And so another 4th of July has come and gone. My, how time flies when you’re in the fourth quarter of life. It was just two short years ago, after concluding that the local high school fireworks display was probably not the venue for me, that I got a timely, if not fortuitous phone call from a good friend and local businessman inviting me to spend the evening with his family at the nearby airport where their plane was hangared.
It was an opportune happenstance if I do say so myself. After concluding that sitting in the grandstand of the football stadium, listening to blaring mariachi music and watching the local muchachos running up and down the field waving the Mexican flag and shouting “Viva la Raza!” was not the best way to enjoy arguably the most patriotic holiday of the year, I was still quite prepared to tough it out, so to speak, all in the interests of tolerance for the diversity the oppressed peoples of color of the third world bring to our country. I mean, it’s the melting pot, after all. And if I’m not prepared to get melted, I guess I probably am the hate-filled, homophobic bigot all my liberal acquaintances tell me I am.
But I have to admit the straw that broke the camel’s back was being turned away from the hastily set up Mexican food stand due to my ethnicity – or more accurately the lack thereof. I guess the new slogan around these parts, along with “Viva la Raza!” is “Mexican food for the Mexicans”. And it makes a perverse sort of sense in this increasingly Balkanized land in which we live. I’m all for tolerance, but I must admit, this new policy of no Mexican food for us cholos is a world in which I do not want to live.
But, thanks to the gracious hospitality of my good friend, I had an out on that particular evening, and I took it. I trundled up the hill, parked next to the appropriate hangar, and since we were on the high ground, overlooking the entire San Bernardino Valley, we were treated to not one, but three (count ‘em) fireworks shows going off simultaneously all over the valley. And all for free. And I won’t even mention the burgers, brats, dogs, and char-broiled chicken that came off the grill that night. Not a burrito in sight. (Too bad, though. I like burritos.)
The evening was noteworthy for other reasons as well. Chief among them was the return of the prodigal son, so to speak. My host’s oldest son was on leave from Fort Lewis, Washington, where he was stationed following his completion of Ranger training. He was home on an extended leave awaiting deployment to Iraq. In the archives, there’s a commentary about that night – mostly about how a directionless boy became a man, and how, despite his status as an American soldier, there were places he was not welcome, and establishments that did not want his business. Who knows, it may still be out there somewhere.
This piece is a follow up to that one.
A week ago last Saturday, I had breakfast with his father, my friend, the successful businessman. And what a difference a couple of years make.
Whence last I wrote of him, Dad was riding the crest of a wave. His business – an oil and gas hydraulics consulting firm – was hitting on all eight cylinders. Well, at least most of the time. Business was good, things were thriving, and life was great. He had the outlook and the demeanor of a man who had worked hard, paid his dues, invested his time and energy and was reaping the fruits of his labor.
Nowadays, he’s a good deal more introspective, considerably more reflective, and bears the wear and tear of someone who’s been out there, riding the tiger for thirty plus years. He is getting worn down and worn out. We both are. It comes with the territory when you’re rounding the far turn in the great horse race of life and heading for the finish line.
Let’s face it, deals that were done easily a couple of years ago come a lot harder now. Things have slowed down, and there’s a pervasive uncertainty that engenders an added burden for everybody who has to somehow hustle up a living at a time when the challenges are clear-cut, but the solutions are obscure. We’re both two years further along on the weary round of life, as Ecclesiastes puts it. We’re both closer to the end than to the beginning. And we both have an increased appreciation of the inherent fatigue that comes with hitting the deck every morning, ready to take on the world, and the sure and certain knowledge that this weariness will only get heavier with the passing of the years. But there’s an added burden he carries that I don’t: I’m not the father of a son in the 11th month of a 15-month tour in Iraq.
Things really have changed in two years for the young soldier in question, as well. Leading up to the 4th of July 2006, we all marveled at how the slack-shouldered, long-haired directionless teenager who didn’t say much growing up, almost overnight developed into a ramrod straight, respectful adult, who walked with a purpose. We knew him, and yet we didn’t. In many ways, it was disconcerting, because in his newfound competence (and confidence) we sensed the changing of the guard. And we didn’t quite know what to make of it. The aimless teen became a purposeful adult. But unlike the many benchmarks in the life of a child – which normally necessitate different varieties of hands-on guidance – this turning of the page was a harbinger of a new challenge for parents whose children finally reach the age of maturity. They demonstrate it by their conduct. And it demands an obligatory restraint from parents if this newly-developed sense of responsibility in their grown-up children is to thrive.
