I’m Off the Road Again

Nope, still no Ironman report.  The woman who is doing the leather-binding says that she’s having trouble finding enough gilt to do all the lettering on the cover.  Plus I’m still in negotiation about film rights and I want to get those locked down before I make a decision about international print distribution.

Mary and Tina are off with the rest of the Team racing Giant Acorn.  I opted for a quiet weekend.  Still feeling a little mentally overloaded by the rest of the year, I guess.  But quiet doesn’t mean sitting around.  Slept in a little–8am!  Woo hoo!–and then shoehorned the bike into the little car and headed down to Prince William Forest Park.  I’d put the mountain bike wheels back on the Cannondale and was pleased to discover that the Scorpions hadn’t perished out of sheer neglect; I hoped they wouldn’t decide to do so as soon as I hit the trails.

Just Another Near Death Experience

I’ve never done much in the way of actual mountain biking, but I haven’t even ridden on trails for well over a year.  So this was a chance for me to do something a little bit different and explore some parts of the park I haven’t seen before.  It was a little more of a challenge than I expected.

I’ve become timid, tentative and twitchy, and while a lot of that is probably due to discomfort at riding on gravel, which constitutes most of the trail surface in the park, it probably took me the better part of an hour to settle in and fully relax on downhills.  I’d tried to trim the derailleur out after switching the wheels, but didn’t really put the time into it (I hate trimming triples; all bikes should have only two or preferably one chain ring at the front!).  Consequently the bike was shifting by itself constantly, held at bay only by partial cheat shifting.  Then there was the moment when the jacket I was carrying fell off and jammed not only around the back wheel but found its way with proctological certainty right up into the rear disc brake caliper.  The wheel locked solid instantly. . .as I was bombing down a hill.  There was a lot of fish-tailing and a quite impressive skid mark.  No idea how I stayed on.  My handling may suck but at least my balance is still good!  What can I say, life is a dangerous sport.

And yet I had a blast.  It was a gorgeous fall day with cool temperatures, a clear blue sky and no wind.  To judge from the car parks the place was pretty busy but I hardly saw anyone else; plenty of cyclists but they all stuck to the pavement.  It was a lot of easy biking punctuated by moments where I just sat still and listened to the birds.

And Speaking of Death. . .

After changing my clothes and eating the cold leftover pizza I’d brought with me I drove across to the other side of the highway to visit the National Museum of the Marine Corps.  Why?  Well, I’m into military history.  But the main reason is because I’ve been troubled for a couple of days after reading a recent article in the Washington Post. Apparently, not only are our troops still fighting and dying in some place overseas–the name escapes me, I’m sure it will come back to me when I’m watching Project Runway–they are now killing themselves in record numbers once they come home.

<rant>

This, by the way, is one of the things I love to hate about conservatives who bang away at the idea of the liberal media.  Let’s leave aside the fact that whole situation can best be summed up by the title of Eric Altermann’s book What liberal media? It is the so-called liberal media that has been responsible for bringing real attention to some of the most shameful military practices affecting the welfare of our troops.  Probably forgotten now is the role those military-hating liberals paid in drawing attention to the shameful lack of body and vehicle armor in the early stages of the Iraq war.  But in addition, who was it who broke the story about the shocking conditions at Walter Reed?  That bastion of conservative militarism, The Washington Post. The Post has also been running a series of stories about the difficulties of home front re-adjustment; in today’s issue there is an excellent and detailed article on soldiers suffering from traumatic brain injury.

What so many conservatives don’t get is that supporting our troops doesn’t mean that you stop asking questions.  Our troops don’t need bumper sticker patriotism.

</rant>

As the Post reports, many of the recent suicides are decorated veterans, often those who have served several deployments (and that may be part of the problem).  I suspect that in the tradition of good ol’ American optimism many will hold this problem can somehow be fixed.  But regrettably, it probably can’t.  Part of the reason is simply the fact that this is what war does.  Anyone who is capable of picking up a book and reading any firsthand account of modern war should have learned two things.  Not only is war hell, as Sherman’s famous quote has it, but so is coming home.  Going to war, any war, more often than not, fucks you up.  Trying to come back to some concept of “home” after that often fucks you up further.  These are not fungible, fixable, phenomena.  This is the cost that we as a society inflict on individuals and on our society as a whole when we decide to go to war.

But the larger issue, and the thing that has been troubling me, is this:

At the same time, in what the Army has begun to call “an era of persistent conflict,” soldiers are increasingly culturally, socially and physically isolated from the rest of the country, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said in a blunt speech Wednesday at Duke University. Such a small fraction of the nation’s 350 million people serves in the all-volunteer force that the divide between military and civilian life is widening.

