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Coming Home, Over the Years
By Kent Southard

Recently, and I saw something that struck me as quite extraordinary, though it took a while to figure out what I was looking at -- in the middle of the mostly empty food court in California, two young Marines were engaged in intense conversation. It was no great stretch to identify them as Marines even though they were dressed in civilian clothes; a major Marine base is about 40 miles away and there was no mistaking them. What caught my attention at first was what they were smoking. One was smoking those thin brown cigarettes adventurous women used to smoke. The other smoked a slim cigar. Not your usual looking Marines. And as they spoke, their gestures were, frankly, broadly theatrical. They weren't in the least gay-seeming, this was something else. They seemed completely unaware of other people walking past, not just non-participatory but non-existent in the social moment. I've never noticed Marines before seem so uncaring of the status anxiety; ranking and attendant glaring that constitutes most life around here. But with these two, it was as if the reality that we all presume to share as Americans had been displaced from their minds.

And then it dawned on me - they'd been there. Afghanistan that is, and now they were back. And the experience was such that it had caused them to become unstuck, at least a little bit, from the consensus we perceive as 'reality' here, and they were trying to construct something from their available stock of affectations and gestures that would adequately express where their heads now were.

I thought of them again as I read the account of one Matt Guckenheimer, 'Fresh Memories of War' in The Ithaca Journal. Born of liberal boomer parents, Matt had chosen a different route, seeking out a combat role in the military. Now back from Afghanistan, Matt says "I know I can get through it, so the challenge is gone. I don't think wanting to put yourself in that position is really healthy to begin with." Well, that's an encouraging sign of sanity, isn't it? But Matt says some almost surprising things as well. Returning to the United States, "he remembered how alienated Americans are from each other. After living in a Third World country, where people he didn't know would smile or say hello on the streets, it was jarring to return home, where contact with strangers is mostly shunned."

"These people who lived through life, they seemed more grounded." he said. ''Coming home was like walking back into a "clueless" society where over-consumption is commonly regarded as the route to happiness. '

I have a clipping somewhere I cut out of Harper's, I think, about 25 years ago. It was an article by a Vietnam vet writing about the dissatisfactions of trying to 'adjust' back to civilian life. I remember vividly his vision of men sitting at desks lined up in a corporate office as a "battery of hens awaiting the urge to lay." Something I've often noticed in Viet vets is a refusal to fully accept the received consensus of reality that most of us so slavishly adhere to. They don't give unquestioning loyalty to corporate employers; they remain unmoved by jingoist "patriotism." My old co-worker and friend Dan was a Marine LRP in that war, about the most dangerous duty available. He was unenthusiastic about Reagan's adventures; last I heard he was a pony-tailed dedicated peace activist.

After WW1, Hemingway wrote a story about a young soldier's turmoil at not wanting to join the other returning veterans in telling lies about how glorious war had been. WW2 gave us a body of anti-war literature uniformly written by veterans of hard combat - Kurt Vonnegut, Norman Mailer, Paul Fussell, and Joseph Heller. Inexplicably, since these writer's heyday we've had a couple of decades worth of popular culture fond of the lies Hemingway and the rest of the real veterans sought to expose; lies that have been the political currency in trade of the conservative movement and its many draft-dodging stalwarts.

Matt Guckenhiemer's slight combat exposure (at a total of two combat deaths in Afghanistan during his time -- we're not talking the Battle of the Bulge here) seems to have been sufficient to displace him from the unquestioning acceptance of the fictions by which life has been lived here in America. Conspicuous over-consumption does not bring happiness, war fever is not "healthy;" likely he will continue to unfavorably compare results to stated premise and discover that most everything has become an edifice of lies, from our corporate giants to presidential accountability. When us English majors point this stuff out, we're told "why do you hate America so much?" When the veterans point it out, the powers-that-be are going to have to come up with a new come-back.