Don't You Know There's a War On?
I watch the world change forever from our old couch, the antique one with the wicker back my mother reupholstered. I am watching cartoons after waking with an upset stomach when she comes in and changes the channel. I don't know what the World Trade Center is; even as I watch the skyscrapers plummet live on CNN. I never heard of al-Qaeda or Osama bin Laden, but at that moment, neither had the rest of America.
She pushes me and my younger brother into the car and we fly to the school where my other two brothers are in class. I am only in fourth grade, but old enough to think she is overreacting. Would someone really attack a tiny elementary school in rural northeastern Pennsylvania? She is not the only one to think so; there is already a line of cars out front when we arrive. I feel none of the fear that grips the adults; the magnitude of the event is beyond my comprehension.
I feel its effects in the weeks that follow, though. My uncles and cousins, local firefighters, are told to have their bags packed and be ready to ship out for New York City. The order never comes, but we buy twenty pairs of work gloves to send as a donation. My mother writes God Bless You, from Nicholson, PA in permanent marker on the cuffs. She tries to send a second batch, but the Red Cross has no more room for donations. Years later, my dad still does yard work in gloves meant for Ground Zero.
We go to a candlelight vigil at the park and listen to the commander of the American Legion post give a speech. It ends with a line about kicking ass. My dad’s version is simpler and less bellicose: We are going to war, and I don’t know what is going to happen, he explains. I do. I know all about war. I have seen my grandfather’s ration card, his name written in neat cursive by my great-grandmother. I know war means rationing, and a draft, and air raids, and everything else my grandparents talk about.
October comes and goes, though, and none of that happens. We trick-or-treat under a quarter moon as fighter jets strafe Taliban convoys near Kabul and Army Rangers storm an airstrip in Kandahar. That Christmas, like every Christmas, we watch It’s a Wonderful Life. On the other side of the world, bombs and artillery pound the Tora Bora, as Special Forces teams pursue Osama bin Laden through the myriad of caves and tunnels that riddle the mountain range. On screen, George Bailey is appointed air raid warden, and blows his whistle as a sheepish neighbor pulls down a blackout shade.
Hey! he shouts, Don’t you know there’s a war on?!
Rockets and the solar system occupy us in science the next year. They occupy the news, too, after the space shuttle Columbia explodes on reentry. We are too busy testing our model spaceships in the hall to worry about WMDs. A month later, though, we are in a second war, or maybe it is the same war; our social studies teacher isn’t sure. She points out Iraq on the globe and has us write to the soldiers there. We hear the story of the soldier who wrote his mother on a piece of Saddam Hussein’s stationary, but despite our hopes, no one writes back.
In sixth grade, I learn the word insurgent, though it isn’t in our vocabulary books. They catch Saddam Hussein just before Christmas, hiding in a bunker underground. He looks like an old homeless man, his neat mustache replaced with an unkempt beard. His place of capture inspires allusions to Hitler, but now I understand this war is different from the one we fought against Germany. That one had a definite end, and despite what I hear the president announce, this one keeps going. We don’t hear from Saddam again, though, until my freshman year of high school. One of the guys on the cross country team tells me about the YouTube video of the hanging.
It was gross, man. His head almost came right off! he says. I don’t watch it.
We get a new couch the next fall—dark, tobacco-brown leather. We get a new president, too, who says the troops will be coming home soon. They don't, and I realize they won’t—not until we have something to show for it. Osama vanishes, along with the T-shirts emblazoned with his head in the crosshairs, the fake ‘Dead or Alive’ wanted posters, and many of the magnetic yellow ribbons on cars. He becomes like the boogeyman, and I pay him just as much attention—I have more urgent concerns, like passing my driver’s test and getting a date for Homecoming.
That spring, the fire alarm goes off during track practice. We are running laps in the halls because the track is still covered with ice. We stand on the sidewalk and shiver in our shorts, while a bomb explodes in a Kandahar market and kills a hundred people.
Way to stick with it, guys, our coach says at the end of the workout. We’re going to win it this year for sure!
The war comes home for me just before graduation, when my uncle returns from Iraq. He is a captain in the JAG Corps—an Army lawyer, and spent his war in an office in Baghdad. He takes me out for wings and clams, and we talk.
I had the best office, he tells me. No windows, and it was at the rear of the building, so if they drove a truck bomb in there I'd probably make it.
Weren't you in the Green Zone? I ask. The safe zone?
Yeah, he says, and sips his beer.
I nod, as if I understand.
When do you think it will be over? I ask.
We will have to kill every man, woman, and child over there to win, he says.
His bluntness catches me off guard—an Army lawyer has just suggested genocide. I protest. He shakes his head.
You don't understand. We're not fighting people, we're fighting ideas.
