Fort Chaffee, Arkansas: 1983
In the long afternoons the distant bombs sounded like thunder. The windows of our classrooms rattled softly in their panes as fighters from Chaffee a few miles away streaked the slanted sky. Helicopters hovered like funnel clouds, and often we could not tell what was causing the thunder, so when the sirens erupted we huddled in the hallways or beneath our desks, and I could not say now whether we hid from the weather or weapons.
When school let us out for summer, we swam in the senseless heat, craning our necks to count the vapor trails of fighters overhead. Smoke rose from rents in the hills where bombs ignited the dry brush. In the cool stream we sunk to our eyelids, submersed as if water would save us, but back on dry land we could feel the rumble of the earth through the floors of our small shoes.
When my father drove through the base, the roads were patched, and it took me years to realize that here was where the fire we felt on August afternoons fell from the sky. The dark spots on the asphalt were where holes had been filled in from errant bombs. Steel fences switched along beside us, topped by coils of wire like twists of fear. My father stopped when a convoy crossed the road, the mirrored-eyed heads of the soldiers swiveling as they passed. In the distance the rusting hulks of bombed trucks rattled in the wind, and on the hills and ridges where the vapor trails ended, the splintered trunks of old-growth oak scratched at the sky.
On the main base the barracks hunched over the torn earth like squatters in rows or the way we’ve tried to order our lives, to make sense of things too vast to piece together. Paint peeled back from the boards like dead skin, and the windows didn’t look like soulless, staring eyes so much as eyes bereft of sight.
This is where it began for me; this is what I remember: phantom fighters screaming overhead and the earth trembling below, as fire fell from the sky. Until the trembling is always there. The fighters are always on approach and the bombs are always about to fall. There are always men with mirrored eyes, with booted feet.
Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Basic Training: 1990
At the end of each day we counted down, marked it off the calendar because we had survived, an occasion we deemed worthy of celebration because said survival was not always assured. But as lights-out approached, after we had made it through the tear gas chamber and did not get shot on the rifle range, after we had performed more push-ups than our muscles could possibly manage and still did not die, we celebrated.
We did not know then that we weren’t supposed to die. It seemed that the drill sergeants meant to kill us, surrounded as we were by bombs and bullets, by fires and fighters overhead, by long days in summer heat. But this was only training, our bodies beaten down to be built back up, our psyches attacked to make us tougher, so we struggled through, celebrating the close of each day, when we could shut our eyes for a few hours.
When we woke in the morning, the fear returned to fill our insides. Calls and cadences were already erupting around us, men scrambling madly as if war had come. Fort Sill was live-fire, like Chaffee I had grown up around, and bombs were bursting in air all over the base even before first light, the earth still shaking as if in memory of all the missiles that had flown before. When we ran in the darkness before dawn, explosions erupted like lightning, and when the sun came up, the air stood hazed in the heat.
All day, fires broke out on the empty ranges. In classes we learned to treat sucking chest wounds. We splinted broken limbs. We marched in endless circles around empty parking lots. On the ranges we aimed our rifles and set off Claymore mines, starting more fires. We swam blind through the tear gas chamber and learned how to administer antidotes in case of biological war, a phrase that carries the word logical inside it but cannot possibly be.
In the afternoons we lay prone among the insects. In some field or scratch of forest we radioed enemy movements, playing at war like men with much thicker skin. When night fell over the forest, the trip wires went up and tracer fire streaked skyward. In the distance the bombs were still falling.
We did not know that a new war would soon start. That the bombs would begin falling and would not stop. We were not yet given to the introspection that would come later, only the hope that we might survive to sleep and wake another day.
So when the day ended, we gathered around Ebel’s bunk, shirtless as the day we were born. Sykes drumrolled on the wall of a metal locker. Richardson hummed reveille. Ebel, with a Sharpie his mother had sent, marked off the day with a big X and we all cheered, one day closer to graduation, when we could leave behind the bombs and the bullets, the place where surviving each day was something to be celebrated.
Arkansas Tech University, The Night the War Began: 1991
We drove twenty miles on sheets of ice to the nearest liquor store. Winter here, and cold, the interstate empty but for a few fools like us and a dozen cars abandoned along the shoulder, windshields blanked by ice.
On the way back we slipped through side streets—smashing mailboxes, spinning wheels, engine shrieking into the silent night. Liquored up already, we celebrated canceled classes, knowing that tomorrow the halls of learning would stand vacant and our heads hung-over while we slept into the afternoon.
So as the snow started to fall in the cold night, we hurled empty bottles into yards, plowed over trash cans as the snow piled higher, left a laughing swath of destruction in the still air behind us, as if we had been drawn to destroy, perhaps because of the spirits running through our veins, or only our own spirits, our constant climb toward obliteration.