For many of us who’ve been through it, this requisite letting-go is the undiscovered country of child-rearing. Hands-on guidance for so many years suddenly morphs into hands-off self-discipline. And it happens in the wink of an eye. Suddenly, our kids shoulder their own burdens, and we come face to face with the indisputable fact that we’re getting old, and they don’t need us in the same way anymore.
Yes, the boy definitely became a man during his time in the Army. Since that time, he’s crossed yet another Rubicon, from which there is no turning back.
He’s been initiated into the brotherhood of the warrior.
I confess I never really bought into the concept, even following my own initiation into such an esteemed group. Somehow, I didn’t resonate with the exclusivity of the contract. It was too unique, too distinctive, and above all, too isolating. The brotherhood of the warrior, by necessity is exclusive, selective and discriminating. It requires its members to stare into the face of the Gorgon as part of their initiation. And the price of admission is blood – their own or the blood of their comrades-in-arms. Sometimes both. It’s a select fraternity, made all the more so because the bar is set high, the standards for entry are exacting, and the attrition is overwhelming.
Captain Ron Drez, USMC (Ret.) spoke eloquently of this very phenomenon on our first night in England back in June 2004 on the eve of that memorable pilgrimage to Normandy that followed close at hand. He spoke of how there will be a special place of honor in heaven for the warrior; about how Washington’s continental army, Wellington’s dragoons, the veterans of the Civil War, the marines of Pacific islands, and many others who stared into the abyss, will know each other with a nod of the head and a shrug of the shoulder.
He gave this address in the ballroom of a hotel in South Kensington, London, in a room filled with a group of aging veterans who earned their credentials on the beaches of Normandy – something all of us were soon to get a heightened appreciation for just a few short days later. Staring into the stoic faces of these elderly fighters, it finally came to me after years of denying the premise – they were a breed apart, and their combat experience did separate them from their country as a whole. And so it did to all of us who dove into a foxhole, dodged incoming mortar rounds, and beat off a counterattack. We were separate, distinct, apart from our countrymen. And that separation was total, complete and absolute. Some integrated back to civilian society better than others, but there remained a part of each and every one of us that would always hold our fellow citizens at a distance. Once so experienced, there is no going back.
Eugene B. Sledge, (USMC 1942-45, 5th Marines) wrote of his experience in the Pacific during WWII in his recently re-released book, With The Old Breed. Sledge served in two of the costliest campaigns in the history of armed combat – Peleliu and Okinawa – and survived without so much as a scratch. He wrote of walking down the streets of his hometown of Mobile, Alabama, a stranger among strangers. He could not relate to the world of civilians, nor appreciate their mindset. Sledge never really made it home. His memoir speaks powerfully of the isolating effects of walking through the dehumanizing cauldron of combat and the personal toll which, once lost, is gone forever.
William Manchester (USMC 1942-45, 29th Marines) was so tormented by his experience on Okinawa that thirty-five years later, driven half-mad by war nightmares, he was compelled to return to the Pacific to exorcise his own private demons. His powerful personal memoir, Goodbye Darkness, serves as a testament to all who shouldered the burdens of war, paid the due bill in both real and psychological terms, and carried the scars home with them.
The brotherhood of the warrior requires of its members a certain level of death. There are, of course, those who fall on the field of battle. And while tragic, their earthly suffering is at an end. What awaits them is the special place of honor spoken of by Captain Drez, where their service will be respected, and they themselves will be lifted up.
Then there are those who suffer the losses, survive the terrors, match brutality for brutality, and then come home. Except part of them never does. Part of them dies on the battlefield. We saw it that night in London in the eyes of the Normandy veterans as our journey was about to commence. We had a far greater appreciation of the cost in real and spiritual terms after walking in their footsteps over the following three weeks. In truth, this sense of separation which held the warrior apart from those he was charged to defend was always there. We just never took the time, nor possessed the insight to notice.
The warrior has suffered more than the horrors of war, in all its brutality. He’s witnessed its devastation, lost compatriots dearer to him than even his closest family members, and knows first hand that man is essentially a barbarian – both the enemy and himself. He knows the whole rigmarole of war ends in squalor, degradation and the cruelest form of death imaginable. And he is forever changed by it. The price he pays is the wall that separates him from the country he defends, and the friends and loved ones he holds dear. And for this spiritual amputation, there is no prosthetic. It is a cross he bears every day of his civilian life, going forward.
