NEW YORK — At one-fifteen a.m. in Grand Central Terminal, under the false night sky, there is no one to touch you or cry on you. A few police and bleary travelers like myself, and that’s it. This is a blessing just now — and an irony, for when I lived here I found New York’s apparent intimacy impersonal, even isolating. Now I long to be left alone in this city, where I have returned briefly to make hellos and goodbyes with some friends and former colleagues, and to let them pat me on the shoulder and tell me to stay low and the other things you say to a friend who is heading to a war zone. I am more moved than I have let on by their words and their tears; but I am thankful to be climbing on a train to leave here, because their worry is breaking my heart.
Two years ago and change, I worked as a lawyer in high buildings in this city. Today my clothes carry a first lieutenant’s bar and say U.S. ARMY on them, and I wear the American flag on my shoulder, under which festers a smallpox vaccination pustule, with anthrax in the other arm. In less than a month I will be in Kuwait, thence to Iraq. My life these days is inexhaustibly surreal.
I am not an Army lawyer, but a platoon leader in an artillery battery. So the same friends I used to debate the 2000 election results with are now harangued with the principles of fire support and counterfire missions. I tell them about Army life and I console them with my claim that I may very well spend most of my tour safe in the confines of the base, which may or may not be the case. And when we are done with the Army talk, and my perfunctory questions about how things are going back here in the city, I find there is not much else I have the interest or energy to discuss.
Is it overly dramatic to say that this place seems frivolous to me now? Well, it does. It is not that people’s pursuits here are frivolous in themselves. They are the usual metropolitan things — work, friends, entertainment — but they are pursued to their own ends, unconnected from those of the greater polity. The polity and I are in an intimate, if one-sided, relationship just now, and this experience can leave one with the feeling — which can easily degenerate into mere self-congratulation — that other pursuits are simply not serious enough to merit full respect.
Of course they are worthy, and I believe I honor them by my current employment. The extent to which they seem disconnected and circular to me is merely a function of how disconnected is my own life from normality just now. And it is not simply New York. I was in Washington a few weeks ago and couldn’t escape the same sense on its streets, or the particular irony of feeling it there — the sense of looking at people in a holiday snowglobe, people whose world can be endlessly shaped by themselves because it is closed, its boundaries uncontested, cultural battlements protecting on all sides. In Washington I see people pretending to be engaged in tremendously serious pursuits; in New York I see people pretending to be pursuing their dreams. This is unfair, but there it is.
SO, IS IT MERELY SELF-CONGRATULATORY to say there is nothing here for me? Well, there isn’t. There will be again, in places like this, when my time in service is over and I have seeped back into the life of the basically metropolitan creature I am, into the pursuits and concerns that my citizenship has privileged me with. But not right now. Which surprises me a bit. For, as much as I could have predicted that the military would change my perspective or something, in honesty I didn’t really expect it to. You can’t know, in an adventure like this, what you will learn before you learn it. And I have learned.
I have learned to navigate a forest alone on a moonless night with a map and a pen light. I have learned that the path to respect is humility and competence, more than dash and forcefulness. I have learned to shoot.
I have learned to administer an intravenous line, and to trust an 18-year-old soldier to administer one to me. I have learned that you don’t need sleep after all, and that you do. I have learned that you have limited energy, and so I have learned to relax, because relaxing is a way of rationing energy against the times you need it. I have learned to not sweat the small stuff, which is a gift that eluded me in civilian life.
I have learned that there is more youth in my 34-year-old body than I was aware of when it was only 25, but that, at the end of the day, it is still 34 years old. This fact has caused me to learn that I have heart — that I can push myself endlessly when soldiers are watching, and that this pushing can keep a decade at bay, until my time here is done and I can rest. I have learned that sacrifice sucks — that it is lovely in the abstract and lousy in the application, and that Army life is often a drag or a grind, in alternation.
I have learned that, as lieutenants go, I am becoming a good one. I have learned that my platoon can get on fine without me, but that they would prefer I be there. I have learned that I am legally responsible for their actions. We wield together horrendous destructiveness, for which I hope to be forgiven.
I have learned that soldiers will turn first to their noncommissioned officer — the sergeants — to deal with their personal problems (and that in this way they are closer to the NCOs than to anyone else, especially me), but that they will turn to me second, and when they do it’s important. I have learned that, however much it may seem a cliche, they do in fact want someone in their chain of command to conform to the standard templates of wholesomeness and straight-ahead living. Therefore they never hear me use profanity or make fun of another soldier or talk about sex or drinking, and they only occasionally hear me raise my voice. In ways which remain partially a mystery to me, this helps to assure them that the NCOs and I look out for their interests unconditionally. It also keeps me at a distance from them that I sometimes regret, but I have learned that this is my role and my little part, and I embrace it.
I have learned above all that soldiers are young, and that I am desperately afraid of one of them being harmed because I have made a mistake or have not adequately prepared. I have learned that I am more afraid of this, of having to live with this, than I am of being hurt myself, and that this is not a lie or inflation.
I AM ASTONISHINGLY BLESSED to have come to this point. The commissioning and training process, which I was honestly too old to begin, has made me graphically aware of the many ways — illness, injury, bad paperwork — in which circumstance can unceremoniously cut the process short.
And I am blessed more not to be here alone. I have a fiancee whom I told, on our first date in January 2004, that I was trying to get into the Army and who, inexplicably, stands here today willing to wait for me. Through her I have learned the cost, to others, of all of this, which in truth is greater than any I pay. Facing uncertainty and risk, I can console myself with the partial truth that I can influence events in my favor. They can only wait and worry, until I return to the civilian world where I will once again belong. I loathe that I have done this to them, but they do not loathe what I am doing, and I cannot hope for more.