Ladies and Gentlemens:
Thanks for having me here to honor those who’ve served. I was a soldier. Then I was a teacher. Now I’m just a… well, a citizen, I guess.
A teacher. One day I’m dozing through a meeting of the English Composition section at the little college where I’ve washed up. My colleagues are selecting topic essays for a timed writing exam. Idea is to give a common text, ask a couple of saccharine questions, extort from students some kinda expository prose. Profs reading aloud timely passages to urge on the group. It’s the catalogue of the times: Acid rain. Urban crisis. Nuclear winter. Violence in the movies. Campaign finance. Some kinda owl.
I feel my chin sagging to my chest. Lids settling. Maybe drooling. I’m in a state of grace. Through the cotton I can hear a voice reading out the first lines of a specimen essay by Paul Theroux: “I am ashamed to be a man. Being a man means being unfeeling, obedient, soldierly, stupid…” Soldierly. Stupid.
No. Hey. Now we’ve got the whole Faculty hammering out a new curriculum for our little college. Agenda item is the “problem-solving curriculum,” where we put… I dunno: “problems” before the students and they …whatdya figure… “solve” them. One prof gets up to object: “Problem-solving? That’s what Kennedy and his advisors tried in Viet Nam. Problem solving. And look at the stupid solutions he came up with… enclaves, carpet bombs, Green Berets…” Green Berets. Stupid.
No. Hey. I’m just outta the war. Back on campus trying to go unnoticed. Snoozing through graduate courses, schlurfing beer, chasing girls. One afternoon, I lure a nubile coed into a yogurt stand where I spring for a carob bean cone. “You got drafted?” she asks between flicks of her tongue… “No. I enlisted,” I say without thinking. Pause. “That was stupid…” Enlisted. Stupid.
No. Hey. It’s inauguration day for that Black Wall up in DC. Civilians all mooing about it. I wander along its length, look down at the stuff laid along the Wall. Mementos: poems, six-pack of beer, flowers, combat boots, dog tags. A popsicle stick jammed in the ground with little banner glued to it catches my eye. I stoop, pick it up. It reads: “Nomina stultorum parietibus haerent.” What? Figure it’s some kinda Latin tribute for the dead? You know: “Dulce et decorum…” “Here lie in in honored repose…” Something like that? It’s Quintus Horatius Flaccus… Horace, the Roman poet: “The names of stupid men appear on walls…” Dead. Stupid.
Well, I was a soldier. 26 years, peace and war. And I suppose that if I’m not all those things just this minute—unfeeling, obedient, soldierly, stupid—I have been over time.
I come from the fifties. Big screens. Big fins. Big mills. Big hips. Cheerleaders. French fries. Forty-five RPM records. Soldiers. I come from a time when everybody was a soldier.
I was born in the New Hampshire mountains where my family’s been growing corn on granite since 1692. I ate supper—that’s suppah—in a clapboard farmhouse under portraits of a great-grandfather killed down to Antietam Creek, a grandfather who fought in France, a father who served in the Pacific. It was pretty clear whose picture was going up next on that wall.
My teachers from that time—men and women—were all soldiers, sailors, airmen. Most had gotten over it. There were few professional veterans in those days when everyone served. And few strangers, seems to me, from a time when every man had had to surrender his private identity and learn to live and cooperate with strangers, learn to trust his bunkmate, like him or not, and to live up to the expectations of other men. And take risk. Or simply put up with nothing more serious than discomfort. Deprivation. Boredom. In the name of the Republic. And among her citizens. They hadn’t all seen war, but they had all seen duty. And like it or not, they’d done it.
I loved them. Men and women who, when they were violent or arrogant, had earned the right. And served us well that way. Who, when they were tolerant and patient, had learned that in common effort and common struggle. Who, when they became obsessed with accountability, detail, fact and number, had come by that obsession through knowledge of the consequences of carelessness and laxity. Who, when they spoke of fear, did so with the memory fresh of ordeal suffered with others and for others, for us. Who, when they spoke of victory, had something to show. I loved them. I enjoyed their company. I swallowed their stories. I admired their scars. I envied their victory. Still do.
And I tell you without bitterness… I’m not so sure the word citizen carries the same weight now that it did then, in my mind or in theirs.
I see people on the street now who, when they are violent or arrogant, are that out of self-indulgence and contempt. Who, when they are tolerant and patient, are that largely out of indifference. Who, when they become obsessed with accountability, detail, fact and number, have come by that obsession through greed and ambition. Who, when they speak of fear, mean fear of growing old or fat, of losing privilege or property… or hair. Who, when they speak of victory, mean someone else’s… and they speak of it meanly. They had no national mandate to answer, so they didn’t. They went straight on to life. The smart thing to do. To do anything else would be… well, stupid. But somehow, I just can’t love them. And I don’t enjoy their company. They don’t have stories. They don’t have scars. I don’t necessarily blame them for the life they’ve chosen. I just can’t love them.
I dunno why soldiers—those who serve—seem stupid. Maybe because so many of them are so young. And uncritical. Maybe because so many of them lack education. Or because so many of them seem to embrace a service, a misery, a sacrifice which they could plausibly elude and from which they derive no gain. But somehow, the moniker has stuck. And I hafta tell you that sometimes it’s a blessing to be stupid. So you can tell yourself that this kid died for something. So you don’t see yourself like that, on the ground, in the widening pool of dark dust. So maybe you don’t really see the big terrors in the fight. So maybe you don’t count the time you serve away from civilian or professional ambition. Or maybe don’t notice the little slights back home.