The alienation is not, however, without its intrinsic worth. The veterans of Washington’s Continental Army knew they had forged a nation, for good or ill. When the fighting men of Pickett’s Brigade and Hancock’s artillery met at the stone wall at Gettysburg in 1913, they knew they had a country. They had seen it, fought for it, forged it in the fury of fighting and the sea of blood it produced. North or south, it was all the same. Their WWII grandsons – in their sunset years – knew in their hearts that their sacrifice on beaches around the world liberated a continent and destroyed despotic regimes of immeasurable evil. In all such cases, their lives were measured by activities whose core value was defending a country and building a way of life.
Nowadays, the brotherhood of the warrior has been reduced to handful of true believers, regardless of their background. Nowadays, we spend our efforts, not defending a way of life, but sucking it dry. We don’t sacrifice our selfish desires, we indulge them. We don’t free the oppressed, we use them up and throw them away like yesterday’s leftover garbage.
Abraham Lincoln once said, “As a nation of free men, we will live forever, or die by suicide.” If our national self-immolation continues unchecked, that suicide watch will indeed be a short one. Because those among us willing to pay that ultimate price so a nation might thrive, are getting fewer with each passing year.
And the latest initiates into the brotherhood of the warrior carry the scars that mark a nation ailing in its identity, and a citizenry noted for its apathy. Like the soldiers of the Confederacy, and their latter-day cousins, the veterans of Vietnam, the current generation of fighting men sense they are enlisted in a lost cause. Particularly those who’ve been in the cauldron and made it home. They are world-weary in a way that transcends the wear and tear of life and death struggles. They yearn, not for victory – considering how hollow such a triumph can be for a nation that’s lost its own soul – but for home and hearth, friends and family. They move slowly, talk infrequently and rejoice in the simple pleasures of life. At least the ones I’ve encountered.
Back on the farm, life goes on. We continue to worship our secular gods – Barack Obama as the new humanistic savior of the planet and harbinger of change for its own sake; John McCain as God’s new holy prophet of the truth. We hate our leaders based on the letter after their name, and we treat our neighbors as the strangers they are. We use our employees until they are used up, then we throw them away, and we scramble for the last dollar until the last dollar evaporates. We believe in nothing but the pursuit of our own comfort. And we have no use for the brotherhood of the warrior.
Guess what? Somehow, they know it.
I didn’t attend the 4th of July celebration at my friend’s airport hangar. Alas, I was delivering buses for a local service that specializes in such things. And, these days, work is where you find it. But my final destination on the 4th was the San Diego Naval base, where I was part of a convoy delivering shuttle buses for use on-base. The timing could not have been more appropriate. Just as the sun was going down, and before our own shuttle arrived to take us home for the night, we paused to enjoy the fireworks display lighting up various corners of San Diego Bay. No such celebrations on the base, however. At least not that we could tell. The Navy is at war, you see. Nice to know somebody is standing a watch.
And so, the countdown is in full swing. Our young soldier in Iraq is a short timer. And, whether he’s conscious of it or not, he’s starting to watch his own back. The tone of his emails has changed, according to his father. He’s wary, cautious, and unwilling to take on added responsibility unless so ordered. He’s ambivalent about promotion, something he’s been offered more than once. He’s a hot commodity – a combat veteran who’s still in one piece. And a card-carrying member in good standing of the brotherhood of the warrior.
How little things have changed in the purgatory of the war zone. What is past is prologue.
The tantalizing question remains: Will he (and his fellow warriors) be able to change the world as they shift into the fullness of their adult years? One would think so, hope so. It worked for the WWII generation. Why not this one? For one thing, there are not enough of them. Defenders of the country are the exception, not the rule. For another, they are not welcomed back with anything more than lip service. While their WWII grandfathers returned to the adoring citizenry of a grateful nation, whose opportunities welcomed them with arms wide open, today’s veterans are honored only as long as they wear the uniform and carry the weapons. Going back to civilian life, they’re considered worthless ingrates with their hands out whose jobs can be done better, faster, not to mention cheaper by illegals.
So we await the November winds, and the return of the prodigal warrior. With regime change likely in Washington this year, it is doubtful our young soldier will see another tour in the Middle East. At least for the time being. What awaits him upon his return is anyone’s guess. Undoubtedly, he will have to deal with the inevitable disconnect his compatriots in the brotherhood of the warrior have to endure. But that comes with the territory. As for his future, it will probably be a good deal less fruitful than those returning defenders who’ve gone before him. America is not America, after all. It’s just another member in the global village, another market in the global economy, and we’re all just citizens of the world.
So all of us who are on the countdown, so to speak, will settle for the homecoming that looms in the not too distant future. All of us will settle for a genuine Thanksgiving, where the one thing to be thankful for is perhaps the greatest thing to rejoice in:
A loved one coming home . . . safe, secure and whole. Sometimes, small victories are enough. Sometimes they are all we have left.