A few days ago, one of the best students I’ve ever had returned from his second tour with the Marines. He’d just spent a year in Iraq. When Steve (not his real name) was in one of my classes, he had just come back from a tour in Afghanistan.
I offered to take him out to lunch or dinner; he could choose the restaurant. He chose his favorite Chinatown eatery and insisted on paying. "When a man goes out with a lady, the lady shouldn’t have to pay," he said with a touch of irony. But, I protested, we’re not dating; besides, I implored, "You deserve a treat after what you’ve been through." He would hear none of it and said he was paying "out of respect."
One thing I’ve learned is not to argue with a Marine!
Anyway, we tried to catch up on the year that had passed. Other than a trip to Turkey at the beginning of this year and the death of a friend two weeks ago, it was a pretty mundane year for me, I said. That was a bit of a lie, actually. I was more interested in hearing what he had to say than in talking about myself.
The composure that helped him survive growing up in one of New York’s toughest ghettos, not to mention tours of duty in Iraq and Afghanistan, slid away from his ruggedly handsome face like sand from a beach as a storm approaches. An articulate young man was reduced to stammering: "You j-j-just c-can’t talk about th-those things!"
I would not prod him. The truth is, I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to ask him what I really wanted to know: What had he experienced, and how had it changed him? However, I would get an answer to the second part of my unasked question — and bits and pieces of an answer to the first — by the end of our conversation.
Because he’d been in the countryside, he said, he didn’t see quite as much action as he’d anticipated. He spent a lot of his time reading and, when he had time and access, sending and answering e-mails, including a few to me. (I had asked him to stay in touch with me.) But when he heard gunfire or explosions, "I didn’t think about whether it was theirs or ours. It’s danger." He said he was reacting exactly as he had learned to do when he grew up in the projects of South Jamaica (only a few blocks from where Sean Bell was killed by New York City cops). "When you hear gunshots, when you hear the u2018boom,’ you find cover and protect whoever’s next to you." There’s "nothing more and nothing less" that you can do in such a situation, he explained.
Like many of his fellow Marines, soldiers, sailors, and members of the Air Force, he enlisted in order to "get out of the projects and go to school." He chose the Marines, he said, because "I thought they would prepare me best." As a result, he said, he was "thankful" that he was a Marine in the situations he faced.
However, he related, that and his belief that he’s always done his "best for me and the men by my side," are his only sources of pride in the time he’s spent in uniform. He has no more belief than I (an English professor in one of the bluest states!) in the stated objectives for the military actions in which he participated. "How are we fighting for our country? For democracy? Against terror?"
While trying not to seem smug, I said that I’ve asked those questions from the day this Administration put a price on Osama bin Laden’s head. "I know," he said. "I wondered those things, too. But one thing the Marines teach you is never to doubt yourself, your commander, your country. The problem is, most of us never think about what u2018my country’ or the orders we’re given actually mean."
I thought — but didn’t say — that he just articulated one of the reasons why the military enlists or conscripts young people: Most of us haven’t asked, much less answered, those questions in any meaningful way by the time we’re 19 or 20. I know I hadn’t. Some people never do.
Instead, I asked him a variation of the classic question a professor asks her student: "What do you think?" After a brief, but seemingly interminable, silence between us, I amended my query: "How do you feel?"
His eyes, normally so lively and full of tent, glazed over into a vague stare. "I have no country," he declared. "I realized that I wasn’t fighting for my country because I have no country." When you’re out in fire zone, he said, "You can only fight for your buddies."
Besides, he wondered, "How can you say it’s your country when you’ve been sent out in an unarmored van through an area full of mines where people are shooting each other?" He couldn’t understand how his country could do that to him, or anyone, especially if they’ve volunteered to serve.
"It’s not my country." Another man told me that years ago. Just after I returned from living in France, I shared a house with two graduate students and a woman who was just starting her first job. One — Walter — began his undergraduate schooling some two decades earlier. Lacking focus, he left college after a year; shortly thereafter, President Johnson increased the number of military personnel this country sent to Vietnam. He tried to escape into Canada but was stopped at the bridge from Detroit to Canada.
He was soon drafted and quickly sent to the rice paddies. From what I recall, his stories were strikingly similar to what I heard from Steve: bureaucratic indifference, incompetence and chicanery and a lack of purpose for fighting in another country. In another similarity to what I heard from Steve, Walter told me that he quickly learned that the only people on whom he could depend were his fellow soldiers. "You’re fighting for them, not for a country. Once you understand that, you realize there is no country to fight for."
I would love to find out where Walter is now, and to hear a conversation between him and Steve. What would two men who said "I have no country" say to each other?
What each of them told me will have to do for now. After he yanked the check away from me and paid (I insisted on leaving the tip.), Steve and I left the restaurant and wandered the circuitous maze of Chinatown streets. I was scanning brightly colored porcelain objects and silk garments in the windows and stalls and his eyes followed young women. He told me that even though he’s officially finished his commitment to the Marines, he might be forced to stay on. That is one aspect of enlistment that few people knew until the current war dragged into its third year: That the military is not obligated to release anyone who has completed his or her commitment. They are free to keep enlistees in and keep them for as long as they are "needed." So, he explained, "I could end up there again."
"Oh, no!," I exclaimed.
All I could do was to get him to repeat a promise he’s kept so far: Wherever he is, he’ll stay in touch. A man who understands that he has no country may be more mature and stronger in character than most people. But he still needs other people, for he understands that we’re all he has. No country can give him, or us, that.
Justine Nicholas [send her mail] teaches English at the City University of New York.