“Whatever their fond sentiments for men and women in uniform, for most Americans, the war remains an abstraction – a distant and unpleasant series of news items that do not affect them personally,” Gates said.

This is not simply the fact that we (or rather, they) are fighting a war on two fronts (and if you believe that the war in Iraq is actually over then I have a bridge to sell ya) and yet there is no sign of that in our everyday lives.  Sure, if you listen closely there is the giant sucking sound of billions of dollars being drained out of our economy (we’ll probably never know how different our response to this economic crisis might have been if we had all that extra money to play with).  Rather, the Post is drawing attention to a much more fundamental issue.

The shift from an army made up of “citizen soldiers” to an army made up of career professionals was, on balance a good thing.  We went to an Anzac day lecture a few years back about the true cost of the myth of the “citizen soldier:” the idea that a nation’s citizens are endowed with near magical properties that make them innately suited to combat.  You can see this in discussions of the Civil War that claim that southern soldiers, or West Virginia mountain men, or Pennsylvania backwoodsman were “natural” shooters and soldiers.  Of course, being able to pop a squirrel at a hundred yards isn’t quite the same when you are being expected to do it twice a minute for half an hour on end. . .with all the squirrels shooting back at you.  The “natural soldier” myth inevitably produces an extraordinary level of military bungling and unnecessarily high levels of slaughter in the early stages of a conflict.

So from the military’s point of view, the shift to a professional standing army makes for a better trained, more reliable force.  But on the social level–and notwithstanding the fact that the so-called part-time military forces of reservists and National Guard troops have, effectively, become career military in many cases–the disappearance of the old regional militia/national draft model has meant that not only do most Americans not serve in the military, but they know few people who do (if they know any at all).  This is all exacerbated by the rationalized regional training model employed by the military.  I also suspect that this state of affairs is enhanced by the fact that many vets, once they leave the military, end up being employed in jobs associated with either the massive defense contracting industry, the paramilitary sector (what are now known as “independent contractors” but which used to be called, in a world that still cared about using language to reveal rather than hide truth, as “mercenaries”) or the vast, and largely secret, intelligence complex.  So not only are Americans as a whole unlikely to know someone who is serving in the military, they are increasingly unlikely to encounter someone who is ex-military in their workplaces.

This was certainly the case for us.  Up until a few years ago, despite living in one of the hubs of the military-industrial-espionage complex, we knew only one person in the military.  That has actually been one of the many things I have really appreciated about being a member of Team Z.  You’d think that most people in the military would find life quite hard enough; apparently this is not the case and they appear to be attracted to multisport in droves.  So it has been both a pleasure and an eye-opener to make new friends in the active-duty military.  I don’t claim that suddenly I have been granted magical intuition into what it is like to serve in the military.  But it is obvious to me that it is a different world, a very different world.  And I’ve seen some of the stresses and strains that such a world puts on individuals and families.

Why does all this matter?  It means that on a social level most Americans are fundamentally ignorant about military realities, even those that are staring them in the face.  I’m appalled, for example, that the populace seems to have swallowed the bare-faced lie that 50,000 troops are in Iraq as an “advising and security” force.  Maybe all this recession-speak of millions and billions has altered our perceptions.  Fifty Thousand troops is not a security and advising force–particularly in a country that is pathetically unable to form an actual government.  To put that in perspective, that is considerably more than the number of troops stationed on the Korean peninsula as a deterrence force (approx 37,500).  Widespread military ignorance has allowed the Obama administration to get away with a Newspeak worthy sleight-of-hand here.

In addition, despite the fact that superficial levels of “support” (as in, people thinking that being nice to military personnel is generally a good idea) have never been higher, I’m plagued by the idea that actual isolation of men and women in the military may be higher than at any time since the Vietnam War.  This isolation is enhanced when we take soldiers, plunge them into hell and chaos, then pluck them out and elevate them to a purgatorial mix of consumeristic self-absorption, economic desperation, cultural celebrification, unreality reality, and the ennui of privilege.  Then we pluck them out of that and send them back to hell.  And then we rinse and repeat.

At the Going Down of the Sun. . .

So it was with these mixed emotions that I headed to the National Museum of the Marine Corps.  I’d wanted to visit it for a while but this just seemed like a good time.

