Not that long ago, I woke up on Sunday mornings, loaded my five-disc changer with the likes of Cassandra Wilson, Anne Dudley and Jaz Coleman, Etta James, Pat Metheny and Nicky Holland and picked my way through The New York Times, generally avoiding the hard news of the day. I desperately wanted to believe the scandalous truth wasn’t true to my life.
Now, I wake up, watch This Week with George Stephenopoulos and count the number of deceased soldiers older than 30 during the concluding “In Memoriam” segment. I started out narrowly focused on 35-year-olds until I passed that milestone this year. Or maybe it was when I started to notice more and more thirtysomethings. Recently, I’ve expanded my range to include those in their 40s.
I mourn for all of them, regardless of age, but the loss of men and women so close to me stirs other days. I recall the invasion of Libya back in the 1980s. I watched reports of that one from the dark basement of a dorm on the McCallie School campus in Chattanooga, Tenn., surrounded by prep schoolers captivated by the possibility that the situation would last long enough for them to get in on the action. Although it no longer had military connections, McCallie maintained remnants of its military code, and that spirit had been aroused in the current boys in blue.
All, seemingly, except for me. I quietly studied the cheering, chesty boys gathered around the television and realized yet another difference between us (among many). There was no question, no time to consider right and/or wrong, for them. Each wore his patriotism like a second skin, yet another skin tone that could be used to find me wanting.
I stood alone, arguing because I couldn’t accept the knee-jerk response to fight for flag and country. Why should I? Sure it was 1986, but black men were drafted, fought and died in Vietnam when they weren’t treated like men in this country.
I spoke of church bombings and the dogs and water hoses turned on black folks like I had lived those experiences firsthand. I detailed the story of Gov. George Wallace blocking the entrance of the University of Alabama in an attempt to stop desegregation of the school.
That had taken place not even 25 years earlier. I asked them if it mattered to any of them that, during an inaugural address, Wallace had proclaimed, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever!” I knew those words better than I knew Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech. I knew them because even then, on that very campus, I recognized that Wallace’s sentiment remained true and wondered why they couldn’t see it too.
I wasn’t afraid, and I wasn’t unappreciative of the opportunities living in the United States had afforded me. But I wasn’t ready to defend the soil without reaping a few of the hard-earned benefits that people before me had lost their lives trying to attain.
A little more than four years later, it happened again in 1991. More images of war on the television screen during what was now my senior year of college, but this time I couldn’t watch more than a few minutes at a time. It was such a remote experience anyway, that Gulf War. Like a videogame full of LCD strikes and flight simulator perspectives. Who was in control? Who was fighting? Who was dying this time?
Could I now be pressed to join the troops? And would I? The old arguments remained, but a deeper selfishness bolstered my steadfast stand. I was that much closer to … to what?
I was about to graduate from college and enter the world ready to finally capitalize on its promise. No matter that I had no plans for that next step. I couldn’t waste my efforts to get this far. I was the first member of my family to graduate college, so there was no way, no how I was going to just lay down and die.
Then death crashed into our homes on Sept. 11, 2001. I stood in the kitchen watching what was supposed to be the final minutes of Good Morning, America. I remember the footage of the first plane repeating as Charles Gibson attempted to gain some clarity, and then the second plane and all sense of clarity was broken.
It was only a matter of time before we would march headlong into the fray. I bore witness again, among friends, before a big, flat screen when we began this second war in Iraq to seek vengeance for our dead and to protect our nation from future attacks, both physical and economic.
I don’t recall a single word from our leaders during any of these moments, not a single statement or phrase that could inspire me to go out and spread the righteous fire. Instead I’m drawn to a quote from Matrix Reloaded. As the last humans prepare to engage the machine invaders, Morpheus rallies the troops thusly: “I remember that I am here not because of the path that lies before me but because of the path that lies behind me.”
Neither path originates from a higher moral plane. There’s no respect for life, no sense of learning from where we have been and no vision for a future together. We’re down in the depths hoping that the ends will justify all of the means.
When will it end? I don’t want to watch any more. (tt clinkscales)