Mile after mile, the Maine countryside floated by, on a bright Saturday morning in the dying summer. Town after town, closed-up storefronts and makeshift shops hawking “antiques” and used books, over and over, trailing like kudzu along the speeding highway. It was like everybody in the whole country was doing nothing but selling their junk back and forth to each other. It was beautiful land — magnificent land, green and fertile, seeded with abundance, easy on the eyes — now reduced to tawdry struggle against final desperation. Degradation had already been accepted, long ago, been surrendered to without a fight; they didn’t even notice it anymore, how crabbed and threadbare, how harsh and mean life had become. All they were doing now was dredging up the refuse of a forgotten time, and swapping it for coins to buy one more month with their nostrils just above the waterline.
Flying out of Atlanta on a midweek, mid-day plane, taking the quick jump to Nashville. A soldier gets on, in olive-gray camo; he’s in his forties, dark-haired, managerial. A soft plump office guy leaps up to help him with his overhead bag, then leans across the aisle to strike up a conversation. “Flying in for R&R, eh?” he says to the soldier. There’s a giddy, groupie excitement in his manner. “It’s tough out there, ain’t it? Where you stationed?” Visions of hot deserts and exotic enemies are dancing in his head. “Lexington, Kentucky,” the soldier says.
A few minutes later, a motherly stewardess bustles back and tells the soldier, “There’s a seat up front in business class. We want you to have it.” The soldier demurs, says he’s fine where he is, don’t worry about it, but the stewardess insists, others urge him on, and finally, well, a better seat — why the hell not? He takes it. The office guy says breathlessly, “Don’t worry about your bag. I’ll bring it up for you when we land!” So off they go. A minute later, an announcement blares: “We are proud to have one of our fighting men on board with us today. We want to honor him for everything he’s done for our country.” A storm of applause all around. Another soft, frattish young man in the seat behind me calls out: “You can see there’s no liberals on this plane!”
Suddenly I flash to the scene in Doctor Zhivago, when the doctor and his family are fleeing war-torn Moscow on a cattle train. A commissar comes in to announce the sanitation regulations, then adds: “The first carriage of this train is occupied by sailors of the heroic Kronstadt Sailors’ Soviet!” He looks up sternly, expecting applause — and the passengers comply. I also think of a book I’d read recently about the onset of World War I, and the hyperinflated worship of the military that marked Prussian-dominated Imperial Germany. There was an anecdote in the book about an American academic visiting Berlin before the war. He was strolling with a German colleague when they met a starched young officer walking toward them on the sidewalk. The American passed him without notice, but the German professor went into a panic, sternly upbraiding the American for failing to show due respect: he should have acknowledged the officer — and stepped off the sidewalk in deference. He hastened after the officer to apologize for the ignorant foreigner.
I don’t applaud the camo-clad manager based in Lexington, Kentucky. Not out of some kind of puritanical pique or knee-jerk scorn, but simply because I have no idea what he has “done for our country.” Maybe he’s a drone pilot, murdering civilians in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia. Maybe he’d been a member of a “surge” death squad during our war crime in Iraq. Maybe he sits in an office and pushes paper, or totes bags for a general, or requisitions toilets. How can I know what he might have done — or not done — that would merit applause? The mere fact that he is employed by the military and wears olive-gray camo does not alone seem sufficient to warrant a display of public honor.
Yet I confess I feel a moment of apprehension: will I be sternly upbraided for not joining in, for not “supporting our troops”? It seems an odd situation for an American citizen to find himself in: commanded to pay homage to a military man, and wary of the reaction of his fellow citizens for not doing so. It seems yet another degradation that has come upon us — unresisted, unexamined, meekly, blindly surrendered to.
In Tennessee, my father’s grave — with its military marker — was covered over with dead grass and dirt blown across it by a recent mowing. My brother’s grave — with its military marker — was a few steps away, dusty, but a little less obscured. The sun was blazing hot in the shadeless field. Unbidden, my children knelt down on the harsh, burnt grass, and cleared away the markers with their small hands.
Here’s a reworked sketch about a soldier I would gladly applaud, whether he is in uniform, in mufti … or prison stripes: Bradley Manning, the Peace Laureate’s prize captive — tortured, isolated, mocked into scorn for the crime of “speaking hard truth to the state.” His ordeal is one more degradation, one more surrender in a spirit-broken land.