When I was a girl, I was perpetually grateful for two things. One, that our country was not at war. And two, that I was a girl, because girls didn’t have to go to war.
I held the idea of “War” as the worst-of-the-worst-case scenarios. The worst thing that could ever happen to any country. And my country was my home. And if the worst thing happened to my home, then the worst thing was happening to me.
I was six in 1976 – The Bicentennial – and took my baton twirling on the road in two (not one) 4th of July parades. Perhaps I was only a spectator at the big parade in D.C., but somehow my memory over the years has me playing a part in it. Grandma and Grandpa were in town – which was an unusual treat. I wore the cutest red, white and blue costume. Grandma braided my hair into little loops fixed to my head with bows. Yep, red, white and blue bows. This wasn’t any holiday. This was a once in a lifetime event.
While we were downtown for the national extravaganza, I got hit with heat stroke. Mom brought me into the Smithsonian where I collapsed. I remember pressing my face against the cool marble floor, its temperature the only thing pulling me back from fainting. I can still see it – that marble floor up close, the rotunda on its side. I loved those palatial museum corridors; I loved saying the word, “row-tun-dah”. I wanted to put on a crown and enter my very own row-tun-dah. And it seemed possible too, because this was America. Two-hundred-years old. America.
I knew why we had raced around that day for two parades, why the Carbonis down the street had decorated their entire basement in god awful red, white and blue stars (fine for my costume, but wallpaper? really?), why it was even possible for me to have baton twirling classes in the first place, why I – just a little girl from Prince Georges County – could half-faint inside a rotunda with real marble floors. I knew why all of this came to be.
I was nearly seven; I was no dummy. I knew that all of this came to be because America had fought wars and won. Because America had experienced the worst of the worst, and came out on top.
A few years later, around the time I retired my baton in favor of girl scout badges, I got to wondering how my grandparents could stand being over here, safe and sound during World War II while the Nazis wreaked havoc on Europe. I knew not everyone could fight in a war, and I knew it was a good thing that the violence took place somewhere else, but I wondered, how could they sleep at night? How could they even go about their daily business? It seemed to me that there must have been a constant sadness in every room of every building of every town in every state during WWII. I couldn’t imagine it any other way.
Flash forward a dozen years to January 16, 1991. Watching the bombing on television over our carry-out dinner, I felt as if we were on the cusp of something important and dreadful. I looked at the screen and thought, “This is it. We are at war.” But if not the next day then by the end of the week, my attention turned right back to the spring semester I was embarking on — my classes, professors, my infatuation with my new beau. For me, and everyone around me, nothing seemed to change. Oh, we listened to that hideous Lee Greenwood song when it invaded even the better radio stations; and sure, I wept each time I heard it because it’s true, I don’t forget the people who died for our way of life. But the only way that Desert Storm really touched me was that it gave the sketch comedy show I helped produce some really good SNL style jokes. That, and the following year I dated a veteran, an awfully charming gentleman, who I probably would have never met if it weren’t for the GI bill.
Where am I going with this? What am I trying to say? I’m trying to say that it wasn’t supposed to be like this. Being at war for three thousand thirteen days wasn’t supposed to be so easy for so many people, so comfortable for so many people. People like me. All of the pain and destruction in so many lives should not be so invisible.
Where I spend my time in Santa Monica, I can’t walk a fraction of a block without having hungry people on the sidewalk ask for spare change. I know the repercussions of war are neither invisible nor easy. But this is a confession. When I ask myself honestly how being a citizen in country at war has affected my day to day existence, I must admit, it looks a lot like times of peace. I’m grateful, yes, but it feels wrong to be so free from hardship.
I can sit here and count on two fingers the miniscule ways I’ve attempted to pay homage to our soldiers. In 2003, I sent a kick-ass care package overseas care of AnySoldier.com. It felt good to know that someone in a dusty humvee was head-banging to my donated recording of “Runnin’ With the Devil”. When the thank you note arrived from a hero straight out of Fallujah, I treasured it for a few days before tossing it into my box of future scrap book additions. Then, in October 2005, when the 2,000th American death occurred in Iraq, I stood at Wilshire and Ocean with a candle. It felt important to be there, to stand up. After less than an hour, I went home.
That was 2,374 lives ago; if you’re counting American lives lost in Iraq. I don’t know what the number is if you count any life damaged in any country as a result of these two wars.
What happened to my girlhood idea that military strife must bring a constant sadness to every room of every building of every town in every state? Now that I’m grown up, I’m guessing even the soldiers wouldn’t want that. But I do know that I can and should be more mindful. More helpful. More supportive.
I am ashamed that I have posted at this blog for the last 29 days straight and only mentioned our soldiers once. I’m not going to feign any exaggerated patriotism. I know that a soldier in harms way is a soldier in harm’s way regardless of whether or not he or she is “ours”. But this country is my home. And our soldiers have been fighting for too long.