Last Thursday evening, I attended a Veterans’ Day event at the Harvard Club in New York City. It started with renditions of “The Star-Spangled Banner” (for which I remained seated, heart racing, in defiance of the moderator’s request that we stand, figuring that now is as good a time as any to practice resisting repulsive commands), “’Tis the Gift to Be Simple” (did the singer know that Quakers are pacifists?), and “Someone to Watch Over Me” (whether you take it as a woman’s paean to her future husband, or a nation’s wish for a killer dictator, cf. some lyrics I wrote in the run-up to the 2008 election – “Life’s so much better here behind the wire/I didn’t mind riding in the cattle car/Food is cheap and gas is free/And you are watching over me” – this song is creepy); the main attraction was a speech by a brigadier general in the U.S. Army who’s done multiple tours in both Iraq and Afghanistan, followed by a Q&A.
I chose to go because I wasn’t supposed to – meaning, this is not the kind of thing my character would normally do. I figured if I stepped outside my bubble (one aspect of it anyway) I might learn a thing or two.
Did I ever. What stuck with me – what keeps running through my head, at random moments – is part of the general’s answer to the question of why he’d joined the army. He said he’d signed up because he came from a military family; he’d never considered another career. Then, he said he’d always told himself he’d quit the army the day he stopped “having fun.” The implication was that the military provides infusions of excitement and challenge not available elsewhere.
I’m guessing that the basic ingredient of that excitement and challenge is the interplay between killing and the threat of being killed. I must say it was surreal to witness a roomful of people showing the utmost respect for a man who’s made a life out of death. He’d most likely be in prison, or on death row, had he tried that at home.
I got the sense, during the Q&A, that no one was going to talk about killing – the act thereof. That we were going to collectively detach from the fact that the man at the podium had in all likelihood killed many, many humans. So, partly out of true curiosity (roused by a story in Phil Klay’s collection Redeployment in which a band of novice soldiers attempt to discern, after their first remote strike, how many casualties, if any, each is personally responsible for), and partly out of a desire to bring killing into the room, I asked the general, “What’s the difference between the experience of killing a person up close and killing a person from a distance?”
The moderator, retrieving the mic from me, laughed; others in the audience laughed as well. Was it nervous laughter? I don’t know. The general gave a (nervous? bewildered?) chuckle himself, before shrugging and saying he couldn’t say – one’s close, one’s far away. “I can’t really answer that,” he said.