Friday, May 30, 2008

Growing Up Army

I am an Army brat.

I have lived in Florida, Texas, Louisiana, California, and Germany, courtesy of Uncle Sam. By the time I was nine I had lived in and visited more places and flown in more airplanes than some of the members of my family. Watching soldiers pack up to travel to different places far away from their families with no indication of when they might return never struck me as particularly odd. People came down with "PCS" (Permanent Change of Station) orders on a regular basis. We moved often.

I lived in Killeen, TX located next to Fort Hood, one of the largest standing military bases in the world, when the Gulf War began in 1990. I knew very little about the conflict, only that Sadaam Hussein (my Generation's version of Hitler -- a homicidal, anti-democratic megalomaniac that we could hate with fierce American pride) was a bad guy that had to be punished by the U.S. I watched Killeen, empty, as embattled wives left the city, returning to their parents to await the return of their husbands. We lived in a ghost town and prayed for a quick ending. We wrapped yellow ribbons around our arms at school, tiny chests swelling with pride. We would win this battle, we were tiny child soldiers with no clue as to what all the fighting was about, only that we should be proud. We were Americans.

My chest no longer swells with pride at being American. I could feel the hateful eyes on me when I attended my baby brother's high school graduation and refused to stand and sing the National Anthem. I could only imagine the thoughts running through the minds of the other audience members. No doubt they guessed (rightfully) that I am anti-war and assumed (wrongly) that I hate soldiers and this country. I am the daughter of infantry division soldiers -- the people who often see the most action, are the most exposed and vulnerable, and most likely to die in combat. I don't hate this country and I don't hate the men and women in uniform who serve it. But I am working to change this country and helping to create a world in which the sons and daughters of poor and working-class folks, especially Black and Brown folks, won't be sacrificed for Christmas bonuses, nepotism, and the Good Ol' Boys Club that passes for our government these days. I can't be proud until I live in a world that is not dominated by the U.S.

These days going home, I am ambivalent. I am deeply opposed to this war, but mourn the loss of so many young men and women, 4,083 to be exact. You sat next to me at graduation, it wasn't supposed to be this way. You sigh with relief, as the high school sweetheart you left behind, writes you to say that he is okay, is doing well, and is finally ready to let you go. She has been holding her breath, praying a small prayer of thanks. You have come home. You were lucky.

They are all special and we cannot lose another one.

When we talk about the cost of war we do not talk about what it means for families to be separated for months at a time. The constant worry that a missed phone call date means that your partner is lying dead in the desert on the other side of the planet. Heartbreak is a part of war's collateral damage. All over Killeen, you see cars with bumper stickers stating "Half my heart is in Iraq." I walk into the grocery store wearing a black t-shirt with George Bush sitting in between Hitler and Mussolini. At a glance I am worlds apart from wives mourning the absence of their husbands. But I know that this assessment is only skin-deep. The bumper sticker reveals as little about them as my t-shirt does. My t-shirt doesn't reveal that my first love was a West Pointer, that both my parents served in the military, think it was one of the best choices either of them made, but explicitly forbid my brother and I to join the military urging us to choose college instead. Nothing wrong with serving your country but some of these rich white kids should have a chance to do it at least once instead of sending their servants' sons and daughters to do this country's dirty work. And the bumper sticker doesn't reveal all of the wives who curse George Bush's name every morning and are hoping that the next president will put his or her exit strategy into action as soon as they enter the Oval Office. The bumper sticker doesn't tell how much some of these folks long for peace.

I am opposed to this war and that will never change. But I recognize that for any kind of peace to be meaningful we must all begin to look at each other with new eyes that affirm our collective humanity and our need for sanity on this deeply troubled planet. We can begin this work when we can look at each other, across our differences and realize that anti-war, anti-imperialist, anti-racist, pro-woman Army brat can see the humanity of a soldier and an Army wife waiting for his return and they can recognize hers. Can we do this work? Absolutely. Will we do it? Only time will tell. In the meantime, I continue to pray for an end to this war and welcome the day when the Armed Forces will no longer need to exist. A utopian goal to be sure, but they are the only ones worth having.

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