This article was originally published on March 23, 2021.
I knew there would be questions after the war.
“Did you kill anyone?”
I was ready for that one, the biggest and most intimidating.
That question would hang as an ominous backdrop to nearly every conversation about my time in Iraq, especially prominent in the ones in which I could sense the subject being meticulously avoided. I anticipated the question because it was always there no matter what we were actually talking about.
How I answered depended on who was asking and how the question was put to me. An informal decision tree, intuitive and complex, coalesced in my mind. If the kid asking was bleary-eyed and smiling, swaying drunk on a porch outside of a party, I would demur.
“Oh, don’t worry about it, man. I’m just trying to enjoy the party.”
Never be eager to indulge the fantasies of young civilians hungry for the illusion of secondhand honor. They don’t actually gain anything and you feel vulgar afterwards. Save the vulgarity for the brothers you served with where, rooted in shared experience, gallows humor reaffirms and exalts your bond.
“We don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to, but did you kill anyone?”
The question might come from someone who feels obligated to help guide you through your experiences. Their intentions are most likely only superficially magnanimous. They have no idea what they’re talking about. Therapy offered so casually is just as presumptuous and shallow as trying to force the personal experience of combat into drunken party conversation.
“I don’t think I’m ready to talk about that yet…”
The only kind of warrior that people offering therapy understand is a wounded one. You can throw them off of your trail by doubling down on the identity they’ve assigned you. Their assumptions can become your escape hatch.
Then there are the logistical questions.
“Where were you stationed?”
Germany. But I actually ended up spending more time in Iraq.
“Did you actually… you know, kick down doors and stuff?”
Yes. I was in the infantry.
“How long were you in the Army?”
Almost five years. I signed up for four but was stop-lossed.
The logistical questions were easy to answer. Anyone from the Midwest understands that our conversations are built on small talk, and the best small talk is predicated upon logistical data. How long was the flight? Where did you buy that shirt? For how much? It rained two days ago. No, I’m mistaken. It rained three days ago. How old is your son? How many kids? I’m not asking if you’re hungry, I’m wondering how long ago you last ate. We’re eating in two hours. Not only is small talk polite, but it makes language into a comfortable and familiar meeting place where facts beget facts and everyone has equal access to the common denominator of experience. It has a socially leveling effect. I don’t want you to lord your opinions of obscure authors or arcane music over me, I just want to know if you prefer a hard or soft pillow. Because the world we inhabit together, the parts that we hold in common, are composed of the mundane. And so if Midwestern Logistical Small Talk seems humble, it also cleverly hides a secret idealistic heart that presumes all of us, everyone, has a world to share. It’s a pragmatic type of communion.
I landed in Brooklyn after the war, where Midwestern Logistical Small Talk was mistaken for stupidity. In his essay “What Was the Hipster?,” Mark Greif describes the common social denominator that bound together the superficially diverse traits of the last youth movement (if a shift in stylistic emphasis even deserves to be called a movement) as a desultory knowingness rooted in consumerism. In a complicated labyrinth of sophisticated consumer desires, taste is a substitute for wisdom. Taste – with all of its moral weightlessness and novel detachment – can’t actually have much significance outside of a six-story walkup. It can only exist stranded on islands in Brooklyn and Silver Lake and Austin. Shipwrecked from tradition and denuded of intimacy with the larger culture it feeds off of. However sophisticated it might be or however eloquently it’s expressed, it has to exist within a narrow matrix of familiar cultural references. Sun Ra. Alan Partridge. Zizek. The Hairpin. Zadie Smith. Walter Benjamin. Tin Tin. Kraftwerk. The same books in the same neat artistic stacks on the same IKEA shelves. The same music echoing through the same sleek minimalist apartments, quarter-filled with the same mid-century modern furniture. And all this isn’t to say that a mind-numbing conformity doesn’t exist among other American people in other American places, but that a tribe which coalesces around the glib spirit of intellectual novelty, desperate for an empty individuation, inevitably becomes spiritually anemic. Worse, those in it begin to see their spiritual suffering as a strange sort of victory.
It was a much more dramatic change for me to go from the Army to Brooklyn than it was to go from Missouri to the Army. The total difference can be summed up in the one question I was only asked in Brooklyn and nowhere else. For me, this question became a synecdoche representing the vast space between American cultures.
Why did you join the Army?
It was half meant as an accusation.
Why did you join the Army?
It’s not something people do. I remember one particularly confusing conversation where the person I was talking to almost literally couldn’t hear what I was saying:
Why did you join the Army if you’re an aspiring writer?
It seemed like a better thing to do than going to the University of Iowa.
A long blank stare.
You went to Iowa?
…No… I joined the Army.
It’s not something to do. Who does it? The Eastern Seaboard has one of the lowest rates of enlistment in the country. Imagine what the rate must be among graduates of liberal-arts colleges living in Brooklyn. It’s nearly incomprehensible that someone would enlist in the Army.
Why did you join the Army?
I signaled as if I was in their tribe. I watched Solaris and even read Roadside Picnic. I had a subscription to the New York Review of Books and maybe I would mention Robert Duncan’s The H. D. Book during brunch. These points of reference were constellations used to navigate social waters that were actually never too far from familiar shores for the Brooklyn tribe. The variation within them, whether you prefer this writer over that, was all just the narcissism of small differences. The point was that by even having an opinion existing between a stable orthodoxy of cultural bookends, you were expressing a fundamental commonality. You act like one of us, but we don’t join the Army. So why did you?
Why did you join the Army?
It makes sense in the tribe to go to grad school. To spend most of the waking hours of the rest of your life in a classroom. To volunteer overseas for a secular NGO. To not work at all and spend your parents’ money instead. To retire when you’re twenty-five. To write and publish your memoirs when you’re nineteen. To be too busy meditating and skateboarding to work. To be too busy working at a bookstore to meditate or skateboard. To professionally promote parties. To take workshops about how to grow up. To do anything other than serve in the military.
You act like one of us, but we don’t join the Army. So why did you?
Why did I join the Army? I didn’t know how to answer the question. At least not the way they were asking it in Brooklyn. Of course, I’d been asked before. I’d even been asked by other soldiers while I was in the Army, but then the question had been posed with shades of Midwestern Logistical Small Talk. Here was no critical arrow piercing the heart of the action itself. The question didn’t come from some fundamental misunderstanding. They weren’t asking why anyone would join the Army at all, but what particular set of circumstances led me to join. More than anything else, it was a way to get to know about someone’s life before the Army.
Why did you join up?
My father and grandfather and his father before him all served.
My kids needed healthcare.
I wanted money for college.
My uncle wants me to be a police officer like him and he said this is the best way to go about it.
Underneath each of these answers was a basic agreement (usually) about the honor of the venture. No one joins the military just for money or solely out of love of family. It’s too profound and uniquely complex a sacrifice for that. And when a young person tells you he enlisted for adventure, what he really means is that he went on a quest for meaning – our popular vocabulary being too anemic to support the weight of a desire simultaneously so necessary and recondite. We don’t have the words to describe our hunger. We struggle to articulate both the depth of our appetite and what might be required to sate it. And there are a lot of reasons why people join up. Some are unutterable. And of those that we can express, many contradict each other. When it comes to something like swearing loyalty to a warring army during a time of combat, motivations can’t necessarily be seen through a Manichean lens.
So I tried to think of the question the Brooklynites should have asked if they really wanted to understand something so alien to them. A question that doesn’t emit vague antagonism, but one that could possibly draw us closer together and that we could both learn from. Something that would help us understand each other. One day the question posed itself to me.
Do you miss it?