earth heals over and is covered with serene fixtures of the present so ably that even gravesites are beautiful, row upon row of crosses bleached white against blue skies, anchoring a fading sound of thunder and mayhem as wind and earth continue on as they have for billions of years.
* * *
Some 370 miles to the southwest is the tiny cemetery of East Hill in Bristol, Tennessee, created in 1857 to serve the needs of the community and the final resting place of some 300 Confederate soldiers brought in to the hospital hub at Bristol from battles in Gettysburg, Fredricksburg, Spottsylvania, the Wilderness, Shiloh, Vicksburg, and Atlanta. The final races toward the Chase loop through these bloodied fields – Bristol this weekend, then Atlanta, then Richmond – we complete the first circuit of the NASCAR season in the heartland of Dixie’s swelter and haunting.
East Hill Cemetery in Bristol, TN.
Bloodied and dying Confederate soldiers rolled in by rail to Bristol too from the Battle of Chickamauga in northwest Georgia close to the Tennessee border, a Confederate victory of sorts and the second bloodiest battle of the Civil War – 34,000 losses out of the combined force of 120,000 over two days in September 1863. The name of the battle comes from West Chickamauga Creek, which the Cherokee, in local legend, had nicknamed “River of Death” for earlier conflicts. A bloodthirsty river, drinking the entire cistern of Union and Confederate dead.
The Battle of Chickamauga.
The battle lines moved on – though technically a Confederate victory, the South suffered sufficient losses to enable Ulysses S. Grant to take Chattanooga and from there, enable William T. Sherman to march into the deep South, burning Atlanta. Victories at too great a cost are Pyrrhic, named after King Pyrrhus of Epirus, who defeated the Romans in 280 BC but said of the victory one more such victory would utterly undo him. War is costly, and the price of victory can bankrupt a nation’s will and treasury. Certainly a view of the battle-lines of Chickamauga after war is proof enough, but the only things Americans seem to have learned from their local destructions is that its smarter to fight your battles Over There, because we have done so ever since.
In the decades after the Civil War, a literature was born, that of the Civil War memoir; the wounds remained raw and such tales of battle from the survivors were a strange specie of horror tale, reliving a nightmare succored by civilian and veteran alike.
Walt Whitman, who served during the war as a wound-dresser and witnessed the full brutality of war’s ends—medicine was rough back then, without anaesthesia and amputation the simplest method of treating a ball-shattered limb (imagine heaps of legs and arms outside a medical tent where inside screams mix with the grinding of a saw-blade on bone). Harrowed by his visions, the man who loved the world found it difficult to walk on green pastures composted with the dead:
Something startles me where I thought I was safest,
I withdraw from the still woods I loved,
I will not go now on the pastures to walk,
I will not strip the clothes from my body to meet my lover the sea,
I will not touch my flesh to the earth as to other flesh to renew me.
O how can it be that the ground itself does not sicken?
How can you be alive you growths of spring?
How can you furnish health you blood of herbs, roots, orchards, grain?
Are they not continually putting distemper’d corpses within you?
Is not every continent work’d over and over with sour dead?
–– “This Compost”
Horeshoe Ridge in Chickamauga today.
How does the earth do it? The beauty of springtime seems obscene against the backdrop of death’s wintering pall. I remember the day after my younger brother died back in April 2008; I had driven down to my mother’s house to be with her a few hours before flying west to Portland, the first of the family entourage to head that way to gather up my dead brother’s ashes and effects. I remember sitting on my 80-year-old-mother’s couch holding her while she cried, absorbing her disconsolate, racking, hopeless sobs and watching out the window over her shoulder at a tabebouia tree in full bloom, its yellow blossoms so brilliant and gossamer and obscene given the freight of our loss. How could there be such beauty amid the blowing ashes of loss?
Whitman, same poem:
The grass of spring covers the prairies,
The bean bursts noiselessly through the mould in the garden,
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches,
The resurrection of the wheat appears with pale visage out of its graves,
The tinge awakes over the willow-tree and the mulberry-tree,
The he-birds carol mornings and evenings while the she-birds sit on their nests,
The young of poultry break through the hatch’d eggs,
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare,
Out of its little hill faithfully rise the potato’s dark green leaves,
Out of its hill rises the yellow maize-stalk, the lilacs bloom in the dooryards,
The summer growth is innocent and disdainful above all those strata of sour dead.
“Innocent and disdainful” – so too the self-enthralled tides of the living who go on so blithely while PFC Clijimat lies in his grave along with the 4,000 or so other U.S. soldiers who were killed in Iraq. How is it that dead last only as long as the memories of the living, that their fate is always to lapse into oblivion and disappear forever?
There is an impulse by the aggrieved to hold on to their memories; that is why memorials are built, even for the utterly forgettable (I’m thinking here of the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, erected in almost every war cemetery, holding the remains of lonely bones of a fallen soldier which could not be identified—such a huge chasm between that death and next-of-kin who spent the rest of their days wondering what happened to their son or brother or husband). That is why at places like Chickamuga battles are re-enacted, and Confederate flags wave from trailers in the infield, and collectors display vintage swords and rifles and tattered uniforms and glass cases of bullets pulled from rolling green pastures beneath which split cannon-axles and severed limbs and dead horses continue to sink deeper and deeper into forgetfulness.
