Wednesday, November 11, 2009

War Is Not a Game

Prologue to War Is Not a Game
forthcoming book by Nan Levinson

History says, Don't hope
on this side of the grave.
But then, once in a lifetime
the longed for tidal wave
of justice can rise up,
and hope and history rhyme.
(Seamus Heaney, The Cure at Troy)

“We’re going over now. You ready?” A young veteran with a quicksilver smile and a soul patch asks a fellow vet grabbing a smoke outside the Holiday Inn in downtown St. Louis. They nod. The August heat wave, close to one-hundred degrees all week, has finally broken so that it’s no longer punishing to venture beyond air conditioning. The two veterans, one lanky, one solid as a door jamb, climb into a car where a few others wait and they all head down the street to the America’s Center and the Missouri Black Expo job fair, now in full swing.

The convention hall is big, echoing, over-lit and packed with job recruiters and seekers, but the clump of young men and women in black T-shirts with “Iraq Veterans Against the War” stenciled on the front are hard to miss as they make their way to a booth with “Go Army!” splayed across its canopy. Army recruiters and civilian employees stand behind a table laden with brochures and sign-up sheets, while teens and young men take turns playing America’s Army, a simulation game whose website proclaims it to be “The Only Game Based on the Experience of Real U.S. Army Soldiers.”

The buzz began the day before, when a handful of IVAW vets were hanging around the hotel lobby on a break from the panel sessions of their third annual meeting. There’s a job fair going on across the street, someone said, the Army’s got a recruiting booth, I saw them unloading a truck, we need to do something. They batted around ideas until someone, probably Steve Mortillo or Jabbar Magruder, suggested a sound off and it clicked. Quickly, the plan spread, a quiet signaling among the veterans. Now at the expo, they’re ready to act.

If you could take it with you...

At the turn of the millennium, The Women's Review of Books asked a bunch of its contributors what we would most want to bring from the past 1,000 years into the next. My contribution still holds: A millennium? Most memorable, liberating, fun? What could empty my mind faster, except to ask my favorite anything? So, to winnow the task, I've taken a page from The Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon, a Japanese courtesan and fellow straddler of millennia, and made two lists of things that, for better or worse, arrived on the scene in the past thousand years. Feel free to add your own. Things That Delight The city of Florence. The idea of America: jazz, slang, public parks, public libraries, front porches. The toss-away grace of Fred Astaire, the arch wit of Oscar Wilde, Baryshnikov leaping, "A Lark Ascending," a Yeats poem, costume jewelry. The great clowns: Keaton, Lloyd, Chaplin, Tati, Fo, the Marxes, Allen (Gracie), Ball (Lucy), Mary and Rhoda. Ice cream. Things That Changed the Way We see Sunglasses, Galileo, street lamps, Mercator, plastic, Henry the Navigator, carbon paper, photography. The stroboscope, the silicon chip, the printing press, daylight savings time. Hollywood, neon and limelight. Brunelleschi and Alberti. Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Political cartoons, LSD, wallpaper, picture postcards, glass mirrors, the minute hand on a watch, x-rays. Maya Lin's Vietnam memorial and Frank Gehry's Guggenheim. Anna Akhmatova who, waiting month after month outside a Leningrad prison where her son was held during a terror-laced time, was asked, "Can you describe this?" "I can," she answered. And then she did.

3-15-2003: before the war begins

The day begins with an email from a soldier in Kuwait. “I have no problem fighting off an oppressive government,” he writes. “I have no problem blowing someones head off if they are trying to rob my house or harm my family.” The problem he does have is the collusion between government and big business using the army for unconstitutional and economic gains. On and one he goes with so much anger against what he calls “our new oilnationstate.” His is not the first such rancor I’ve encountered from soldiers preparing for war.

A few hours later, a friend and I gather with others, hard to tell how many, lining Mass. Ave. about a mile west of Harvard Square with antiwar signs, many clever & pointed. My favorite is two kids with a boombox and a sign saying, “Dance for peace.” They do.

A woman next to us gives us her extra sign to hold and I bounce “NO WAR” up and down as cars pass and flash us the peace sign. “Cambridge,” my friend scoffs. It’s colder than I expected, so I’m not dressed warmly enough, but for a short time it feels like solidarity and that feels good.

We march to Harvard Square, those behind us chanting, “What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”

I’ve been yelling the same words for over half of my life and they’re wrong. I wanted peace yesterday and I want it tomorrow and the next day and the day after that, and goddamn, but I’m not going to get it, all this solidarity and voice-of-the-people aside. Today, I don’t yet know how easily my government will ignore the public outcry against this misbegotten war that hasn’t yet begun, though it’s clear to us all that it’s a forgone conclusion.

Late afternoon, I read from the pile of news stories my oldest friend has sent me about her father, Max Zera, who became, kind of by default, the press attache par excellence for the Army’s 1st division during WWII. The longest piece is a report from the Battle of the Bulge, written by a war correspondent I’ve never heard of: Iris Carpenter. It’s fine journalism and a horrific story. So much slaughter and misery. My friend says Max saw it as politically motivated. This is “the greatest generation,” mostly dead or dying, their greatness repackaged as all valor (which was real) and no horror.

“Your guy in Kuwait would be at the front of the battle if he were in that war,” my husband observes. When I wake up in the middle of the night, I try to figure out at what point one country’s army should try to stop another’s. I fall asleep before I understand.