It is a pretty amazing place.  The building design itself is architecturally interesting, but they have also done some fascinating things on the curatorial level by creating displays that actually make you part of the display (in one instance you disembark down the rear ramp of a Chinook onto the landing strip at Khe Sanh).  Even more intriguing is the nearby park that they are in the process of building.  While the museum itself is a little overwhelming, the park is designed to be a place of reflection and contemplation.

All museums have particular kinds of stories they want to tell.  For military museums in particular it often takes a while before they figure out how to get the balance quite right.  There were several curatorial decisions that seemed to indicate the youth of this particular institution.  I’m also not entirely sure that the stories get told here would be the stories that represent the consensus view of military historians.  For example, there is almost nothing here that criticizes military leadership or policy; on the surface, at least, we’re left with the impression that the Marines were always ably led and acting in a noble cause (this is despite the more dubious role played by the Marines in periodic interventions in Latin American in the late nineteenth- and early twentieth-centuries; the museum has almost nothing to say about the reasons the Marines were in any of these places except to say that they were “defending American interests”).

If you look closely, however, an alarming number of the finest hours of the Marine Corps have been produced by command level blunders of the first-order: this is as true of the engagement in which the very first Marine winner of the Congressional Medal of Honor fought during the Civil War as it is of Tarawa, Choisin, and Khe Sanh.

Yet the museum does an amazing job in telling its core story of the Marine experience during all these conflicts.  There are some amazing stories told there, many of which were new even to a military history buff like myself.  For someone whose upbringing was shaped by the legacy of one of history’s great military defeats (Gallipoli) it is hard not to be affected by the way in which the ordinary Marines have responded after being shafted by their commanders.  But even some of the big stories here are probably unknown to most Americans; I suspect there are very few people who could tell you much about Choisin, for example (but then most Americans probably couldn’t point to Korea on a map, either).

However I don’t fault the museum for telling the story it wants to tell.  That is it’s job.  Our job as citizens is to listen to all the different stories, and weigh them one against the other.  With the Post article lodged in my brain like a kidney stone I was struck by a couple of sections of the museum which weren’t devoted to the big-ticket items such as WWII and Vietnam.  One section was a series of photographs depicting Marines training and working with the Afghan military on local development projects and the like, accompanied by reflections from various Marines.  It was a rare glimpse of a different side of the war.  Incomplete in its relentlessly positive picture?  Certainly, but no more incomplete than a relentlessly negative one.

The display which most struck me, however, was a series of paintings and sketches from Marine combat artists in Afghanistan.  Nowadays, we don’t see the war in terms of anything but photos and the occasional political cartoon.  Hell, we don’t see anything in any other way.  But in many of these paintings the country of Afghanistan looked completely different than any photo I’d seen.  What is usually stark in photos (occasionally beautiful, but more often coming across as desolate) was here softened, rendered as a complex play of light and color, surprising detail, and strange things hidden in plain sight.  These paintings captured much more eloquently than thousands of words an essential ambiguity running through place, people, US military, and the observer.  If I’d been hoping to come to the museum for some kind of relief of a guilty conscience, I didn’t find it.  In fact, this single exhibit, which was one of the first things I saw, lodged in my mind and made me more upset.  It seemed to me the perfect encapsulation of the problem: the vast majority of Americans aren’t interested in painting, they know nothing about the military, they know nothing about the existence let alone the work of combat artists, and they know next to nothing, really, about war in Afghanistan and the state of the modern military.  I felt my own ignorance more keenly than ever.

We’re a culture that has honed strategic forgetting to a fine art.  But our first responsibility as citizens–ah to hell with it, our first responsibility as human beings–is quite simple and direct: look, listen, think, and remember.

I’m always struck by the following passage from Michael Herr’s Dispatches.  You can certainly criticize Herr for a lot of things, but I think he gets it right here:

And always, they would ask you with an emotion whose intensity would shock you, to please tell it, because they really did have the feeling that it wasn’t being told for them, that they were going through all of this and that somehow no one back in the World, knew about it. . . .There was a Marine in Hue who had come after me as I walked toward the truck that would take me to the airstrip, he’d been locked in that horror for nearly two weeks while I’d shuttled in and out for two or three days at a time.  We knew each other by now, and when he caught up with me he grabbed my sleeve so violently that I thought he was going to accuse me or, worse, try to stop me from going.  His face was all but blank with exhaustion, but he had enough feeling left to say, “Okay, man, you go on, you go on out of here you cocksucker, but I mean it, you tell it! You tell it, man.  If you don’t tell it. . .”

He is talking about Vietnam.  But he’s also talking about Afghanistan, Iraq. . .  He is talking about war.

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