May 26, 2013
“You think it’ll go away someday, but it never does.” The Master Sergeant said that. I don’t know his name – he never offered it – but he was Mister Shit Together, not a stray hair or a slack muscle, so he’s The Master Sergeant to me. “I’ll get up to pee after midnight, and I might get back to sleep or I might be up to see the dawn.”
We were sitting together on a bench in the Duffeeland Dog Park in Sun City, which is either a thriving “active-adult community” or a pleasant zoo full of old people, depending on how you look at it.
I was there with Naso, and she was there because Duffeeland is her personal heaven: A long, shady promenade lined with good-hearted people who love to treat a gangly Bloodhound bitch like a grandchild. She was off making her rounds, visiting with the members of her fan club, taking the time to share real love with each of them – and if a treat got hoovered up into a slobbery mouth, so much the better.
“War is a young man’s game.” He smiled wryly, but he wasn’t making a joke. “Beforehand, you can tell yourself that you’ll be a hero, that your life will be brighter and shinier because you killed in a just cause. But that’s all before you’ve killed anybody.
“And you see the men in your unit, the men who have already made one or a few or a lot of kills. And you see how the other men treat them, and how they swagger, and you never stop to doubt any of it, not the justice of it, not even the reality of it. How could this not be right? But you don’t even think of it that way, not even so much as to wonder if it could be anything but wonderful. Who doesn’t crave a hero’s reception?”
We sat for a long time, neither of us saying anything. The sun was low in the sky and the breeze out of the west was cool and dry, the everyday miracle of a springtime afternoon in the low desert. Naso came to lay down beside me, and I dropped my hand to bury it in the thick folds of skin and fur at her neck.
“And maybe you start to notice that those men they call heroes are always drunk, but you don’t go looking for any dots to connect. It’s just that other guys are always buying them drinks, right?”
He smiled again, a darker thing. “But it’s a young man’s game. The men around you are all like you, all young, all full of shit, all of you ready to rage away for nine days straight on nine minutes’ sleep. And maybe for the first time in your life, you’re in a place where what you do matters, and where everyone around you knows what you can do, what you can’t do, and how hard you’re trying.”
He paused again for a long time. “Men don’t run on money or sex, and they only bother to think about food when they’re hungry. Men run on pride, and nobody understands that like the men who build armies. They give out ranks for obedience and medals for blood and pain and death, but they give out little merits and demerits for everything. And the boys keep their own score, anyway, ranking each man with perfect justice by who he is, what he can do and what he has actually done.”
He smirked. “That’s what they love so much about young men. Most of us were a heck of a lot better at killing people than we were at thinking about why we should or shouldn’t do it, and pulling dumb stunts and keeping score among ourselves was more interesting anyway. By the time we discovered there was an important question at issue, we had already made choices you can’t take back, like it or not. When you make the right choice at the right moment, they call you a hero. But hero or schmuck, you can never go back to being the guy who didn’t do those things…
“Would I have made the same choices if I had known the full consequences? I think so. But I know for sure that none of us really made an informed choice. Still, it’s one arena or another for a boy of that age, and the real stakes of the game are in the contestants’ rankings of each other. That’s the kind of honor that matters first to a young man who is learning the value of honor in his life.
“Do you think that’s wrong? Do you think it’s perfectly right? It doesn’t matter what you think, it just is. This is just the way young men are. They are going to find ways to rank each other, and each one of them will rise on the strength of his virtues and slink away in disgrace when he fails.
“What are his virtues? What are his values – his and the group’s? Is it good to scuff and scar all the concrete on the church steps? The harpies up the way will tell you that it’s awful, but my grandson’s skateboarding friends think it’s awesome. Where you or I might see only destruction, he sees himself and his friends getting better and better at something that matters deeply to them.”
He smiled again, this time from irony. “We never stop demanding commitment from our young men – anywhere except where they’re already expressing it.” He chuckled, but it was a master sergeant’s chuckle, more punctuation than genuine mirth. “When a kid on a skateboard nails a new trick but you scold him for chipping the aggregate, you may be chastising a vandal in your eyes, but you are denouncing not just a hero but all of heroism in his. You rage that he holds your values in contempt, but in what regard do you view his values? He is wrong to damage other peoples’ things, but he is very right to pursue excellence, and humanity will perish when men stop pursuing excellence.”
Silence. The breeze in the leaves, the scrapping and scampering of dogs off the lead, the murmurs of other conversations. “When you praise a young man for killing your enemy, when you call him a hero and adorn his body with medals, you are using empty words to paper over an atrocity. In the math of abstract justice, you may want to fully credit your claims. But when midnight is making that slow crawl toward dawn and you’re there to see it all, the blood soaks right through your wastepaper rationales…”
He frowned, and no one can frown as thoroughly as The Master Sergeant. “How can our sons be heros, and yet not be killers or vandals or thieves or bums? The answer is obvious. They need to be fathers. But we won’t let them do that either, so the everyday heroes who should be teaching their own sons everyday heroism are gone from our everyday lives, and all we can can do is wail about their absence.
“Here’s the thing, though. Young men will find a way to see themselves as heroes, no matter how you feel about their behavior and no matter how wrong they themselves might turn out to be in their ideas of heroism and the consequences of being wrong about it. When we take away every positive way of expressing that heroism, we get negative expressions instead.”
He shrugged. “A soldier is to be lauded but a gang-banger condemned? The acts considered are the same, an eager young jackass kills someone he does not know at the behest of someone else he does not know. In the eyes of each of those boys, the praise and honor of his friends matter a lot more than either the delight or outrage of outsiders – or any unimagined regrets that may crop up later.
“Every young man wants to be a hero in his own eyes – in his friends’ eyes, in his woman’s eyes, in his children’s eyes – whether you like it or not, and the standard of justice he will use to judge the heroic, at least going in, is very likely to be social in origin. The praiseworthy is the stuff that reaped praise.
“After midnight things aren’t so clear, but it doesn’t matter even then. This is what young men are going to do. To the extent that we have any choice in the matter, our choice is to make it safe for them to be everyday heroes – good husbands, good fathers, good neighbors – or to push our sons toward heroic feats of destruction instead.”
He smiled, and at last there was some joy in it. “I used to think that the idea of good men would die with my generation. I know better now. Men run on pride, and the world runs on men. They’re off doing their own thing now, being their own kind of heroes among heroes of their own kind. We are rich and we are fat and we are stupid and we are insufferably smug and we claim to despise everything about men that makes them men. But when a job comes along that only a man can do, the world rediscovers what it loves about men.”
I realized that I hadn’t said so much as a word. “I’m grateful to you for what you’ve done, despite what it cost you. Happy Memorial Day.”
He scoffed, masterfully. “Decoration Day. And it ain’t ’til Friday. Tomorrow’s just a day off work for goof-offs.” He stood up ramrod straight and then stretched to add a few more inches to his stature. “If they really cared, they’d do better, but they don’t give two shits. The things we did as young men matter to those of us who did ’em, no one else. It’s that way for the skateboarders and the gang-bangers, too, we just don’t pretend otherwise.”
He gave a short, sharp whistle and a blindingly white Scots Terrier was at his heel in an instant. He said, “Proceed, sir,” and the dog led off, half a pace ahead of him.
He’s a hero, whether you like it or not, even whether he likes it or not. You don’t have to remember that or care. He never forgets…
Sun City is a collection of stories
about old people, young people, dogs
and the enduring love of families.
Guarantee: No Baby Boomers.
Buy it at Amazon.com
Volume One of The Naso Diaries