Soldier

On a flight I was booked on recently, the gate attendant announced prior to boarding that we would carry a fallen Marine in cargo and his relatives on the plane. A sergeant from Spokane, she told us, had lost his life in Afghanistan.

Everyone stood up and walked to the wall of windows so they could see the proceedings. Perhaps earlier in my life I would have not watched to make a poltical point against the war, but many of my formerly rigid angles are now rounded corners so I rose to see something I’d never been in the position to witness.

Down on the tarmac, two decorated Marines approached a Delta Airlines luggage container. They pulled back the heavy canvas flap that hung in front of a large, rectangular wooden crate. This was no shiny mahogany coffin — it was straight from overseas, in limbo here in Raleigh, the sergeant’s brethren doing their best to honor his sacrifice. The two men carefully unfolded an American flag and placed it on top of the crate, and then they stood up rod-straight and hand-saluted the sky from their brows. Two women stood close by, dabbing their eyes with tissues, the wife and the mother it appeared. A third Marine with his beret at his chest held vigil beside them. Then a Delta Airlines employee walked up and hoisted the crate onto the conveyor belt, which took it slowly up toward the stowage cabin.

When the coffin finally disappeared into the plane’s belly, everyone went back to their devices or children. We soon boarded the plane, and as I walked in I noticed the two women and the Marine sitting in the first row of coach.

I kept glancing over to them during the flight. I thought about the responsibility of the Marine delivering the sergeant’s body back to Spokane, the airport there most likely hung with sad banners. What exactly would he say? A veteran I talked to later said the man most likely did not know the fallen sergeant personally — he was fulfilling the role he’d be trained to do. I wondered about the wife, and the mother: their shock and awe at the hole suddenly gaping.

In spite of the multihued strands of folks coming through our house, I don’t have one close friend or family member who has recently served in the military. I feel almost embarrassed to have strong feelings about war when I am so divorced from the military. And yet most of the men and women I have met in the military, at least those of my generation, have a sense of sadness and resignation in their eyes, not much of the glory that I’ve sometimes seen in World War II veterans. Are cheery old war stories just propaganda? Or was service truly more glorious once? Is it that nostalgic hope that keeps today’s soldiers going when their sense of security has slipped away on the fuzzy lines that make our frontier?

This morning, I looked at a photograph in the obituary section of the newspaper of a local soldier killed in Afghanistan. I paid attention to how I felt: did I have a different response to him than I did to all the other photographs of people who had recently passed away? I did, partially because the soldier was so young and also because his death seems so unfair — he had such a sweet face, and I imagine he had good intentions when he went off to fight in a war that in reality has been misguided from the start. (To imagine channeling young soldiers’ willingness to serve and their quest for self-worth into something fruitful! The Iraq War veteran Paul Chappell has spoken of his dream of a military corps trained to respond to the planet’s growing number of natural disasters, their boots on another nation’s soil a true blessing.) For all the pomp and circumstance behind the slogan “Support our Troops,” the politicians who send our young men and women to fight ill-conceived and poorly executed wars are in fact exploiting our troops rather than supporting them. Part of me doesn’t want to honor this soldier’s life more than I do the other people on the obituary page precisely because I’ve seen my own government use our heart strings to orchestrate further military misadventures, which not only leave behind human devastation but also demand huge infusions of public money that could instead be funding our own crumbling infrastructure. Maybe I’d feel differently if our wars solved global problems instead of exacerbating them.

And so I must sit with a steely resolve to fight against our military machine and a simultaneous feeling of tenderness toward the foot soldiers who serve it. And I also must point to all the people who make sacrifices for important causes. I will always respect devotion, but I don’t place the U.S. military’s sacrifices on any sort of higher plane. I am not against formally acknowledging the loss of military life, and yet there are also all the uncelebrated organ donors and fathers jumping in the way of incoming cars and peace activists losing their lives to bulldozers and even those sacrifices that don’t end in death but are nonetheless noble, the sleepless nights of vigil beside a dying sister’s bed. They, too, deserve yellow ribbons.

When we finally touched down in Atlanta, the plane bustled with impatient energy. The pilot came on and announced: “Ladies and Gentlemen, when we come to a stop, please stay seated and allow the sergeant’s family and the accompanying Marine to deplane first.” As the trio rose, the plane erupted in applause, and I clapped too as I felt a quick choke and a tear sneaking out the corner of my eye despite my best bravado.