Friday, January 26, 2007

Shaken

"And you, who were already conquered in your victories, what you will you be in the approaching defeat?"
Albert Camus, "Letters to a German Friend," July 1943

A friend sent me a copy of "Resistance, Rebellion, and Death," by Albert Camus. It arrived today. She'd been threatening to do so for a while, but nevertheless I was shocked when the package actually came in the mail. I was quick to tear it from the envelope, though sadly, I threw away the envelope before I could get to the return address. I really should write her a letter of thanks. I'm so terrible with those.

I was eager to start reading. I haven't read Camus since college--I never actually finished "The Stranger"--so after my evening brief from Sgt. Killeen, I decided to simply take the book with me to the chow hall. I fixed myself a roast-beef sandwich while I was there, and after finding a fairly quiet table, I sat down and opened to the first page. Before long, I felt for a moment as though I was back at my old cafe in Germany, sitting down on a summer afternoon with a good book and a tall glass of iced tea.

By the first 20 pages, I was convinced that this collection of essays would be my Bible. The first section is comprised of a series of letters between Camus--then a writer of underground literature for the French Resistance--and a former friend in Germany, after a five-year falling-out. Camus castigates his friend for his arrogance and ignorance, and regales him of the horrors which German soldiers have visited upon French civilians.

In their last conversation, Camus turns his own friend's words against him. In response to Camus' reticence to embrace Aryan Nationalism, "you retorted: well, you don't love your country." To which Camus, five years on, counters:

"If at times we seemed to prefer justice to our country, this is because we simply wanted to love our country in justice, as we wanted to love her in truth and in hope."

I read on, absorbed. I consume a chocolate milk and a slice of pecan pie, without once ever seeing the fork, the straw, or even the pie itself. I am held rapt. I am reminded of a book I read before deploying--"Tales of the Master Race," by Marcie Hershman. Set in the quiet German town of Kreiswald, not far from Dachau, that story was a collection of vignettes told by local Germans as they attempted to live out life beneath the growing shadow of the Holocaust--indeed, at times in willful ignorance of it. The haunting messages of that book come back to me now. I find the seats at my table filling up, so as I suck down the last of my chocolate milk, I collect my things and get up to leave. Slinging my rifle over my back, I walk past a big-screen television, past a blaring headline on MSNBC:

"PRESIDENT BUSH: U.S. SOLDIERS ARE AUTHORIZED TO KILL IRANIAN AGENTS IN IRAQ."

Exiting the main dining room, I have to do a double-take at the screen. Even as I continue walking, I have to stare, transfixed by shock. Is this even real? I ask myself. Can this man be so insane as to try to lead us into another unprovoked war? I have to wonder what kind of sick world I'm living in, where the most fellow countrymen can offer to such saber-rattling is a halfhearted groan, before changing the channel to catch American Idol. I notice a seated lieutenant staring at me--is my disgust that obvious? I recover my composure and move on.

Stepping out the door, I have a seat on a picnic table and light up a cigarette. I'd like to enjoy a smoke as I polish off the last few pages of "The Second Letter," and indulging in one, I think, will allow me just enough time to finish the other.

The revelations continue. I have not been so moved by a book in a long while. I could kiss my friend for sending this to me. In Camus' indignation, I find solace for my own feelings of disdain regarding this war. In his impassioned tirades, I find righteousness in my own feelings of alienation from my bigoted fellows. The only thing I do not find is a sense of kinship, in the certainty that Camus felt in fighting for his cause. I do not possess such certainty, but nor then do I identify with the recipient of the letter, blinded as he is by devotion to country in lieu of other more stirring passions. I think back to the Fourth of July parades I saw as a child; seeing the gap-toothed faces painted in the colors of the flag; the military dropouts clad in NASCAR T-shirts. Later in life, during junior-high Social Studies, I would try to reconcile these images with the stunning eloquence and inspired leadership of Jefferson, or Roosevelt II, and find that I could not. It always seemed to me that patriotism, without ideals, is a foolish thing upon which to pride oneself.

But then, as I come to the end of the segment, I am confronted by a sobering thought: What does that say of my own decision to fight? My wife and I have spoken lately of going Officer; have spoken of re-enlistment and the career opportunities it could offer me. I will admit, at my age the financial rewards are appealing.

But can financial security buy a place atop the Moral High Ground?

I pause, finishing my cigarette. I don't know how to answer that question. All the same, I fear that the answer is readily apparent to me. I stand up, closing my book, and turn to walk off into the night. Glancing at my shadow upon the T-barriers, I can see that my steps are long; my pace is hurried, though I don't know why. I tighten my grip on the book, and quicken my pace. I am shaken.

13 Comments:

Blogger cinnabari said...

