I had occasion the other day to tour a local military base to review some new technologies that the Department of Defense thought would be of interest to Congress. My companions on this trip looked forward to an afternoon's escape with the levity of schoolboys, a contrast to my anxiety-born reserve. For me, this was a kind of coming home, a return to some of the underlying patterns of my youth.
My father was a career Marine officer and my first 21 years were spent in constant contact with the military view of the world. It is a world of direct logic, obeyed commands, linear thinking and unquestioned authority. Neat boxes hang by black threads on charts of Christmas tree configurations with new elements either circumscribed by new boxes or dismissed as irrelevant. It is a clean, sanitary world that supports its adherents and thus perpetuates itself during periods absent of conflict.
My childhood was full of this ordered view of reality. Father's progress was clearly marked by the changing emblems on his shoulders, the order of which I had memorized at an early age. Father's accomplishments were clearly displayed on his chest with colorful ribbons, decoded with the help of a chart in my encyclopedia. I soon learned the cryptic acronyms that encapsulated our family's three-year stays around the country. The first "word" I ever saw was COMBATCRUPAC, my father's assignment at the time of my birth, inscribed on my feeding bowl.
My friends and I played war on summer afternoons that usually ended in arguments about whether one or the other of us was killed in the last assault. We made models of the neat, clean machines that rumbled around or screamed overhead. We spent hours touching the sharp edges and smooth surfaces of the retired equipment displayed outside of the base command building. In later years, we played the distant war of strategy games that quantified every element of warfare down to the effect of fatigue and food shortages on troop performance.
College came and I left that ordered world. Adulthood came and brought that first clear moment of perception when parents shed their mantle and become human. The Vietnam War came and I was made aware of what screaming jets and rumbling tanks do to people. I heard the pronouncements of my father and his friends, but they were conversations heard through a window on a summer night.
Now I was returning to the ordered world of my youth; well-kept buildings and grounds, omnipresent flagpoles and the runes of my past, displayed on carefully lettered signs.
The officer taking us to the base was marked for success: handsome, personable and with the right color code of accomplishment on his chest. The green and white Vietnam campaign ribbon combined with the combat award ribbons and mission numbers to tell me that he had served well. a few years, ago in my extremes, I might have been able to invent reasons for not liking him. But now I had come to acknowledge the military view of reality as the only logical response to an insane task. And, in many ways, the officer reminded me of my father as I saw him during my youth.
As we approached the sleek jets, that we had come to see, I felt my host's awe, felt my childhood rapture flush again at these $6-million cybernetic marvels poised on the tarmac. These machines merited the clean phrases he used to describe them. These were phrases born of the computer technology that the fighters employed, phrases that reflected the sanitary distance created between the pilot and his "payload impact." I was distressed by the ease with which I picked up these phrases, this outlook as detached from reality as the afternoons of my youth spent playing war games.
Back in Washington, they were debating aid to Cambodia with a similar distressing detachment. The bodies had piled high enough to be seen from the white marble buildings, and Washington reacted with an offer of food and aid about equal to the cost of a dozen sleek jets. There was little mention made of the link between today's carnage and the "clean" warfare of 10 years ago. Standing in embarrassed solitude, the aid issue was soon embraced and has become another marker in the game of domestic political strategy. The Vietnamese are berated for considering food and medicine elements of warfare and for thus refusing their delivery. We seem to have forgotten our own strategic consideration of 10 years ago that turned rice stores into ashes and dumped 17 million gallons of defoliants on the country-side. War is not clean and mere hand-wringing won't remove the spot.
Returning from the base, I sat in silence remembering a scene on the Mall, below my office, where there are lines of vendor's trucks run mostly by Asians who were displaced by war. Passing the vendors on my way to work early one morning, I was struck by a wail of anguish that cut the unmarked day and revealed the soft flesh underneath. One of the women vendors was in hysterics and being restrained by her friends. What tragic news had evoked this, what emotional sinew had popped under the strain of dislocation? She sat sobbing on the curb beneath the white marble buildings, beneath the jet overhead. But her cries couldn't pierce the walls or reach the distant plane.
I stood transfixed and then, with the ease with which I used to put down my gun to answer the dinner call, I slid into my white building.