Feature photo courtesy U.S. Army
I remember watching Secretary of State Collin Powell on television make the case to invade Iraq. It was over eight years ago. I was running late for work but decided to stop and turn on the television to check the weather. And since I like to be really late when I run late, I sat down, reclined into my couch, propped up my feet and began casually channel flipping. Instead of weather, I found a bunch of old guys blathering away about weapons of mass destruction. They had stern faces and computer-animated maps with red circles. Powell was leaning into multiple mics, making serious hand gestures. Still half asleep but not needing to fully listen to what was being said anyway since it was clear what was about to go down, I thought to myself: “Oh no. War. We’re going to war. Damn.”
That “Oh no. Damn” feeling grew worse. Later that very night, I was accused by my girlfriend of being unpatriotic for expressing that feeling.
“Did you hear Powell on TV today? Guess we’re going to Iraq, huh?” she said through her cell phone.
“I know. It’s awful,” I bemoaned.
“What do you mean awful? Don’t you support our troops, our military? Don’t you love America?”
After scanning for sarcasm and realizing there was none, I replied “Uh, what do I mean? War is bad. That’s what I mean. Iraqis and Americans are going to die. Blood will be shed that should not be shed, including American blood. Don’t you love America? American people? People in general? Life? Don’t you love life?”
“Reyna, you’re so dramatic. Drama queen.”
“Whatever,” I mumbled.
She and I didn’t last very long.
In the months and years after the invasion, I began to feel thoroughly disgusted with our country’s military engagements, all launched under the guise of eradicating terrorism. I bristled at government-generated radio spots in Spanish on La Ley urging young Latinos to enlist in the Army. I guess infantry officer is a job Americans don’t mind immigrants stealing. I cringed in response to Hollywood blockbuster trailer-esque advertisements for the U.S. military that were played–and still are–to captive moviegoing audiences across the country. Kids, anxiously sitting in darkened movie theaters waiting to see Transformers or some other nonsense, get brainsprinkled with images of strong, fearless Marines, standing guard to protect us before getting fully brainwashed with movie storylines espousing the necessity of violent heroes to end conflicts and protect peace.
But, I was one of those kids, too. As an eighties baby and soon-to-be homosexual, military play was a favorite childhood pastime. My version of dress-up included donning camo PJs decorated with the ROTC medals and pins I took from my eldest sister. Using my mom’s 1960s dark matte smoky eyeshadow, I smudged warrior markings under my eyes. Every weekend I set up toy soldier embankments under the dining room table after clearing the theater with my radio-controlled Sherman tank. It ran on no less than ten D batteries and two 9 volts, and it seemed as loud and slow as a real tank. Such military might was needed to rescue the paratroopers that had been ensnared in enemy house plants or captured within unforgiving foreign dust bunnies. In between commanding my platoons, I played mercenary with my Rambo suction cup machine gun as the evening news flashed images of conflict in Beirut and Libya in the living room.
Child’s play burgeoned into a more serious interest. I began with learning more about those in my family who served. My uncle served in the Navy near the end of the conflict in Vietnam, when it was at its ugliest. My aunt served as a chaplain’s assistant and traveled to various makeshift hospitals in the South Pacific during the Vietnam War, too. When not comforting those being given their last rites, she read mail to the wounded who were not able to read their own letters because of eye injuries, blindness or being too medicated. Her most honorable contribution to the cause was extemporaneously transforming the disturbingly common “Dear John” letter into more positive news appropriate for young wounded warriors: “Your wife says she and your brother love each- uh, you. They love you. And they wish you well. Everything at home is okay.” While fighting in World War II, my granduncle was spared from capture, major bodily harm and the heartbreak of spousal abandonment only to be found in a dimly lit basement, dead by his own hand. For the majority of his 50- or 60-some years on this earth he was happily married to his true love. Shortly after his beloved wife passed away, he snuck down to his basement in the middle of the night and used a revolver to shoot himself in the heart.
I began to associate service men and women–and the military as a whole–with valor, honor and dedication. I regretted not being able to meet the members of my family who had served, either because they passed away or lived in other parts of the country. So when a family friend invited my mother and I to a Memorial Day gathering at an American Legion center in Little Village, my ten-year-old self was eager to attend. Finally! I get to meet real Mexican-American heroes!
I remember walking into a rickety hall whose walls bore ugly wood paneling. Thick bands of cigarette and cigar smoke blanketed us. Using portrayals of soldiers and military life from cartoons like Tom & Jerry as a reference, I was expecting to hear some blaring big band or swing music, not the Chi-Lights and Smokey Robinson. There was an even split of men and women. Most wore their uniforms or the few remaining articles of their old uniforms that still fit. There were no rippling, greased, Uzi-toting, predator-hunting Schwarzenegger biceps. These vets were old, doughy and bloated. Everyone had a cigarette and drink in his or her hand. Well, those that had hands. It was the first time I saw a hook on a man’s arm instead of a hand. One man had two hooks. Others were in wheelchairs, had canes and prosthetic legs. I was old enough to know to be polite and not stare at people who were different, but not old enough to not be thoroughly scared at the man with the empty eye socket. He smiled at me as he walked passed. I froze before darting off to an opposite side of the room, where I saw two drunk old men in a half-embrace at the bar. One had his head down. He looked to be sobbing while his buddy patted his shoulder. Although, it was possible he could have been laughing. It was hard to distinguish.
I didn’t remember seeing any of this in any movie or cartoon. I knew some vets there served in WWII and others served in Vietnam or other engagements yet trying to determine the ages of some of the people I saw was hard. Time imprints itself on and pulls at one’s face. But so does substance abuse. Pain. Depression. It was so dark in there I remember asking my mother how they were able to play music if the lights were blown out. She told me the lights weren’t blown out, some people just like to dim the lights when they drink. Some people prefer to sit in the dark.
My brother joined the Navy around this time too. I admired him and wondered what his life was like as a sailor. Could I serve one day, too? I remember a talk we had when he returned from his first stateside tour. In a real life Boyz-In-The-Hood moment, he matter-of-factly told me: “a Latina has no place in the white man’s military. It’s actually no place for anyone who wants to be an individual. If you want to be a part of something where you don’t have to think about yourself or for yourself, join. If you want to find who you are and be yourself, don’t join.” My brother decided the Navy wasn’t for him and ended up leaving. My desire to join the military soon faded.
After listening to arguments like those made by my brother, I equated military service not with honor or courage but with loss of individuality, self-expression; loss of a sense of self. In focusing on that, it is dangerously easy to forget many service men and women have lost their entire selves. Some give their bodies, minds, and arguably souls in service. In memorializing those who’ve served, do we venerate or denounce? Does it depend on whether the war is just? When is conflict justified? Holding the government accountable for the atrocities of war is necessary but should not come at the expense of recognizing the sacrifices of the many individuals who have served this country dutifully with honor, courage and sometimes, absolute selflessness. Indeed, our government’s marching of soldiers off to war unnecessarily is an atrocity of the highest order. Soldiers themselves are no more murderous pawns than sex workers are filthy whores and married people mindless agents of patriarchal oppression. I see now there is much more gray in this world than I could have ever surmised. Especially when sitting in the dark.