When I went to the funeral of my friend Carl (murdered in cold blood by a fellow airman), I stood at his open casket and said these lines of poetry:
"Lift not my head from this bloody ground/
Nor bear my body home/
For all the earth is Roman earth/
And I shall die in Rome"
This is from the Ballad of the White Horse, by G.K. Chesterton, about the exploits of King Alfred the Great. For me, it is the last two lines that resonate with me: For all the earth is Roman earth/ And I shall die in Rome. Perhaps it is the power of the declaration (The world is Roman), but there is something great in those words.
Eventually, the Memorial Days will pass and my children will ask me what I did during the war. Perhaps they will be satisfied with knowing I was there and there will be a few years of Happy Memorial Day cards from them before it no longer has the aura of the unknown it once did. There's the other fork though. They will not be happy with "Daddy was in the Army" and want to know where I was, what I did, and most importantly why I did it.
The why of the thing is always the crux - Why does one pick up a rifle and go to war? Colonel Lang speaks eloquently about "hearing the soldier's drum" and of a family tradition, and that makes sense as well as being poetic. However in my case there was no family tradition, but I did hear the drumbeat as our nation twisted in war, and saw an opportunity.
It was an opportunity to break free of the numbing effect that staying home has on one, it was the electrifying shock of a challenge met. It was the pride that stiffens the spine after one has taken their actions and thrown it in the teeth of your naysayers. It was the chance to be something else and be something better, and to have something that no one could ever take away from you.
I imagine it was all that and more that led me to the Infantry when the Army wished for me to be a nuclear reactor & chemical weapons operator. How does one explain the Infantry with its threat of violence underneath everything we did? How do you explain the various personalities that make it up? The person who wanted to do 'Army stuff' is standing next to the guy who watched too many movies and is finding that reality is a lot less attractive is friends with the secret coward who doesn't get along with the guy with something to prove. It was never as cut and dry as the movies would have you believe.
The squad of mortars I belonged to, they were never automatons as is so often predicted, but neither were they high speed Delta Force operators ironically quipping about everything with gallows humor. We were simply Blackfoot Thunder; or to break it down further, 2 gun. A disgruntled Puerto Rican and a too smart for his own good asshole who had yet to learn discretion, led by a sergeant who couldn't wait to be the fuck out of there. That all didn't matter though, when the bullets were flying and for those moments were weren't individuals but a terrible machine of wrath. Our bodies moved with every motion being one of perfection, no fumbles or breaks, and we not only looked the gorgon in the eye but we spit in it as well.
Perhaps that is why so many of us find ourselves in professions of violence, because we are forever searching for that moment where your body is so perfectly yours that nothing can stand before you. I know I feel it in boxing, the distant-yet-plugged-in feeling where everything comes together. Of course there's the other side of things as well - that in looking for that feeling, some of my comrades never find it again. Perhaps that is so many of them have taken their lives in one final act of violence, looking for answers down the barrel of a gun because they did not find them in this life.
So what can I tell my children about the madness and the joy, the passion and the grief? They will never understand it unless they have been there, so I will tell them that Daddy picked up a rifle and fought, and if they are still curious I will try to explain the why.