Halfway home we lost control of the car on the ice and slid sideways toward a bridge abutment, concrete looming large and us as scared as the day Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait nearly six months before and we thought we might be called. We whipped the wheel around and the back end spun out and suddenly we were leaning toward the end of our lives. We slid on toward the bridge and our last breaths, before finally righting ourselves, the tires catching and the crash averted. We pulled to the side of the road and sat quiet while the windshield fogged like smoke from bombs blooming in the cold cab. The roads were empty. There were no cars anywhere else in the world, as if everything had disappeared and the rest was indeed silence.
After a time, we put the car in drive and crept carefully the rest of the way, taking silent pulls from the bottle and thinking how we had cheated death. Almost home, and safe, we slid into a ditch and rocked there as the engine died, forced now to walk through the night. We stopped occasionally to pass the bottle or piss in someone’s yard, our shadows shimmering in the streetlights and the whiskey working inside us, warm lights glowing through the windows of the apartments all around, nothing falling from the sky but snow. When we get home, we will watch the start of the first Gulf War, the fires rising over the city of Baghdad in the green light of night vision, and we will cheer so loudly the neighbors will wake to bang on the wall, but we will be too busy celebrating to care about anyone else.
North Carolina and Iraq, The Night the War Began: 2003
A student of mine is called from a class that is not about sucking chest wounds to one that is. From History to history. From Theatre to theater.
That night, I watch again the fires unfurling over Baghdad. A new kind of war, we are told, though the same sounds are still used, the same old images we’ve seen on our screens: the blaze of sudden bombs, the brief white light that might mean forever for some folks. The screams and sirens, the antiaircraft fire streaking skyward, same as we all saw twelve years before. Second verse, same as the first, though I am sober this time and it will go on much longer as well. As if we have learned no lessons, except how to treat the wounds that always arise.
Which I do, late at night sometimes when my children are asleep and I don’t want them to wake to the sounds of bombs or bullets, when I wish them to sleep in peace a few hours more.
On the screen the images roll past—missiles streaking in strands of smoke, planes in convoy overhead, men marching in ragged rows—but the cannons don’t cough. Artillery doesn’t shatter the silent night. The airplanes don’t drone nor do the shovels spark when striking rocks in foxholes or shallow graves. The carcasses don’t exhale or empty themselves of everything they ever ate. The wind slips through the frozen trees and the earth shakes in memory, but on the screen there is only silence.
The tanks don’t tread nor do the turrets twist. The bombs only bloom silently skyward, our eyes wondering how there can be that much of anything in all the world: fire, fear, fatalities. The trumpets don’t sound, for victory or retreat, because the war is always on, blinking black and white off the walls. The crowds don’t cheer nor does martial music mount up from a military jeep whose shadow is thrown on the rubble of ruined cities as it races for the front carrying codes you couldn’t understand with all the explanation in the universe.
The radios don’t squawk or sputter or spew static in sharp, quick spikes like machine gun bursts or missile strikes. You can’t hear the cries or the commands. You’ll never hear the sirens. So when you finally fall asleep and accidentally elbow the remote and the sound comes screaming in, you’ll only scramble to find the button that brings back the silence. You’re still not listening. No matter how many times you’ve seen the show.
Too Many Nights Now
Iwake from a dream in which I am back at military training, among the classrooms and the clash of Claymores, the hot wake of wind from the report of rifles. Booted feet echo through the hallways, and forced voices call cadence while the light bends in the shockwave of bombs.
Or I am sitting in the chow hall where we chewed with our mouths open like boys in men’s skin, peeling fresh fruit while Wilkins tells us of women he wants and Buist keeps saying “boob.” Or we are lining up for first aid or we are filing out to the field. We are climbing on buses. We are playing with our balls. Someone says “fuck” like a curse or call to arms.
In my sleep I see the faces of the men who stood beside me, hoarse from answering every question in a too-tough voice, cheeks still smooth as if in elementary school, before the shaving and the shouting and the shoving one another when the days grew too long. We might still be boys pretending to be men for all we have learned, the way we were once upon a time, our young minds not understanding why our scared voices sound so old. Somewhere, a newsreel is announcing another war or another school shooting or another terrorist attack. We are climbing into bathrooms to hide from the bullets. We are playing with our balls. Someone says boob or fuck or bomb or fear.
I walk the rifle range and the obstacle course, which makes me think of recess and races, start and finish lines toed in mud, and this is when the dream changes and instead of the military I am now back in second grade. I hear booted feet coming down the concrete hallways and I am not sure whether they belong to men in masks or are the new shoes our mother bought before school started. I know this dream returns because anytime I hear of another war starting or a school shooting, I feel like a child back in a classroom looking out at a world I don’t understand. In my middle age I dream often of what I might have done to make our planet a safer place, whether in the barracks of an army base or outside my second-grade classroom, but what I come back to most often is that despite a lifetime of looking back, I am unprepared for what will happen next.
Enjoy this story? Subscribe to the Oxford American.