I used to understand patriotism. I think it was easier during Cold War...the Soviets are Bad, we are Good. But even then--we knew they were people, and despite what my parents insist was real fear of nuclear war, I don't think I ever believed that those people loved their kids so much less than their ideology, that they'd launch ICBMs at us.

Now I don't understand it anymore. I don't think I can forgive the people who, under its aegis, called me "traitor" for questioning the Iraqi invasion (questioning, not even protesting--because I was ambivalent, then. I wanted us to be the good guys again). If patriotism has begun to equal nationalism, then I want no part of it. I love the idea of my country. I'm less enamored of the reality these days.

6:58 PM  
Blogger The Hackademician said...

Good book. I took a class on Camus and Sartre a little over a year ago and of all the stuff we read I keep coming back to that one and Exile and the Kingdom.

"In Camus' indignation, I find solace for my own feelings of disdain regarding this war. In his impassioned tirades, I find righteousness in my own feelings of alienation from my bigoted fellows. The only thing I do not find is a sense of kinship, in the certainty that Camus felt in fighting for his cause."

World War II was morally unambiguous for Camus. I think you might find more kinship when you get to his writings from the Algerian War of Independence. -- Nous

7:06 PM  
Blogger toadman said...

Camus is one of my favorites. Glad you got that book, it's really good.

This post is awesome, by the way.

9:03 PM  
Blogger Blue Wren said...

The financial benefits of being an officer will never be enough to compensate for the orders to kill you'll have to give to those under your command, no matter whether you believe in the rightness or wrongness of the orders. Keep in mind what it is that an officer in the military is expected to do. This isn't about money.

"But can financial security buy a place atop the Moral High Ground?"

This is the right question to ask, Milo.

9:09 PM  
Blogger Chris Rich said...

With the quality of your writing, clarity of your thinking and all, the last thing you need to worry about is financial security.

If anything, this service time, given in good faith, will open many doors. There is a literary agent out there and some sturdy gig in an honest newspaper, just for starters.

Getting through this and getting past it are the best short term goals.

11:29 PM  
Blogger The Hackademician said...

One more thought re: Camus and moral high ground. Sometimes there is no clear moral choice. It seems clearly moral to say one should suffer an injustice rather than perpetrate one so long as it is a purely personal decision. But these matters are ultimately worked out in the messy calculus of ones own entanglement with others. Everyone is implicated in someone else's injustice. You just have to go in with eyes open and try to choose the associations which seem to you to help more than they hinder. Sometimes you have to act and hope for the best, knowing that you are implicated in someone else's personal injustice just because it can't be avoided without giving in to fatalism and inaction.

Shit decisions, but what other kinds do we get? -- Nous

1:11 AM  
Blogger la fille mari√©e said...

The only thing I do not find is a sense of kinship, in the certainty that Camus felt in fighting for his cause. I do not possess such certainty,

Remember that you're reading what is written on paper, not the inner thoughts and conflicts of the man. Your uncertainty makes you human, and makes your decisions and reactions more likely to be considered and right for you.

The Stranger ("L'étranger) is one of my favourites... you should definitely re-read / finish reading when you have the chance.

2:34 AM  
Blogger tempus said...

Milo, incredible textured writing, as usual. Life as an officer, my friend, simply means ordering others to do what you find repugnant. I know. Think carefully, as the most expedient road is not always the Yellow Brick Road.

Keep your head down, Milo, and we'll talk to you back in the world. Or next week.

tempus

3:49 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Given America's track record, it's safe to assume that choosing to stay in the service will at some point mean that you will be ordered to do something morally questionable, if not plainly immoral.

I wish it were otherwise.

~ dj moonbat

6:26 PM  
Blogger iamcoyote said...

tempus and dj are right, aren't they? No one can see an abatement of war in the near future, so committing yourself for the long term is going to be committing to more of the same, even as an officer. And now that the PTB have stopped pretending to care about the human cost, your world is going to start looking a whole lot uglier, if that's even possible.

8:24 PM  
Blogger tempus said...

Good Morniiiiing, Baaaghdaaad! WhooHoo!

8:53 PM  
Blogger GiG said...

Milo, just stopping by to tell you that approximately 500,000 marched on DC yesterday (the media downplayed it to "tens of thousands") to speak out against the war, and there were marches all over the US.

Please don't give up hope.

Take good care of yourself, be safe and godspeed.

9:45 PM  
Anonymous JollyRoger said...

You had your revelatory moment clear back in Junior High. I didn't have mine until I was in my 20s, and wearing the uniform.

I will spare you the details of my revelation-let us say it came as a result of my introduction to the reality behind the rhetoric. What I had always believed did not, for a second, match up to what I was seeing, or doing.

I knew I was headed for ETS. My heart wasn't in it anymore.

3:12 PM  

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