At O’Hare, the uniformed boys keep getting younger, and I stay the same. Our Army’s paged through camo pattern after pattern. Today’s favored MultiCam didn’t even exist in those mountains until you’d been dead for years. We’re still at war – that one you supported, until I asked if you’d had a son – and I wonder if we ever won’t be.
March 2003 was a fucking conflagration. The AUHSD was cutting all the electives (wasn’t the economy okay back then?) and the President was about to announce all-out war, and I xangaed indignantly, railing against a man who dared send my friends to die. What I didn’t understand, of course, was that my 94556 friends weren’t in danger at all.
You hardly glamorized war, and it didn’t seem to traumatize you. You were grateful:”he liked me, so he sent me to radio school.” And you were honest: “I probably wouldn’t have gone back to Yale, but then all my friends were dead anyway;” “your job is to kill people.” But of course I’ve always been my father’s daughter, and you cultivated my interest. You decked me out in the USMC gear I requested, and took me to the recruiters to get swag; and I papered my room in Semper Fi and bulldogs and The Rainbow Fish.
I don’t know how many times we trekked over to that Golf Course Road strip mall to talk to the recruiters. And they were so sweet! Lord knows what they thought of the whole proposition: a 10-year-old girl and her 80-year-old father traipse in every few months, both grinning and charming and engaged and curious. But one of the times the uniformed man bent down and asked if I wanted to be a Marine when I grew up, and I said “I don’t know,” and he was kind and understanding and unoffended, you – you were mortified, and you were pissed, and you berated me for wasting his time, and marched me back out again. Left foot first.
By 1999, I’d decided I just couldn’t do it: I didn’t think it was the best alignment of public service and my own talents; and, sadly, less persuasive to me – I just didn’t want to learn to kill people. I didn’t mind that others should, and did, learn; but twelve-year-old me didn’t want to do that to herself.
And in 2011, I’d swung back around again, seeing a way to help our uniformed boys, too many of whom enlisted because they were scared or angry or hopeless or unskilled, too few of whom will leave the military with clear life paths. Because in 94556, one kid a year signs up for the military; and in 2005, the only steady job your crazy boyfriend can get is with the armed forces; and in 2007, you teach in Oakland Public Schools and realize that the ROTC is the only program well-funded or -liked.
And in 2007, my students, my boys, my sweet boys, my sweet boys we won’t sit next to on the subway or the bus, my sweet boys with their flash and their winks and their dullness and their hope, my boys are going out on the corner, or they’ll work in hairnets, or they’ll be dead, or they’ll enlist. But whether clad in white Ts or dress blues, my sweet boys’ destinies are of violence and braggadocio.
Last year, I had the best day of my life: I made use of godawful German, Italian, and Croatian; hiked 15k; read a book; wrote a paper; and played pick-up water polo in the Adriatic after a school of Croat men overthrew their ball. (Apparently, what a woman lacks in skill and size, she can compensate for with pure upper American cardiovascularism.) And the next day, I trekked 140 kilometers into Bosnia, where a leather-faced ethnic Albanian soldier-turned-journalist strode up to me as I read on the banks of the Neretva and asked if he could tell me his stories. “Mostar is my mistress, you understand;” he’d circle back to this phrase between urgent paragraphs, spilling with an urgency that the past seventeen years just hadn’t quenched.
When’s the last time wars were just? Was World War II really just, or do just we post-hoc rationalize our way past all your dead friends? Can wars, themselves, ever be just, as long as they’re subject to the whims of the few power-mad who actually want to lead nations, in the first place? And even if they were, how could we call these wars just when we’ve broken from the draft to play out the narrative of millennia: promising dead-end boys that this, right here, right now, here is your legacy, here is your immortality. But act now, while supplies last.
I love you forever and think of you daily and feel you in my lungs weekly when I breathe in that Episcopalian incense and have joined you in knowing all the words.