Posted By Uncle Jimbo • [February 27, 2007]
I got an email from a journalist with a magazine you all know and that I doubt I've written anything nice about. She had heard a speech that really got her attention and sent along this, crazy planet when blogs have unnamed sources in the MSM eh?
The speech was delivered at a flag ceremony in the US Feb 18. I found it very moving and (based on my experience of veterans generally), deeply truthful. I hope you'll find it worth the read--your readers might, as well.
The author wanted to stay anonymous, but his authenticity and honor breathe in every line.
Please note that this is a "speaking draft."
The speaker is a former paratrooper and Special Forces vet, a well-loved breed 'round here, and someone who has a keen perspective and a well-honed sense of reality. Enjoy!
Welcome to this small ceremony …like other small ceremonies held in small chambers in small communities among small congregations around a great Nation, great if for no other reason than that she in no way compels us to do things like this. We don’t orchestrate crowds, mobs, demonstrations in this country. We allow them. And, happily… we pretty much disregard them. The noisier, gaudier ones, at least. Anyhow. We’ll see what comes of this small one…
The words of the prophet Jeremiah:
My bowels. My bowels. I am pained at my very heart; my heart maketh a noise in me; I cannot hold my peace, because thou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the trumpet, the alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction is cried; for the whole land is spoilt and my curtains in a moment. How long shall I see the standard and hear the
sound of the trumpet?
I dunno about Jeremiah's bowels… or his curtains, but… we’ve gone over the falls again, Ladies and Gentlemen. Civilians out there mooing again about that Thin Red Line, the "Thin Red Line of 'eroes"—in Kipling's words—that stands between them and the Darkness. ’Course it’s not red any more. Used to be olive drab. Then treetop camouflage. Then woodland. Then chocolate chip. Now pixilated, random computer-generated. Progress. Your sons and daughters, my Cadets are in the soup again, though. Me? I can't see the front sights of me piece any more. And if I can still lug my rucksack five miles, I need these days to be defibrillated when I get there. Nope. I got something like six Honorable Discharges from Pharoah's Army. That lady in the back row’s gonna be wearing kevlar before I do. Nope. This one's on the kids, I'm afraid.
I can't help the ones Out There. Not those who make the sacrifice in the desert or in the cesspool cities of a land that if two of the troopers from the One Oh First or two Lance Corporals could find on a map a few months ago, I’ll be surprised. You can’t help either… except by trying to build a society Back Here that deserves such a sacrifice.
We gonna win the war? I dunno. That’s over the horizon stuff. Soldiers don’t do that. Civilians do. And civilians start wars, by the bye, in case you know any. I’m just satisfied, proud that these kids—your sons and daughters, my Cadets—have done their duty as God gave them the light to see it. But I want them back. And I worry not about the fight, but about the after: after the war, after the victory, after… God forbid… the defeat, if it come to that. It's after that things get tricky. After that a service man or woman will need the real grit and wit, learnt in school I hope but honed in adversity. And after that such a man or woman will need to believe. Anybody can believe before. During? A soldier has company in the fight, in Kandahar or Kabul Basra or Baghdad. It'll be enough to believe in the others during. But after… and I can tell you this having come home from a war: after those soldiers will be alone. A batch of them, maybe… but still alone.
15 years ago, maybe… when I was still in the Army, my A Detachment got the mission to support an escape and evasion exercise in West Virginia. Idea was to throw a batch of pilots into the wilderness, let local guerrillas (us) feed them into a underground escape net and spirit them out by train just like in The Great Escape to... Baltimore, of all places. So we set up an elaborate underground network: farmhouses, caves, barns, pickup trucks, loads of hay where a guy could hide, fifty-five gallon drums to smuggle the evadees through checkpoints in. We’ve even managed to cozen the Railroad out of a boxcar to be stationed on a siding. At midnight, with our escapees safely stowed in that car, we wait for a special train to make a detour, back onto the siding, hook it up, and freight the pilots up to Maryland. Pretty realistic exercise, seems to us.
Now, for safety the Railroad requires a line administrator on site to supervise the special stop. Sure enough, just before midnight two suit-and-ties show up toting a red lantern. Civilians. We sniff at them disdainfully. One of them wigwags to the train: she couples the boxcar and chugs out into the night. The other guy shuffles off down the track and out onto a trestle bridge over a deep gorge. He stands out there with his hands behind his back, a thousand dollars worth of Burberry overcoat riffling in the night breeze, peering up at the soft summertime sky. I edge over respectfully behind him. Wait. He notices me after a while, looks back. “You know,” he says, “Was on a night like this 40 years ago that I jumped into Normandy.”
Who'da thought? Then I thought… back—another 15 years, maybe—to right after my return from Vietnam. I’m working nights at a 7/11 in Boston. It’s a lousy job. I wind up taking a gun away from some bozo about every other shift. Whores, bums, burnouts, lowlifes. That’s your clientele after midnight in a convenience store. One particular guy I remember comes in every morning about 0400. Getting off some kinda menial work, I guess. Janitor, maybe? Not much to distinguish him from the rest of the early morning crowd of shadows shuffling around the place. Fingers and teeth yellowed from cigarette smoke. A weathered, leathered face that just dissolves into the grayish crowd of nobodies.
