- Shopping Bag ( 0 items )
IT'S NEW YEAR'S EVE. In three hours it will be Auld Lang Syne and 1942. We are likkering up in a honkytonk. The beetle organ, all lit up like a passionate gargoyle, is giving out with Remember Pearl Harbor. We are singing:
Let's re-mem-ber Pearl Har-bor
As we sail a-gainst the foe,
Just re-mem-ber Pearl Har-bor
As we did the A-la-mo ...
What-the-hell have we got to remember about Pearl Harbor except that a clever enemy caught us with our pants down? Can't we arouse ourselves without using a blood-scent? But it's a lively drinking tune.
We will al-ways re-mem-ber
How they died for lib-ber-tee ...
We are dancing. Crazy, jitterbug dancing by the guys from Up North, and close, hot, breast-feeling dancing by us Southerners. We've got women. Damn good women for soldiers on New Year's Eve. Cajun women and lint-headed women. Sticky, sweaty, sinuous, writhing women. You just grab a-holt, honey, and hold on. They don't charge for it. They do it because they love it. We've got likker and women and music and moonlight. Big Louisiana moons and soft Spanish moss and pine needles. "And we've got to drink and make Mary," for in four hours we'll be pulling out for `Frisco.
It's strange how things happen. I never thought I was the kind of guy who'd join armies. I hate armies. I hate the whole process by which armies are built. I hate the idea of one man being forced to keep step with ten thousand others. I guess I'm afraid ofarmies, too. I'm afraid of what they'll do to me inside. I'm afraid it may be true that to destroy a brute you must become a brute. Yet here I am. Pvt. Peter Garth Lafavor of the New American Army. Great-grandson of the Old South. Phi Beta Kappa. Beta Rho. One-time editor of the Deep South Defender. A gentleman who has bathed twice in a single day, perfumed his arm pits with essence of tumbleweed, and slept in silk pajamas. A scholar who once wrote a thesis on "The Effect of Senecan Stoicism on the Elizabethan Dramatists." A subscriber to Esquire and the American Mercury and the New York Times.
Yet here I am. Pvt. Peter Garth Lafavor. Dressed in the same Boy Scout suit that I "used influence" to avoid wearing when I was in college. Being ordered around by officious clodhoppers who require me to grunt like a boar when I yank my bayonet out of a dummy's belly. In an army you have to do more than learn how to ventilate a man's guts. You also have to learn to enjoy the act of ventilation, and you must grunt to show your savage satisfaction.
All the things a civil man likes to do in private I now have to do before a pushing, wise-cracking, waiting-in-line audience. Even when I go to a brothel an MP is there to herd me into line and ply me with the latest Boy Scout advice, so I only go when I'm very drunk. I wonder if I'll be allowed the luxury of dying in private? If I get my bullet in Australia or India, I suppose there'll be a dozen fellows to watch me gag in the dirt.
War is a filthy, brutal business to me. There is nothing about it that thrills me. I have only one reaction toward it. It was inevitable. We are in it. So let's get on with the goddam thing and get it over. Let's don't waste any time on parading and band playing and flag-waving and trying to whip up our emotions. There is a berserk brute in the world trying to take advantage of our confusion and cross-purposes to enslave us. Before there can be any hope, the brute, in all his forms, must be killed. We must meet him on desert sands and in jungle mud. We must kill and be killed. We must strew guts and have our own guts strewn. We must hope that some day either we or those who come after us can build a proper world. But our job now is not to build the new world. Our job is to kill the brute.
Sure, I could have waited and gotten a soft commission in public relations. But, hell, if I come through this war I've got to live with myself, haven't I? And what this Army needs is more fighters and fewer press agents. Sure, I could have "used influence" again and done my fighting with benefit of a cushion and a water closet. But here I am. Pvt. Peter Garth Lafavor. Just another American guy whom the war caught up with. just another guy who enjoys comfort and privacy in his own little world but who suddenly found a brute standing on his door step. Just another guy who, while he was hating and fighting some things he didn't like here in America, suddenly had to wheel around and confront the brute which was creeping upon us. Just another guy who suffers from confusion and cynicism inside, but who now must choke it all down until the world is safe for peaceful disagreement again.
