One of my stopgap goals over here had been to round out my pop culture education. In time higher ambitions such as mastering Arabic and reading Cicero fell by the wayside as various stressors arose to take their place and time. It’s kinda hard to concentrate on Herodotus when I got my own history to deal with.
Still, at the end of the day I think I can sit and watch a poorly compressed movie, so I picked up a bootleg box set of John Wayne flicks at one of the local shops on base. There were ten DVDs in it, sixty movies burned across the lot. I’m no wiser on the outcome of the Peloponnesian War but at least I might soon expand my knowledge of The Duke’s filmography beyond Sands of Iwo Jima.
I laid a mixed wad of dollars and dinars on the counter, roughly the asking price minus a haggled buck or two. The well-fed Iraqi gave a thumbs up and bagged my haul. Looking over the lot I figured I a movie a day would help kill time before we leave, make things go that much quicker. But then I did the math.
The folks at our company headquarters have been counting down the days to home since mid-January. I can’t do that. I need to work and sleep and run and read and one day look up and be told it’s time to pack. I wanted to keep it this way, keep home a pleasant surprise instead of an ever-distant dream. But then John Wayne made me realize it’s getting too close, that I will be back in the land of Glee and grandma’s apple pie a full week before I would have learned who shot Liberty Valance.
This is good, this is what I want, but this is scary in the way that good, wanted, dreamed about things are. Home comes without pretension, without excuses, without the ability to reshape and repurpose and have the handy excuse of emergency. People are more willing to give you the benefit of the doubt when you’re in combat a world away. I haven’t played that card near enough to be willing to forfeit so soon after I drew it, but whether I like it or not it’s time to cash in the chips.
For the past two years my life had been perpetually post-deployment. Everything was temporary and transient because I was going to Iraq in X number of months and that was that. Relationships were deferred, studies postponed, plans put off until I had the time to see things through.
I won’t be able to do that anymore. I won’t be able to defer, postpone, put off; I will have to do or not do without being able to throw up my hands and blame extraordinary circumstance. This is the birth of my accountability, that the world of the real and responsible is close and I can no longer fool myself with impossible goals and maybe-somedays. Today I don’t have a year to become who I want to be. I barely have a month.
Think back to the end of The Hurt Locker, camera following the wandering protagonist through the cereal aisle, shopping list in hand as he passes Wheaties, Chex, Cheerios, Special K, so many choices of absolutely no consequence. Then that final frame finds the EOD tech stepping off a Chinook, back into the desert, back to the land of import.
According to film and popular conception, decisions here should have the weight of lives hanging on them, no room to worry about the specific gravity of ketchup. That’s the romance of war, that things are ‘real’, black and white, life and death, kill or be killed. Life lived in some seductively simple knee-jerk Manichaeism. No dithering, no fluff, no color save khaki and crimson.
Truth be told, these exaggerated hues form an awfully weak palette. The liminal area of that spectrum may be difficult and complicated and uncomfortable, but it’s also where life comes alive with texture you can feel, where insecurities are exposed and vanities stripped down layer by layer to a humbled, honest core. The wind whipped sand pales against the abrasion of painfully honest interaction.
No ballistic eyewear there, no body armor or helmets or rifles to keep the conversation in your favor- just yourself and another. Lay down arms, get vulnerable. There are still two poles, but the wide gap between is where rich possibilities lie.
Here, in this century space separating breath and death, there’s no room for no man’s land.