Never says a word. Buys his margarine and macaroni and Miller’s. Plunks down his cash. Hooks a gnarled hand around his bag and threads his way out of the place and down the street. Lost in some other world. Somewhere else. Like the rest of the washouts. And then again not exactly like them. One night, he’s fumbling for his keys, drops them on the floor, sets his wallet on the counter—brown leather, I still remember—and the wallet flops open. Pinned to the inside of it, worn shiny and smooth, with its gold star gleaming out of the center: combat jump badge from that great World War II… Normandy maybe, just like the other guy.
Two guys scarred Out There. Not sure just where or how even. You can lose your life, I guess you know, without dying. But the guy who made it to the top and the guy shambling along the bottom—God bless us—did something. These guys are what James Joyce calls “secret messengers.” Citizens among the rest, who look like the rest, talk like the rest, act like the rest… mostly, well as they can. But who know prodigious secrets, the same secrets wherever they wash up. Who know somber despair but inexplicable laughter, the ache of duty but distrust of inaction. Who know risk and exaltation… and that awful drop though empty air we call defeat, failure. Deep mysteries of human nature: depravity, ferocity, grandeur, imbecility, desire, comradeship… and solitude!
And solitude, Ladies and Gentlemen, is what waits for him, for her who shall have borne the battle. Out There in it together… back here alone. Alone to make way in a scrappy, greedy, civilian world. Alone to learn the skills a self-absorbed, hustling, modern society values. Alone to unlearn the deadly skills of the former—and bloody—business. Alone to find a companion—maybe—and alone—maybe—even with that companion over a lifetime… for who can make someone else who hasn’t seen it understand horror, blackness, filth? The word “infantry,” Good People, is Latin for “speechless”: that is, at one time “dumb, unschooled, unable to speak” but now “dumb in the other sense and from a place no one can speak of with no one to speak to.” Incommunicado. Voiceless. Alone. My Railroad president wandered off by himself to face his memories; my 7/ll regular was clearly a man alone with his.
For my two guys, it was the after the battle that they endured, and far longer than the moment of terror in the battle. Did my Railroad exec learn in the dark of war to elbow other men aside, to view all other men as the enemy, to "fight" his way up the corporate ladder just as he fought his way out of the bocages of Normandy? Did he find he could never get close to a wife or children again and turn his energy, perhaps his anger toward some other and solitary goal? Did the 7/11 guy never get out of his parachute harness and shiver in an endless night patrolled by demons he couldn't get shut of? Did he haul out that tattered wallet and shove his jumpbadge under the nose of those he'd done wrong to, disappointed, embarrassed? Did he find fewer and fewer citizens Back Here who even knew what it was? Did he keep it because he knew what it was? From what I've seen—from a distance, of course— of success, I’d say it’s not necessarily sweeter than failure—which I have seen close up.
Yet that silence, Ladies and Gentlemen, that silence is the reward we reserve for your sons and daughters, my Cadets. Silence is the sound of Honor, which speaks no word and lays no tread. And Nothing is the glory of the one who's done Right. And Alone is the society of those who do it the Hard Way, alone even when they have allies like themselves in the fight. I pray as a teacher that my Cadets, as a citizen that your sons and daughters have the inner resources, the stuff of inner life, the values in short, to abide the brute loneliness of after, to find the courage to continue the march, to do Right, to live with what they've done in our name, to endure that dark hour of frustration, humiliation, failure maybe… or victory, for one or the other is surely waiting Back Here, for anyone, for everyone who—God bless us—does something!
My two guys started at the same place and wound up at the far ends of the spectrum. As we measure their distance from that starting point, they seem to return to it: the one guy in the darkness drawn back to a Golden Moment in his life; t'other guy lugging through God knows what gauntlet of shame and frustration that symbol of his Golden Moment. Right now, Ladies and Gentlemens… is the Golden Moment for those kids at war. While a whole generation goes ganging after its own indulgence, vanity, appetite, they cling to a foolish commitment to this old place and that old flag, to foolish old traditions; as soldiers, they honored pointless ritual, suffered the endless, sluggish monotony of duty, raised that flag not just once, or again, or—as has become fashionable now—in time of peril, but every single morning. They stuck it out. They may have had—as we like to say—the camaraderie of brothers or sisters to buck each other up or the dubious support (as we like to say… and say more than do, by the way) of the folks back home, us… but in the end they had to persevere alone. Just as alone they’ll make that long walk from Out There with a duffle bag fulla pixelated, random computer-generated dirty laundry—along with their bruised dreams—Back Here at tour’s end.
They will be alone after, Ladies and Gentlemens, for all our good intentions and solicitude. They’ll be alone. But…together. This generation, whom us dumbo civilians couldn’t somehow keep out of war, will bear the burden of soldier’s return… alone. Their comfort, such as it is, will come from the knowledge that others of that small population that fought are alone but grappling with the same dilemmas—often small and immediate, often undignified or humiliating, now and then immense and overwhelming—by their persistence courting the risk, by their obstinacy clinging to that Hard Way they learnt here in our community… in the family, in the school, in the church, on the diamond or gridiron. Where we can join them if not relieve them, those secret messengers, is right here, Good People, in the company of that flag, the one they served in their way as we do in ours. That’s where we can find common ground and common value, however variously we show it. God bless you for the time you’ve found today to come here. For their sake as for your own. It’s their Golden Moment… Ours¸too, if we can with them savor it now and briefly together. Thanks for listening.
"I know…" says the prophet Isaiah:
I know that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron sinew, and thy brow brass…I have shewed thee new things, even hidden things. Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have [refined] thee…in the furnace of affliction…
Well, all right, then. Remember that.