And since I have chosen to share the blood and mud in this struggle, I am sick of those people who regard our winning as the inevitable result of a long process of sacrifice and attrition. I'm sick of those guys who compose fine phrases about how slaves win the battles, but the free men eventually win the wars. I'm not so sure about that. The slaves have been doing all right so far. I want the free men to begin winning battles, and quickly. I want to make the world and America and a spot back in the Tennessee Valley safe for future generations, but I'd also like to make them safe for myself. I'd like to live on that spot back there in the valley in peace and dignity, so I want us free men to stir off our stumps and get on with the job of winning, and not leave the winning to a "slow but inevitable process.
There is an even more important reason why I want to get on with the winning. Like most Americans, I, too, am fighting on two fronts. I am prepared to fight the brute wherever I contact him, but I must also fight within myself for the new faith which we, somehow, must find and hold.
The war caught me sadly short of faith. By struggling, I feel that I have laid hold of faith, and by continuing to struggle I hope to hold it and make it a part of me. But I have made all the common mistakes and a few uncommon ones. I suffer from the cynicism born of my own experience and of our national experience. While I fight the brute on one front, I shall have to fight doubt and cynicism on the other front. The result on the faith front may be contingent on the result on the brute front.
Down here in Louisiana you have plenty of time to think. You lie out on your shelter-half under the stars. You feel the oppressive stillness of a swamp around you. You look up at the skies, and by fighting hard, you can see the Answer spinning like a star through its nebula. The stars are bright and clean, and you are glad you found the courage to join the battle against the brute. You know what you must do and why you must do it. You feel strong and sure and resolute. Then the Answer fades again into the white, gaseous mass. Mud collects on the stars. The ground feels hard and you toss about nervously. You feel yourself saying: What-the-hell? Then comes: Why-the-hell? Then, in a moment, the old one: Am I my brother's keeper?
You think of all the things you hate and fear in America. You think of some Red bastard who's going to stay at home and try to take what you've got while you are gone. You think of people in high places who use their influence to help their friends get commissions to save humanity. You think of Old Senator Pusselgut hiding in an artificial fog of patriotism while he votes himself a fat pension. You think of labor unions striking in a shipyard over "jurisdiction"; of a Great Industrialist saving democracy at a four hundred percent profit; of farmers squawking for "parity and more parity"; and of all the little American pressure groups tugging away like dogs over a bone while you sleep between two cotton rows. Your belly-knot of cynicism rises, and you flop over and mutter: "Goddam!"
But you must hold on, fight like hell against that belly-knot, and pray for the clean, clear stars to come back out. For the chips are down now. It's dying-time again. Dying is easy. After you've been attacked, you or any man can die boldly for the record, even in a barroom brawl. But to endure armies and the whole sordid process of brutalizing yourself in order to conquer a brute, you need faith and a vision studded with bright stars. You need faith in God and faith in man and faith in yourself. You need to believe that men are grand and noble creatures, and that you are a part of a grand and noble movement toward a grand and noble end.
There is a shortage of weapons in the New American Army, but there is an even more tragic shortage of faith. The genius of industry, in time, will supply us with weapons; but it remains to be seen whether a genius will rise who will help us find and hold on to our faith.
We of the New American Army are like crustaceous animals. Our beings are circumscribed by shells. Shells which have grown harder and tighter and thicker with each passing year. Shells composed, not of calcium compounds, but of this cynicism and suspicion and lack of faith. Shells which we have developed to protect ourselves from the flying debris of blasted bastions. And shells which are the result of our own indiscretions.
I am twenty-eight now. I have had time to learn about shells—how one is formed, how it can gall your back, how it can restrict your view, and how you are inclined to crawl up under it when danger threatens.
But I have also had time to learn that faith and hope and an effort to understand can soften the hardest shell in the world.
Copyright © 1997 Richard McKee. All rights reserved.