But isn’t that what all wars are fought over—to prove our ideas are right? His words stay with me into college, where I major in history. In the spring of my freshman year I enroll in History 227: Civilization of Islam. I want to learn exactly what ideas we are fighting. I want to know what makes men willing to strap bombs to their chests and fly airplanes into buildings. I am reading for a test in that class when I get a text from my friend Alyssa.
OMG! Turn on ur tv quick, they got bin laden!!
I run downstairs and tell my dad to turn on the news. We sit on the brown leather couch and watch pundits and talking heads analyze the president's speech before he even gives it. The Navy SEALs become a household name, but the whole thing, like Saddam's capture, is anticlimactic. The war goes on. Bin Laden may as well still be alive, for all the effect it has on life here.
College goes on too, and though I read the Koran and get an A in the class, the terrorists' motivation eludes me. I question my own motivations, and for a time I consider enlisting. Every day I read The New York Times and see the names of those killed in action. They begin to gnaw at me. It's not the names so much as their ages—all are within a year or two of my own. It feels wrong to be reading on a bench in front of the library while others my age are fighting and dying. I don't want to die, but I am a little jealous of their deaths—jealous of the meaning their lives take on with death.
But what are they dying for? The more I think about it, the more it seems this war is different from the one that started on a Tuesday in fourth grade. A War to End Terror sounded like something worth fighting then, but a decade later it looks more akin to the War to End Wars. There is the same sense of futility, the same apparent stalemate. What are we fighting for, now that all the bad guys are dead?
I think of Aesop's fable about the two goats that lock horns on a narrow bridge over a gorge, each refusing to back down. At this point, we are simply fighting for honor—honor in the archaic Southern sense, where men would stand with pistols at forty paces because one looked at the other’s wife. The cause may have seemed noble then, but looking back through time it seems absurd to fight for, absurd to even think a fight would solve the issue. My uncle is right, in a way. We are fighting ideas—ideas about honor and loyalty and obedience that are much older, much more raw and primal than our own concepts of patriotism and national security, beliefs wrapped in religion and blind faith—a barrier even SEAL Team Six cannot breach.
Alyssa joins the Army my junior year. She needs the money to help with school. Her decision does not surprise me. She is a free spirit, the type of girl who, before she had a car, would walk miles to a party rather than call for a ride. She is tough, too—she once knocked out a cheating ex-boyfriend with one punch, so I am not worried about her, either.
We get drunk when she returns from boot camp. It is summer and we go to a concert with one of her Army buddies. The two of them take turns carrying me, wounded warrior style, back to my truck after I pass out. That is the closest I come to being a soldier. I graduate college the same year she graduates her advanced training for the military police. She gets deployed the next summer.
At least it's not Afghanistan, I say, when she tells me her destination is Guantanamo Bay.
I would rather Afghanistan, she says, as we sit with our beers by a fire at the lake. She tells me about the prisoners there, how they treat the women guards, how dangerous the work is.
Fucking ragheads, is all I can manage. Why are we keeping these men—these motherfucking animals—alive? I want to kill every single one. I want to line them up against a wall and unload round after round into them until my gun clicks empty and my shoulder is bruised from the recoil. I want to call down the entire might of the US military on the Middle East, destroy it, desolate it, so that not even a fucking lizard will survive. I know this is not feasible, but for a minute I forget all tolerance and let the hatred and emotions run loose. Later, when the alcohol wears off, I realize just how close I was to the terrorists in that moment.
Alyssa goes to Cuba in September, and I go back to college to ask my professor—the one who taught Civilization of Islam—for a recommendation for graduate school. We chat in his office, and I ask what he thinks of ISIS and Obama's talk of military action.
We are becoming the Byzantines, he replies. Every few years we are going to have to crush some militant Islamic state that rises up over there.
The silence after is loaded with the unspoken implications of his statement. The Byzantine Empire was so weakened by its many costly wars with Islamic powers, it was conquered by one, eventually becoming modern Turkey.
I apply to grad school, and work part time at the local lumberyard. Combat operations in Afghanistan officially end October 26, 2014.
Bullshit, says one of the guys at work. Only a matter of time before we're back.
You know what, though, says another, you wouldn't even know there was a war sometimes, if you never turned on your TV.
That is the real problem, I realize. We pride ourselves on being able to fight a war on the other side of the world and still have luxury on the home front. It is because of the hardships, though—the rationing, the draft, the blackouts—that World War II ended so quickly, because if war never touches us, who cares how long it lasts?
That Christmas, like every Christmas, we watch It's a Wonderful Life. George Bailey blows his whistle.
Hey! Don't you know there's a war on?!
I think of Alyssa down in Cuba, and answer, Yes.
About the author:
Alex Barbolish was born and raised in Nicholson, PA. He holds a BA in History from the University of Scranton. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in Colere, The Copperfield Review, Hippocampus, and Pilgrim, among others. He's not on Twitter, but you can find him driving trucks and operating forklifts at the Nicholson Lumber Company as he awaits acceptance into graduate school.