Playing Civil War at Chickamauga.
Grief slows the pace of time – the hours and days grind out so slowly, especially that first year – and renders the paradox of the living and the dead into a strange love affair, like Orpheus reaching after his wife Eurydice’s fading hand as the are forever separated at the threshold of oblivion. They never come back from Over There, and our mortal hours extend weirdly, as if there is in guilt in surviving, as if the real campaign becomes living out the rest of our days.
Grief too may help to keep our all-too-ready-swords in their scabbards. Two atom bombs were enough to make Japan renounce militarism; perhaps four thousand American dead in Iraq will slow the march to war next time. If the wounds are fresh enough, if they are remembered vividly enough.
As James Hillman pointed out, love is not the antidote to war, or, it is not enough of an antidote. Aphrodite, goddess of sexual love, shunned battle, but is the passionate lover of Ares, god of war. Opposites attract—that’s why good loves a fight with evil, and the sex is never better than between victor and booty. (For the victor, at least.) In Gravity’s Rainbow, there is a graffiti on a torn wall in occupied France: “An army of lovers can be defeated.” War trumps love every time: soldiers always take their leave of home and head Over There, and return on successive deployments because there is a part of them that loves the ultraviolence of war more than the happy monotonies of home and hearth.
Instead, the true deterrent to war may be war imagined too well. Shakespeare was said to pen “Macbeth” as a tale of horrors so great as to cause the viewer to renounce violence. It is not the sexual passion of Aphrodite but her aesthetic passion – with its power to harrow and balm the psyche – which, as Hillman puts it in A Terrible Love of War, “provides multiple fields for engagements with the inhuman and sublime certainly less catastrophic than the fields of battle.” We don’t have to go Over There to “sup full well with horrors,” as Macbeth put it. Metaphor – and metanarratives – may cool the choler of the lynch mob just enough to ease back on the red button which destroy us all.
Otto Dix, “The Triumph of War” (1934)
* * *
As with every NASCAR Sprint Cup race, as goes the Irwin Tools Night Race at Bristol on August 21 so goes the world. Thunderstorms have continuously dumped heavy rains over the grounds near Bristol Motor Speedway, bringing flash floods to nearby camping areas. Friday the storms will break for a bit—bringing temps soaring into the 90s—but the storms are forecast to return on Saturday morning. Recent flooding in Pakistan has made about 2 million homeless and without food or water, and in southwestern China, torrential rains have triggered massive mudslides, leaving scores of people missing and feared dead.
Flash floods in Bristol echoed flooding in Pakistan (l) and rain-induced mudslides in China (r).
A special military salute is being planned prior to the Saturday night race at BMS. This from a release on the BMS website:
… Military anthems from all branches of the armed services – the Army, Air Force, Marines, Navy and Coast Guard – will be played as flags of each branch are flown in, via parachutists. Fans in the military who currently serve, are veterans, or who have family members who are serving or who have served in the past, will be asked to stand and be recognized.
Bristol Motor Speedway’s fans will play a key role in the patriotic salute. Upon entering BMS that evening, they will be given a red, white or blue towel, which also commemorates the 100th Sprint Cup race at BMS. Once the flags have been flown in, fans will be asked to stand and wave their towels in unison to honor America and our military members.
Two CH-53E helicopters from Marine Corps Air Station in Cherry Point, N.C. will then fly over Bristol Motor Speedway, followed by the playing of God Bless the USA, at which time a parachutist will fly in, carrying the American flag. A pair of Harrier jets from the USMC VMFA-223 unit in Cherry Point will then perform a flyover…
This comes just two days after troops from the 4th Stryker Brigade, 2d Infantry Division, crossed the Iraqi border into Kuwait in heavily-armored vehicles, the last U.S. combat brigade to head home, seven and a half years after the United States invaded Iraq.
A U.S. Stryker armored vehicle crosses the border from Iraq into Kuwait on August 18.
In Afghanistan, the 14h U.S. combat death for August occurred on August 13 when Staff Sgt. Micheal A. Bock, 26, of Leesburg, FL was killed by small-arms fire while supporting combat operations in Helmand province. Bock was on his first deployment in Afghanistan after serving two previous ones in Iraq. According to a story in the Orlando Sentinel, Bock was planning to purchase a home with his wife, Tiffany, where they would raise his son, Zander. “He was such a wonderful husband and an excellent father,” Tiffany was quoted. “Family was always the first thing on his mind.”
Marine Staff Sgt. Michael Bock of Leesburg, FL–just up the road from here–with his wife Tiffany and their son Zander.