Of course, a lot of the soldier’s life can seem stupid. Soldiering is, after all, a traditional profession. And tradition amounts to no more than continuing to do certain things in the same way, for old times’ sake, long after any original purpose has faded away. And that’s stupid, I suppose. And trusting complete strangers, often enough with your life? If that’s not stupid, I dunno what is.
But there is, Lord love us, a sense in which soldiers are stupid, or at least subscribe to a code or ethos that is irrational, non-linear, unreasoned… stupid in the word an outsider might choose. The values of the soldier’s world—and I say “soldier” because that’s been my market in the fair, but the values are those of all who serve, in blue or white or green or now random computer-generated pixel camouflage—are necessarily limited but for that reason intense, and they are revealed values, not intellectual. They are, oddly enough, the values that education indicts or erodes because they aren’t analytical: loyalty, endurance, faith, honor, courage. And, I admit, they’re dangerous… allthemore so back in the social circle from which us stupid soldiers got exiled by the multitude in the name of the multitude. It’s order, tension, calculus, measure that holds this mess together out here in society.
Out there and very quickly, soldiers bond—you’ve heard the word—but to each other and not infrequently with profound disdain for the society that tossed them out… and tossed them together. And sure enough, you wind up dying not for the Free World Military Assistance Effort in Viet Nam, Republic of, but for some lemon from New Jersey, some jerk from Alabama, some butcher’s son from Idaho, some surfer from California, some derelict from Iowa, some farmboy from New Hampshire. And that… that’s stupid.
But back here, back in the circle, I suppose we can seem like a fly between the window panes: logy, distracted, slow, awkward, clumsy… stupid.
I was feeling thataway one mangy January afternoon few weeks ago, stumbled outta my office to stretch my legs, wander around Post, air out my head for a minute. First thing happened I bumped into a man who won the Navy Cross on Iwo Jima and shook his hand, looked into those eyes. Not five minutes later I ran into another guy, shot the first day on Guadalcanal, and who gave me his hand. Crossing the street, I was hailed by a third who’d spent two years in a Korean prisoner of war camp. On the way home, I bought ten pounds of roofing nails from a guy who’d spent six years in the Hanoi Hilton. I had a cup of tea with a woman who’d served as a nurse in a military hospital in North Africa during the Tunisian Campaign.
Simple communions. Everyday transactions. Men and women on a little town street. Maybe. Maybe, though, such people are what James Joyce calls “secret messengers.” Citizens among the rest, who look like the rest, yet who, unlike the rest, know prodigious secrets and a wisdom other, apart, but entirely useless here. Just seems to me that there might be other words for their… what? qualities, if I may. Uncritical isn’t necessarily stupid. Uneducated isn’t necessarily stupid. Stoic isn’t, either.
Right now there’s a war going on, fought by a tiny fraction of the population of this great Republic. Right now, somewhere around five percent of Americans have ever even served. Among young Americans, that percentage drops sharply. It’s just not smart to give up a life’s momentum, ambition’s edge, youth’s liberty to serve. And who sets the example? When I was a kid, a meeting like the one I had with those men and women on Lexington street was only too common; now what struck me about it was that it was so rare as to be exceptional.
I read: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” That’s a gentle translation of makarioi toi ptochoi tou pneumati. Beati pauperes spiritu in the Vulgate. The weak of mind. The stupid. I guess that’ll have to be our consolation. That and assemblies like this one, which bring together friends and family and teachers and coworkers and those who have already served to celebrate that flag and the things—the stupid things—done in her name and the men and women—the stupid ones—who do those things… and who would again.
Perhaps, if we can’t manage to build us a community worthy of their sacrifice, we can discover ways of using their hard-bought experience and those uncritical qualities they acquired in our service … and then–if we can’t find an epithet better than stupid–at least make a virtue of it. Thanks for listening and the Lord love the lot of youse.”
Comment: This is an SST reprint from 12 November 2016. Seems like ages ago. Alan Farrell is a freaking treasure… and a soldier through and through. Below is my comment from 2016.
That stupid old soldier sure can write. He writes of a cornerstone of our society, of how worthy old men pass down the tenets of honorable living to younger men. And he did it in a way that this stupid old soldier can understand and appreciate. Soldiers. I love that word dearly. It holds so much more sacred meaning than that over used term warriors that is thrown around so widely today.
I remember some of those men. Father James F. O’Dea was the only parish pastor I knew while growing up. He was a Navy chaplain in the Pacific during WWII. For eight years I served mass with him as an alter boy once or twice a week. Mr. Grey, my language arts and literature teacher in eighth grade was an OS2U pilot on a cruiser in the Pacific. I remember his story of evading a Zero by diving to the sea and slowing down to nothing as he leveled out above the waves as he watched the face of the Zero pilot as he dove straight into the sea. He liked us to sing the song “Goober Peas” to him. He taught us the intricacies of the true causes of the Civil War. It was a lesson quite out of place in a New England grammar school. He never told us, but I think he grew up in the deep South.
Later in life, I received the finest military education imaginable from such soldiers as Al Rivers, Chuck Clayton and Doug Miller. All three were former MACVSOG recon team one zeros. And I cannot forget my first platoon sergeant, SSG Livingston and MSG Dimas, my weapons platoon sergeant. They were rocks in guiding the development of a young infantry lieutenant. God bless every one of them. And God bless Alan Farrell.