“It is sweet and honorable to die for one’s country.” -Horace: Ode III
My AP English teacher was in the middle of a very difficult second pregnancy during the last semester of my senior year. There were about 18 young women in the advanced placement class–I went to an all-girls Catholic school for three years–and none of us got more than about five hours of sleep a night on average. Between finding ways to cleverly avoid the dress code–I don’t know why we bothered, really; there were no guys around to impress[*]–and trying to remember what the cafeteria special was and if it was worth walking up three flights of stairs, we barely had time to do our six hours of homework a night, and you could just forget about the volleyball team and ballet classes.
[*That’s not to say that there were no lesbian or bisexual girls in my school–there were, although not a whole lot of them were open about it. But a rather large majority identified as straight, so there was absolutely no reason for painting on smoky eyes or wearing short shorts or even, say, brushing one’s hair. If the ponytail you’d whipped up on Tuesday had some strands left in it by Friday, you were good to go. And while we didn’t have an official uniform, Senior Hall had a whole lot more sweatpants and T-shirts than, say, Sophomore Hall, where the 10th graders were still naïve enough to think that they could catch the attention of guys from the nearby university during off-campus lunch, and still well-rested enough to care about how they looked while off campus. It was almost a game to see how much skin one could get away with under Sister Christine’s steely gaze.]
Senioritis was hitting us all pretty hard; on top of finals and college acceptances and graduation prep, we were all gearing up to conquer the English AP exam(s). (I was actually working my way towards six–Italian, French, English Lit, English Language, Calculus, and the dreaded US History–because I was a complete nerd and had spent my junior year, when I would have otherwise done the Calc and APUSH classes, abroad in Italy. I ended up giving myself tendonitis and had to wear a really unattractive brace on my wrist for the Italian one.) Mrs. Randolph–yeah, that’s not really her name, but let’s pretend–had no desire to grade a bunch of final essays or tests on bed rest, since she knew the substitute teacher wouldn’t do the marking. So she designed a project that would void the need for a) lesson plans for the end of term, and b) creating and scoring final assessments: we’d each put together a 20-minute lecture on a poet of our choice and present it to the class, taking up almost the entirety of class time between the AP test date and graduation. Ta-da!
Caught in the melancholic, teenaged angst of Catholic schoolgirls everywhere, I’d already read the works of quite a few modern poets and was quick to claim Wilfred Owen as my muse. For the uninformed: he was an English soldier in World War I whose graphic stanzas questioned the glory of war. “Dulce et decorum est” is perhaps one of his best-known poems; beyond the fairly straightforward nature of his poetic intent, which meant an easy A for me, the fact that two lines were in Latin (nerd alert!) appealed to me.
Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,
Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,
Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs
And towards our distant rest began to trudge.
Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots
But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;
Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots
Of disappointed shells that dropped behind.
GAS! Gas! Quick, boys!– An ecstasy of fumbling,
Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time;
But someone still was yelling out and stumbling
And floundering like a man in fire or lime.–
Dim, through the misty panes and thick green light
As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.
In all my dreams, before my helpless sight,
He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.
If in some smothering dreams you too could pace
Behind the wagon that we flung him in,
And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,
His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;
If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood
Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,
Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud
Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,–
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
These words don’t waltz off the tongue; they don’t hint or euphemize or glorify. They stagger, drunkenly, like a sailor on shore leave. There are no fields of poppies growing gently over gravestones or triumphant calls to exalt war; this was for the soldiers on the fields, the ones who fought and died and despaired, and it spit on the John McCraes and Jessie Popes of the world. To a sheltered 18-year-old girl with sleep deprivation, Owen’s harsh verses were far easier to write about than e. e. cummings and Robert Frost, both of whose oeuvres touched on themes that strayed a little too close to home.
(My presentation went very well, except I hadn’t really slept in days and I still couldn’t use my right hand with the carpal tunnel, and so when I introduced my poet I said, “I chose Owen Wilson.” The whole class laughed and I blinked at them blearily. Then I smiled and laughed, and said, “Well, I guess you guys know what’s really on my mind!” Oh, the good ole days.)
This poem came back to me last week when I got a text message from a Navy recruiting officer. “Hello,” it said, “you’ve recently requested information about joining the U.S. Navy. Text back ‘NAVY’ if you’re still interested.” I’d actually written to–and spoken with–a Navy recruiter in January of 2012, which makes me think that some poor schmuck is working his way through a list of really old candidates and isn’t meeting too many quotas. Neither of my parents were in the military, although my grandfathers served in Korea and Vietnam, so my interest in the Navy wasn’t a family-legacy thing. It wasn’t the adrenaline of deployment or the job security inherent in being a commissioned officer or fervent patriotism or even the uniforms which appealed to me–although the thought of not having to pick out clothes that match in the morning is attractive, I’ll admit–but rather the thought that I’d be using my brains and my skills and my education and doing something good.
The recruiting officer I’d spoken with had told me that I’d probably end up in Information Warfare or Intelligence, although I’d originally thought they’d want me in Cryptology given my background in linguistics and extensive experience with foreign languages. All of those sounded to me like positions in which I could “give back” to a country that, despite its never-ending debt and inability to foster bipartisanship, strives to achieve and maintain equality and justice across (socioeconomic, racial, educational, ethnic, linguistic, sexual, gender, cultural, and lifestyle) boundaries.