Also dead this week is Bill Millin, age 88, the Scot who played the bagpipes amid heavy gunfire while his fellow British troops came ashore at Sword Beach on D-Day. Piper Bill, as he became known, played the aire “Highland Laddie” as his friends fell all around him. “When you’re young, you do things you wouldn’t dream of doing when you’re older,” Millin told the BBC in a 2006 interview. “ I enjoyed playing the pipes, but I didn’t notice I was being shot at.” Some of the men cheered as he strode up the beach—others yelled “Mad Bastard!”—a sobriquet normally reserved for the commanding officer. Millin continued to play Highland tunes as the brigade advanced about 5 miles inland under intense German infantry and sniper fire, to relieve the airborne troops at the Pegasus bridge over the Caen Canal and the Ranville bridge over the River Orne. A madman or hero, who knows? His battle’s done.
Piper Bill Millin of the 1st Special Service Brigade, who piped the Commandos ashore and signalled their arrival to “D” Company as they drew near to Bénouville Bridge.
* * *
July 2010 was the deadliest month of the Afghan war for the United States, with 63 killed in action. The Afghan Surge gruels on in a dicey counterinsurgency which gets rattled every time a U.S. airstrike kills civilians in harm’s way or locals are wakened for after-dark house searches for insurgents.
The BMS release continues,
A 60′ x 90′ American flag will be displayed on the BMS front stretch as the anthem is sung and fireworks will go off around the track. At the conclusion of the anthem, the Washington D.C. Air National Guard’s 121st Fighter Squadron from Joint Base Andrews will perform the final flyover …
And the war’s dead sleep on in the fitless graves, no longer troubled by the world’s, as freshly interred as Private First Class Jay Cajimat or Staff Sgt. Michael Bock or laid to rest in churchyards dating back to the American Revolution, in tiny groves of graves with their brothers-in-arms or massed in places like Arlington, Virginia, or far away in Cassino, Italy.
They sleep while the haulers work their way into Bristol Motor Speedway and unroll the siege engines of a formerly Southern frenzy, rebs fighting for the right to be wrong, fighting on long past the cessation of all hostilities, fighting on because fighting is the gold ore of the American temperament, a metal more precious than love or money, fighting the good fight, going down in glory.
Who knows if the cruel carnage of the Civil War has fallen far enough into oblivion that Tea Partiers and Tree Huggers will take up arms against each other, the Red and the Blue tearing the USA back into bloody halves, better armed now and just as insanely possessed of the old narrow black-and-white literalisms of the past which have always split countries into civil war. It’s been a long, long time since Atlanta burned to the ground and New York City was shelled by Union federales to convince the local boys that it was a good idea with conscript into battle; a long time since blood so soaked the fields of Gettysburg and Chancellorsville and Shiloh and Antietam and Bull Run that flesh was harvested by the silo. Does the old unresolved angst simmer in oblivion til it wakens once again, like Dracula up from a long day’s sleep, ready to feast again?
Diplomatic angst in the Ypres salient, ca. 1915.
Who knows if our lack of imagination about war’s horrors will drain our minds of all Technicolor, desaturating blood into news copy. Who knows if our distracted and self-engaged American sensibility flattens the flashes of bombs into two-dimensioned comic-book startles that go Blam! and Kapoom! where instead blast-wakes and the horrid smell of burning flesh should steer us clear of the next war’s ugly thunderclouds massing to east and west, be it North Korea or Iran, the Great Wall of China or the mountains of Pakistan. Not that we ever flee from any fight, but that we engage it only with only the greatest care, knowing that in the march to war that every attempt to preserve the peace is far more valuable than the casual and shallow venting of human spleen which in the end only swallows lives to prove no point greater than prove that war is like space – an endless, cold vacuum.
But such meditations are not common or much desired on Race Day. The Sprint Cars are safe now, and the racing at Bristol will be a high-banked sustained roar: Yet fans who have come hoping for blood pine and whine loudly for BMS racin’ of old: If only the wreckin’ could restore some of its old, Civil-War era glory, the ghosts of Chickamauga coming down from the mountains around BMS, bony hands gripping Springfield and Enfield rifles, gaping mouths of dirt and cobwebs crying for more, more of that good old daring and daunting daredevil’s charge to the front, holding the line, fighting off all comers, going down like a man should, for God and for good.
On the shore, dimly seen through the mists of the deep,
Where the foe’s haughty host in dread silence reposes,
What is that which the breeze, o’er the towering steep,
As it fitfully blows, half conceals, half discloses?
Now it catches the gleam of the morning’s first beam,
In full glory reflected now shines in the stream:
‘Tis the star-spangled banner! Oh long may it wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
And where is that band who so vauntingly swore
That the havoc of war and the battle’s confusion,
A home and a country should leave us no more!
Their blood has washed out their foul footsteps’ pollution.
No refuge could save the hireling and slave
From the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave:
And the star-spangled banner in triumph doth wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!
Oh! thus be it ever, when freemen shall stand
Between their loved home and the war’s desolation!
Blest with victory and peace, may the heav’n rescued land
Praise the Power that hath made and preserved us a nation.
Then conquer we must, when our cause it is just,
And this be our motto: “In God is our trust.”
And the star-spangled banner in triumph shall wave
O’er the land of the free and the home of the brave!