Of the three years during which I traveled for my book, for only one was I on the road on Veteran’s Day. And that day I had the good fortune to meet the Black family of Lockhart, Texas’ legendary Black’s Barbecue.
I met Edgar Black while he was hanging a set of photographs of his time in the service. He was an aircraft mechanic stationed in Corpus Christi, and as I related in the book, he was desperate to go abroad for combat. The airplanes he repaired would often come to him riddled with bullets and flack marks, and their pilots taunted he and the other mechanics by asking them when they were going to see them in places like Guadalcanal and Guam. It was playful banter that resulted in an odd kind of pen-pal relationship, but underpinning it was a very specific variety of personal angst. The pilots had seen enough of war. They wanted it to be over, and they wanted to come home. And though Edgar was doing his part, knowing what the pilots were going through only made him feel like he wasn’t that much more. Men went off to war in the early 1940s. Edgar, for all intents and purposes, stayed home. The burden pressed upon him ever greater each time his requests for transfer were denied.
None of this affected the opinion combat veterans had of Edgar– not that I could tell, anyway. Black’s Barbecue was giving them a free meal in honor of their service (and this was no Grand Slam from Denny’s, either; rather, it was some of the most expertly prepared barbecue in America, cooked in the smoke of a single variety of aged oak in a pit that Edgar designed and built himself), and they thanked him graciously, never casting even the slightest dirty look at him because they had been shot at and he had not. These were not the days after the Civil War, when a man could be expected to answer the question of what he did during the war with assurances that he had performed some kind of manly feat. Conceptions of what constituted an acceptable participation in the war effort had been broadened in the 20th Century. Men and women who had done their “duty” had done enough, whether that meant enduring shelling in a muddy foxhole or stitching magazine belts in a factory in Connecticut. No one was going to assail John Wayne for not doing any actual fighting, after all. Edgar had not only been willing to go, but wanted to go– wanted to fight for the things that meant the most to him, wanted to serve his country in the way in which he felt did the most good, even as he was already doing just that. This alone made him an honorable soldier, and worthy of the respect of those who gave themselves up to the meat-grinder of industrialized warfare.
I have been thinking a lot about my meeting with Edgar in the last few days. As the nation reels from a presidential election that has left millions feeling disenfranchised, angry, and fearful of the future, it occurred to me that the anxiety they feel has likely been amplified for two distinct reasons. For some, it is because they have been struggling for decades, and they fear that the progress they have earned from their struggles– already incomplete– is set to be washed away in a series of quick, apathetic strokes enacted and supported by people who have little concern for what it actually will mean for them. But for others, it is far more personally aggrieving. For them, it is because they have never truly had to fight for anything in their lives, and so did not possess the instincts to want to fight now. Things may not always have gone their way, but nonetheless things were more or less okay. The world spun, they made a comment or two on social media, the world spun some more. They had their causes, sure. But they were nestled within the velvety cushions of a socio-political perspective in which the real danger was interpersonal alienation.
As evidence, I offer a tidbit from a piece I read on Wednesday, authored by a woman who disliked Hillary Clinton enough to vote for a third-party candidate. This is altogether fine– I am not writing this to shame people for their political decisions regardless of how they align with my own, and in any regards I have expressed publicly the problems I have with her positions enough that anyone who cares to learn of them may freely do so. What has stuck with me from her article, though, is that she had awoken the next day “sickened” by the election of Donald Trump. She had expected to be “annoyed” that Clinton was the president, but now she was horrified that the country had elected a man like Trump. Still, it wasn’t her fault, she insisted . . .
Surely not. Americans have the right to vote for whomever they want, and the notion that they do not is the impetus for voter suppression and misplaced partisan anger alike. What was at fault, though, was the idea that things would work out the way they always had. Clinton would have won, Trump would fade away back to the strange billionaire/realty TV star/privileged asshole world in which he was so comfortable, and the world would spin on. And when she inevitable fucked up, said author could proudly boast, “Well, I told you so! I didn’t vote for her!” That Donald Trump might actually be elected never crossed her mind, regardless of a system that meant he was one of two people who still could be. And still she saw no need to admit any culpability.
And this is because Americans are, by and large, no longer like Edgar Black, the man who was doing his part but didn’t feel he was doing enough. 46% of eligible Americans did not even vote in an election whose wake has prompted massive protests and wanton violence. And while some of this is due to efforts at voter suppression that need to be outlawed no matter who they are hurting (and be certain, both sides of the aisle are doing it), most of that has to be because people have become used to the world spinning as it does.
I am not absolved of blame. After a horrific attack on the city I most love in this world, I briefly considered abandoning my Ph.D program and joining the Air Force. I decided I would have made a terrible soldier, though, and abandoned the idea. That I was probably right in thinking I was more likely to be washed out of the ranks than be of much use is beside the point. I let others do the work for me.
I became politically active, advocating for reason and restraint against the counter-impulses of patriotic fervor, and for means of addressing terrorism that was not reliant on bombs and hatred. I am proud of that. What I’m less proud of is the passive, academic approach I took in protest of the War in Iraq– the self-satisfaction of being a part of a movement that I now see did as much work in congratulating itself as it did in actually fighting against an illegal war that we now know would eventually spawn the Islamic State. That war bothered me tremendously. American deaths made me depressed. Civilian suffering piled that on. But boy was it great to go to the bar after a march and socialize with cute young pseudo-radicals who had taken all the wrong lessons from the 1960s.
Really, in all its poetry and purpose, my book is the best thing I have ever done for my country– and even with that I am forced now to admit tremendous failures. (More on that in a future post.) It taught me what fighting was actually about. It introduced me to men and women who had fought and who were fighting for noble things both grand and simple, and their stories impressed upon me the duty of fighting for them with my words and self-sacrifice– to spend more time working on getting it all right than I had ever spent before, to decline multiple publishing offers that arrived with the condition that I slash the book apart to make it a profitable length. These were not the equivalent of a veteran’s sacrifice, to be sure. But they were what was available to me.
Ultimately, this is what Veteran’s Day should instill within Americans. Edgar Black’s story is one of willful sacrifice for the safety and ideals of his nation, no matter the actual level of his respective sacrifice. Men and women repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way for our country, and they do so not because some autocrat forces them to or some indifferent system brainwashes them into doing so. They do it because the best of what we are is worth fighting for.
No matter what that means to you, now is always the right time to do it.