This last week we meandered down the west side of Lake Huron and spent four days in Ann Arbor before motoring on to Washington, DC. While in Ann Arbor, we took a look at the University of Michigan campus and ate some pizza down by the football stadium—the Big House, as the locals like to call it.
At night we went out and chased fireflies around as they rocketed out of the grass below the oak trees and blinked at us with a ferocious and ephemeral lucidity. We discovered them at dusk, when their flashy lights seemed surreal, as if they wore special LEDs or had little flashlight bulbs installed in their abdomens. I’m not going to Google them and get the scoop, but I suspect they are so luminous because of something to do with sex, and yes, ultimately, survival.
Betty and I were in Ann Arbor to interview a couple of my comrades from the Vietnam War experience. Both of them are quite likely to end up in our documentary film, Bravo! (http://bravotheproject.com). Both men are undergoing or just completed treatment regimens for cancer probably brought on, or exacerbated, by their exposure to Agent Orange. All of us, them and me, survived seventy-plus days of pure Hades-created existence, and now later for some to be gobbled by an affliction (or at least partly so) resulting from our own side’s attempts to make our fight easier is situational irony. Talk about friendly fire—but of a very long-range, delayed fuse type.
After talking to these men, I lay in bed all night throwing the covers off, then pulling them back on as I battled my memories and how they had been boys with big wide smiles and now wore grins that spoke a gallows humor, and a wariness that they cannot escape.
And I wondered again, as I have for forty-two years, about the mystery of war . . . its unfairness, its finality, its destructiveness, its general propensity to be inconclusive. I make this last claim because I firmly believe that somewhere In the future we will, in one national form or other, again fight Germans, Japanese, Spaniards, Vietnamese, Mexicans, British, Filipinos, Russians, Chinese, each other.
There are many mysteries to life . . . birth, death, love, hate . . . and there are many avenues which to drive the M-1 Abrams tank of understanding. Physics, Zen, Jesus, Allah, Brahma, the guy who exists in the sap of trees and the guts of bed bugs. And I don’t know which one is right and I’m not sure I care. But the mystery of it, the mystery of why one man, in war, will exterminate large numbers of people with whom he has no personal quarrel.
My liberal friends might tell me that it’s all a stunt of the military-industrial complex and the right wing Republican hard core neo-cons. And my conservative friends might tell me it’s a result of trying to make sure that we, as Americans, are able to hold on to our traditions in the face of constant belligerence from those who hate us. And some might tell me that it’s the will of God that we carry the cross of the West and Christendom to its ultimate pinnacle. I have problems with all of these philosophical treatments because long before Christ and military-industrial complexes and all the other modern mechanisms for promoting factional and national hostilities, we were pretty damned handy at wielding a short sword, parrying spear thrusts as we slashed another man’s guts open.
This killing business is as old as we are. There have been proven instances where gangs of chimps planned ambushes of other gangs of chimps and killed them with crude weapons. And before you chasten me for comparing men and chimps, like it or not, chimps are close to us in terms of DNA, so we might learn (or at least recognize) something from their behavior. War is as old as the species, and beyond, Homo sapiens sapiens, and before that Cro-Magnon, and before that Neanderthal and before that . . .
I’m not making excuses for war, and I’m not a lover of combat. I fought in one. It is primitive, my friends. Primal in its roots. I don’t like being frightened so thoroughly that you never escape that rapid beating of the heart, that moment of instant alert when a car backfires or a jet roars overhead. I don’t like having to stand on the precipice of sanity and decide if I am safer to go insane, or just shuck my shoulders and endure. The shaking, the dry mouth—perpetual dry mouth, the agony of it all imprisoned in the marrow of your bones. Never to be released.
And as for philosophy, when men fight in war, they aren’t fighting for all that high-minded stuff, they are fighting for their lives—it’s personal—it’s part of the prime edict—survive. Fighting in a war is also about taking care of the man on your left, and on your right, because he is the man who takes care of you. And while you are fighting as mates, like I did with those two men we interviewed in Michigan, something happens in the relationship, a bright stellar bond that flashes in the short time you carry on your tasks of shooting, maiming, blowing up, impaling that man on the other side, that man who has a wife, a child, cousins, sisters, a mother who wants him to come home too, just like yours does.
And here I am now, going out at dusk in Washington, DC, where we are now digging around in the Marine Corps’ archives in search of memories, hazy, now exposed to the sun so they can start to stew and stink and sprout all over again. Memories of events I had begun to think I had imagined are now being confirmed as reality. I was not nuts. I did see that, and that, and that, even though I wish I hadn’t.
At dusk, in DC, the fireflies are not out. And I want to see them, their bright, ephemeral flashes that last just a moment or two—that flashing.