A couple of years ago I was interviewed on the radio about our house, and about the changes I had made in my life. A week or so after the program aired I had an email from someone who wondered if he could come for a visit—he was stationed at Fort Bragg but was about to get out of the army and was wondering what shape his life would take next. He was curious about collective living.
His name was Ian. He was quiet and polite, interested in the details of how the house worked, contented to sit in the living room reading zines or talking to whoever came through. Mostly he wanted to talk. He wanted to talk about Iraq, about the army, about the guys he’d known, about the way he’d watched them change, and watched himself change too. As he sat in the living room in the clear December sunlight looking out at the branches of the bare dogwood tree, his hands clasped together between his knees, it felt as though there were something else he wanted to talk about, something that can only be approached slantwise: what does it mean to be human when your humanity can be bent into a shape that you no longer recognize?
“I don’t know why I joined,” he said. “It seemed like the right thing at the time. I didn’t know what I wanted to do with my life. I didn’t believe in the war, but I had some idea that it would be better to have some good people on the inside.” It didn’t turn out that way for Ian. He described being in basic training and hearing stories from the people coming back from Iraq. “I couldn’t believe they were saying the things they were saying. One guy talked about riding around in a jeep breaking bottles over the heads of Iraqis just for the fun of it, and I wondered what kind of a person could do that and laugh about it. But then you get over there….then you get over there and you begin to change. You’re angry all the time. It’s different from what you expected. You change, and the things you never thought you would do is who you start to become.”
I asked Ian if he had heard of the Iraq Veterans Against the War. I had met some of its members in 2005 when I was doing media stuff for an anti-war event near Fort Bragg. The IVAW was still very new, its members not much older than Isabell and Margaret and Justin. It struck me then that when the Vietnam War was going on I didn’t think about how very young the men were who were being drafted and sent to war. I was that age myself. This time I couldn’t stop thinking about how tender and unformed we are in our late teens and early twenties, how the imprint of every experience bites deep. I could see its bite in the faces of the members of Veterans for Peace and Vietnam Veterans Against the War who had come to take part in the event and, I think, maybe find some personal peace as well. I thought about the many veterans who show up at Food Not Bombs, the men who joined up or were drafted right after high school and have never left the war behind.
Ian had already heard about the IVAW, had thought about getting in touch. “The thing is,” he said. “I was in Iraq, but I was never in combat. I never fired my gun in combat. Those guys…I don’t know. I don’t feel like I would really belong there. It’s hard to explain.”
It was hard to explain. It was hard to hear. It was hard to understand. Ian, weeks away from discharge, getting ready to go back to Boston, trying to figure out what he was going to do next, didn’t belong anywhere. He was no longer part of the world he left when he went to Iraq, he was no longer part of the world he inhabited while he was in Iraq. He didn’t belong at our house. He didn’t belong in his own skin. He was a collection of molecules blown apart and trying to find a new shape.
It’s easy to forget about the war. The life at our house—the chickens, the house meetings, the dinners together in the living room, the music flowing out of Will’s room, Skye coming in from the school bus, the bicycles hanging in the shed—is a life very far removed from war. But this week I’m traveling; Margaret’s boyfriend is in the hospital in Austin, and on Monday I got on a plane to spend the week with her. As I waited to board my plane in Raleigh I watched soldiers in desert fatigues walk by in groups of three and four, chattering and laughing and hitching their big bags up higher on their shoulders. When I boarded my connecting plane in Atlanta I was seated next to a young woman flying, like me, to Austin. She was curled up with her iPod when I sat down, but we began to talk when the snacks came. I told her this would be my first time in Austin and explained why I was going there. She was on her way back to Austin after visiting her mother in New Jersey.
“I miss my mom already,” she said, resettling herself in the cramped seat. She was wearing lace-edged leggings, a tiny denim skirt, and little silvery flats. ”I’m kind of a mama’s girl.”
“Do you go to school?” I asked.
“No,” she said. ”Well, I sort of do I guess. I’m in the army.”
I never would have guessed. I asked her how she had come to sign up, and she told me that she had been trouble when she was in high school, making bad decisions and running with a bad crowd. Her mother finally told her she had to straighten up or move out. “So I was, like seventeen, and I didn’t want to be a bum, so it seemed like my best choice was to join the service.” She had only been in for five months, but she’d started school—she wants to be a criminal psychologist—and was learning how to jump out of airplanes. Her first deployment was going to be in Italy to join an airborne brigade. “I’m glad it’s not Iraq,” she said. “That’s all anybody talks about, is whether they’re going to be sent to Iraq.”
“What do people who’ve been there say about it?” I asked.
“It’s not so much what they say, it’s just that they’re different. It’s like Iraq messed with their mind somehow. They’ve seen things and they’ve done things you shouldn’t have to see and do. Who wouldn’t be different?” She chewed on the corner of her thumb and fiddled with the window shade. “It’s like, I was driving with an old friend who had just come back and some woman cut us off. He turned to me and said ‘See, if we were in Iraq right now I’d shoot her,’ and I’m thinking ‘What happened to you? This is not OK.’ A lot of people still want to go, though. I wanted to go when I first signed up, it’s like you haven’t really experienced anything unless you’ve been there, but now….I know people over there who are, like ‘Shoot me in the shoulder, shoot me in the foot, anything to get me out of here.’ I’m signed up for five years,” she added. “I suppose I’ll get deployed there sooner or later.”
“Maybe it’ll be over before that happens,” I said.
She shrugged and shook her head. “I don’t think so.”
“What do people feel about us being over there at all?” I asked.
“Oh, they’re glad we’re there,” she said quickly. “I mean we’ve got to stay. If we pulled out now it would be like there was no point in us being there in the first place.”
The flight attendant came by and took our cups and crumpled peanut packets. We put up our seat trays. My seatmate drew up her knees and pulled her iPod back out of her pocket; I opened my book.
I had an email from Ian last week. He did connect with Iraq Veterans Against the War and has become active with the Boston chapter He was sending out an announcement about Winter Soldier—veterans testifying this week about what they’ve seen and done in Iraq and Afghanistan. The name comes from the 1776 quote from Thomas Paine: “These are the times that try men’s souls. The summer soldier and sunshine patriot will, in this crisis, shrink from the service of his country; but he that stands it now, deserves the love and thanks of man and woman.” The inspiration comes from the first Winter Soldier Investigation, held in 1971; Vietnam veterans brought testimony and evidence that war crimes like the My Lai massacre were not isolated incidents. I wrote back to Ian and told him that I would be putting a link up here; I asked him if it would be all right to write about him. He wrote back almost immediately.
Thanks for putting the link up there!! Feel free to write about the visit and if you have anymore questions send them my way. Thanks for helping me have a safe place in your home, it meant a lot to me.
To watch the live Winter Soldier broadcast, Thursday, March 13 through Sunday, March 16, go to www.ivaw.org