I am haunted by the memory of two young men I met late at night in the hotel lobby in Austin on July 4. I was reading when a young guy sat down and began talking to me. He could not have been more than 18, easily as young as my freshman students. I can still see the glint in his eyes, so bright and alive that they bring tears to mine. I can still hear the clash of the ID around his neck as he crossed his arm across his chest. He was beautiful. He was polite, charming, innocent, and yet, deceptively self-aware. He was a young American who brought me face to face with a reality I knew existed, but which has never touched me quite so profoundly, a reality whose insidious erosion of human lives has never been so present to the very air that I breathe.
Jonathan was in military training at Fort Hood, on leave for the July 4 weekend. His friends had gone onto a club on 6th Street after the bar where they were in earlier had closed. Jonathan was carded and not let in. Too young to drink, yet on standby for duty in Afghanistan, he came back to the hotel to wait for his friends. He didn’t know when he was going to war, maybe a month, maybe a year. He was reflective, solemn, as he told me that his best friend, the guy who had introduced him to the Army, had committed suicide two weeks earlier. The friend was on leave for a week, back in Pennsylvania to get married, and Jonathan’s sister had called him to say his friend was found hanging from the rafters. Did Jonathan see it coming? How did he feel about it? I was full of questions for him, and all the time I had in mind that his friends were in a club partying, that it was July 4, a day of celebration. That he was a mere 18 years old.
I nevertheless asked him these questions and more: was he scared? what did his mother think? And his father? The words he spoke were not so interesting, more like rote responses he had learnt as a way of covering over the impossibility of understanding the profundity of what he was doing: “God wants me to fight for my country,” “My mother passed two years ago, and I know she will look after me,” “I don’t believe I am going to die”. “My father fought in Iraq, and so he is proud of me.” What touched me so deeply was the lack of conviction with which he quickly produced these stock responses. Jonathan’s quiet reflection, his somber tone, the fact that his conversation with me, a strange woman in a hotel lobby, had turned almost immediately to dying and death and danger. I thought of a young guy, Nick, about the same age who we had met at the Explosions in the Sky concert. Nick and my friend Sharon had talked about bands and vinyl, the theramin, feedback noises and the girl he was planning to tell that he loved. Sharon’s conversation with Nick was as it should be with a young adult finding his place in the world. My conversation with Jonathan was what I would expect to have with a man at the end of his life. This young man, expected to carry the burdens of someone who had lived a life that prepared him to deal with such troubles and traumas. But Jonathan was not yet old enough to get into a night club.
His friend came home, and he was older, louder, more confident. He was probably 22 or 23. His extra years had given him ways of protecting himself from the enormity of what he was being asked to do. He had been drinking, and was not really interested in the conversation I was having with Jonathan. But he showed me utmost respect, and politely answered my questions, engaged my conversation. This man was an engineer. “I build bridges. Ma’am.” he proudly and politely responded. I asked him if he designed the bridges – as I assumed was the job of an engineer — “No, ma’am. Bridges are already designed. I build them.” And he turned to Jonathan and explained that he wanted to look after him, he embraced him, lovingly, like a brother whose blood ran through his own veins. But it turned out that Jonathan’s job was on the frontlines, with a gun, on guard against enemy invasions while the bridge was being built. Jonathan would be the first in combat, more likely to die than his friend. And when he told me this, Jonathan looked down, his head in his hand, the eyes still glistening with youth, a mixture of hope and naievety. And behind his clear skin, and his youthful innocence, he was somewhere wise to the fact that he had no choice over his own future.
Was there any chance that they would not have to go to Afghanistan. “No ma’am. They’re sending more of us, not less. The war will go on. Ma’am. It will get worse, ma’am.” The older soldier replied matter of factly.
My heart became so heavy with the knowledge that these dear young men were in the service of a war of vengeance for a crime no one really knows who committed. And to do their service, they are being asked to age so well in advance of their years. In so many of the films I have seen, American soldiers are tough, and aggressive, they rape and kill out of vengeance, their language — in every sense of the word — is violent, it’s a language of survival. And in Jonathan and his comrade, I had the privilege of seeing who a soldier was before being subjected to the brutality of the battlefield.
The corruption and violation of America’s youth is on few people’s conscience. There are more urgent people to attend to: the dead, the physically wounded, the outwardly psychologically maimed, and of course, Osama bin Laden. Meanwhile, at age 18, Jonathan is already witness to a trauma that he will spend years working through, that is, if he is one of the lucky ones who gets that opportunity. A part of me wanted to reach out to him, but I knew too that wasn’t why he had sat down next to me. As suddenly as he had introduced himself, the two got up and went out to smoke a cigarette. My task of listening and theirs of talking were done.