These are the times that try men’s souls. Over 3,000 men and women have died in the Iraq war, which was commemorated by massive protests all over the world this weekend. You know what I always say…if you don’t like something, carry a sign about it!
Four years ago today, I had a television for a very brief period. I was living in the alley house then, and I remember the mood…restless, distraught, strange. Things seemed to move in little rushes and starts, the government was laying the ground work to invade Iraq, and it was all we talked about, everywhere we went. I had just started a new job, just moved back to Fort Bragg, actually, and I wasn’t sure what was going on in my world. Cap’n Raspberry was more or less living with me then, and I remember we got home and cooked something, I don’t recall what, and then we curled up on my bed with a huge cluster of friends to watch our country drop bombs over Baghdad.
We talked about the first gulf war, about seeing the oil fires burning, and the tracers of bombs and bullets. Televised warfare. About sand, and oil, and what is right. Or what is wrong. The whole scene felt very unreal to me, and I kind of felt like I was watching someone else watching the war. Like maybe I had stumbled into a very realistic film, and I wondered idly when the end credits would start to roll, because I kind of needed to pee.
I was sandwiched between Sofa and someone else, I remember, maybe the Scarab, and at one point I gesticulated wildly and managed to knock my own glasses off and into Sofa’s lap. More and more people kept arriving, everyone speaking in quiet, hushed voices, and watching the same footage on television, over and over again. Every channel. We drank gallons of tea while staring meekly at the television, and I wondered about people in other countries, other times, watching their country wage war. I wonder if everyone feels the same way while watching their military drop bombs on people, or if the strange emotion I was feeling was just me. I remember being able to catalog every weapon I saw in the news footage. I remember that no one went home, or slept, that night.
I remember at first that the Cap’n and I would read the paper every day on the deck, with the sobering headlines that seemed to be suggesting that we were going nowhere fast. We used to sit in these perilous Czechoslovakian folding chairs that my dad bought in the 1960s, probably when he was evading Vietnam, and we would drink Lapsong Soochong and write in our journals and eat scones, crumbs falling on crackling newspaper. Those chairs are somewhere in storage in Fort Bragg now. I kind of want them back. I remember reading a lot of Nikos Kazantzakis and Joseph Heller and drinking chai in the coffeehouse. My father and I would sit on his back porch drinking lychee tea and watching his garden grow, talking about “the war,” and I felt like a clockwork toy. I remember drawing a map of Iraq on a napkin so that I could show someone where Fallujah was, and I remember my first friend dying in Iraq, the strange sense of numbness that I felt when his father called me.
“Ah, yes,” I said. Well, I guess this means I can keep his copy of “The Good War,” I thought.
And then I kind of stopped reading the front page of the paper. I would glance at another drab vista of sand and dead bodies and then I would turn to the “California” section and read the letters to the editor. I did not know what else to do.
When the second friend died, I realized that a state of numbness was just the only way to handle the situation, and that this is how wars drag on, because we all get fatigued. We care so much that we cannot care any longer. This, my friends, is the beginning of the end, the news reels of tired refugees, the helpless retreat in the face of information that we cannot process any longer.
I just finished rereading Generation Kill, one of the earlier books to come out of the war. Evan Wright was a journalist embedded with First Recon, and it’s about his experiences with them—First Recon was essentially the tip of the spear invading Iraq, and was often cut off from the rest of the military while they forged ahead. Although Wright seems to be trying too hard in some places, the book does have a brutal honesty which I appreciate. A sense of forbidding clarity. The book filled me with an intense sadness that I cannot completely describe.
What are we doing, and when are we going to stop?