And yeah, that sounds kind of hokey. “Give back”? That makes it seem like America is letting me, as a female / Jewish / Eastern-European / Irish / middle-class / unemployed / highly-educated / of average height / Caucasian person, live my life the way I want to out of the goodness of its (her?) heart. That’s a load of BS and anyone who’s taken PoliSci 101 will back me up on that, not to mention the fact that countries don’t have hearts. But what America is teaching people–what it (she?) taught me–was that human beings have unalienable rights and the responsibility to uphold them. That it’s okay for me to wear a Star of David necklace openly. That I can and should defend myself from harm if necessary. That having breasts doesn’t preclude having a briefcase. That my right to swing my fist ends at someone else’s nose.
(As a [completely unrelated] aside: why is it that countries–and boats–are ascribed a feminine pronoun in English, which ostensibly has no linguistic gender? The word “country” is masculine in Romance languages, but “nation” is feminine. Hmmm. Something to consider.)
I don’t think the military is flawless. Sexism is pretty rampant just about everywhere, and the armed forces are no different (although women are now allowed to serve in live combat positions, which is a huge leap forward for gender equality across branches). Sexual assault is far more common in the military than out of it. Only recently have the Armed Forces taken steps to de-stigmatize mental health treatment and admitted that substance abuse in active and recently-separated military personnel is a real and prevalent problem. A family friend who works as a government contractor with a lot of military personnel also pointed out that the chain of command in the armed forces isn’t always a meritocracy, or at least not a meritocracy based on intelligence (as opposed to, say, merit in battle) and so you could very easily find yourself doing something really stupid or boring under the command of someone really stupid or boring with no way out. Yeah, the US military has more blemishes than a teenaged boy.
But that doesn’t negate the good that they do. I’m not advocating for or against the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, but I will say that I wholeheartedly support our troops and I respect what they’re trying to do over there–spreading democracy and doing the (often thankless) dirty work that lets me sleep safely at night.
Whenever I see a soldier, or a sailor, or an airman, or a Marine, or a Ranger, or a corpsman, or anyone military (not that I can determine rank or even service branch from a uniform), I always want to go up to them and say, “thank you for your service.” Acknowledging what they do for everyday Americans is pretty important. But I guess the Don’t-Talk-About-The-War mentality that comes with having relatives affected by the Holocaust / who served in Vietnam is really difficult to overcome; I’m always struck by the thought that this person may have seen combat, and maybe that’s not something they want to remember. (Apparently my maternal grandfather never mentioned Vietnam. Ever. In his entire life. And we’ve got plenty of cousins who lost sisters or brothers or parents or neighbors or classmates to the Nazis. My paternal grandfather’s girlfriend rescued her parents during Kristallnacht–I didn’t know that she was German until I was 20. There’s a kind of unspoken rule: you don’t ask if they don’t tell.) The last thing I want is to make some poor ensign in line ahead of me at Starbucks experience a flashback to his last tour of duty in Afghanistan with a Double Tall Nonfat Extra Dry Cappuccino clutched in his hand.
An old classmate of mine from high school recently joined the Navy. She sat behind me in 4th period Theology and we joked about whatever it is Catholic schoolgirls think is funny on five hours of sleep and three cups of coffee. Alice–again, not her real name–married an Army sergeant who redeployed pretty much immediately, and then dropped out of (her first year of) college six months down the road when she realized she was pregnant. I guess they weren’t all that compatible, though, because he got out a year later and they promptly divorced. She’s one of those people you like to stalk on Facebook because their lives are always way more interesting than yours could ever aspire to be. I’d always liked Alice in high school–she was funny, not a particularly good student but very friendly–but I don’t think I ever really respected her until she joined the Navy.
Maybe there’s a little bit of jealousy there, too. A huge part of being a Navy officer/enlisted sailor is physical fitness, and in order to join you have to go through–and graduate from–boot camp; according to my recruiter, a recruit may not require any medication that would prevent or inhibit him or her from participating in boot camp activities (i.e. really strenuous exercise for an hour straight). I have exercise-induced asthma (which is a real thing, people, not an excuse or a justification or whatever–I’m not making it up) and yes, it’s controllable. I’ve got a twice-a-day corticosteroid inhaler and another one for emergencies that I keep in my gym bag (though I really should keep it in my purse, since smoke and humidity can also set me to coughing). Some people don’t ever have to use their emergency inhaler if they take the daily one; I’m not one of them. I take it before I start exercising and even then I have to take it again if I don’t slow it down every ten minutes or so. And aerosol containers are banned at boot camp, although I don’t know if they make an exception for medicines. Probably not. Lucky me, huh?
I understand why it’s important to be physically fit if you’re going to deploy or serve in combat. (It’s kind of a no-brainer.) But someone at a desk job? Pffff. I wish there were some way for people like me–who would otherwise be great officer candidates, and I’m not just saying that out of egotism: the recruiter was practically salivating when he saw my language proficiencies and Master’s degree–to contribute to something cool like the Navy.
So yeah, I respect the hell out of Alice. Maybe not for her academic skills–although I sure as heck hope she’s improved since high school because she’s training to be a nuclear technician and the thought of someone who got Cs in algebra and physics working on nuclear weapons scares the *&!@ out of me–but for getting fit enough to go to boot camp, and then passing boot camp, and now actually doing whatever it is Naval recruits do when they’re done with boot camp. Thank you for your service, Alice.
But I guess there are other ways in which I can “do good.” Volunteering, for one, although finding a volunteer gig is apparently just as difficult as finding an actual job, that is to say, really freaking tough; maybe working at a non-profit or something. Social activism? Grassroots whatever? I don’t really know. None of those have the same sort of patriotic connotation that military service does. I guess I’ve got a bit of an “all or nothing” complex: aut Caesar aut nihil! Although I guess I could change that to aut militari aut nihil…
Well, a girl can dream, right?