THE UNKNOWN SOLDIER
2 a.m. – Ho-Chunk Casino, Wisconsin Dells – 12/29/03
I must have sat at the blackjack table with the guy for an hour or more. Sometimes the tables get a little chatty – sometimes obnoxiously so, such as the next table over, where some idiot was thrown out for making racial slurs – but this table was quiet. We placed our bets, we got the cards, we studied the cards, the dealer took the chips away (more often than not). I was in the middle of the table, right next to a cranky chain-smoker on a losing streak and an Asian woman, muttering under her breath (cursing?).
I barely noticed him at the end of the table to my right ("first base"). He was playing quietly as was I, except he was spared the cigarette fumes from the guy next to me. I couldn’t even tell if he was winning or losing. He was in his late 20s or early 30s, head shaved down to a stubble, thin, healthy. He wasn’t smoking or drinking that I could tell. Just hanging out on a late night. He might have been talking to the person next to him quietly and I paid no attention. Then I heard him say:
"I’m going to Baghdad, Sunni triangle, next week."
Well, that got my attention, even through the haze of noise, smoke, gambling adrenalin and late-night exhaustion. Now I looked at him, really, for the first time. He had none of the false bravura you often see in military men. His affect was flat – not happy, not sad. He seemed accepting of his unknown fate. But concerned enough to share his upcoming adventure with anyone within earshot at a blackjack table.
I’m pretty shy and usually don’t interject myself in other people’s conversation or talk to strangers. But this was too much. As I looked over, whoever he was talking to and the Asian woman left the table and now there was no one between him and me. As the dealer shuffled, I asked him if he had been there before. "Nope, I was in Japan when this whole thing started," he said matter-of-factly. "It’s pretty rough over there, isn’t it?" I said, my brilliant conversational style in full effect. "Yeah," said the soldier, as the cards hit the table again.
I wanted to say more, of course. I wanted to tell him that the invasion was based on lies and he shouldn’t be put in harm’s way for the dreamy geopolitical designs of Wolfowitz and Cheney. I wanted to tell him that I would be working like hell in ‘04 for an end to the radical Bush regime and, hopefully, an end to the impossible occupation he was about to join. He seemed to have an attitude that was far from gung-ho and maybe he’d appreciate my concern for his safety and give a tacit (or even overt) endorsement of my (our) campaign to free the nation from this madness. But, out of respect for the predicament he apparently had come to terms with, I kept quiet as I played just a couple more hands. When he wasn’t looking, I snuck a few peeks at him – the human face of the Bush Tragedies.
As I got up to leave, I quietly said "take care" to him, but I don’t think he heard me, since he was talking to someone else. I took a few steps away from the table and then circled back. "Hey, good luck," I said as I tapped him on the elbow. I never meant it so much in my whole life. He looked at me, but didn’t say anything. I walked out in the cold and drove back to the hotel in silence.
My dad served in the Navy in WWII and I used to love rummaging around in his artifacts as a kid (my brother and I still have his dogtags). But I formed my first opinions about military people while in high school, while the Vietnam War raged. The stories of the My Lai massacre and other tragedies helped me to think the worst about the potential behavior of those in uniform.
Since then, I have been educated about the impossible situation the soldiers were put in by politicians who couldn’t care less about the human cost of their grand designs. History books, movies like Apocalypse Now and personal stories from my brave brother-in-law John and others have brought into full focus the irresponsibility of the Masters of War.
Sure, a few people still use their time in the service as an excuse to brag, bully and otherwise act like jerks. But the volunteer military is mostly made up of the sons and daughters of the poor and working class, who are willing to take the risk of hostile fire to get a leg up in education or job skills. We owe them more respect than they are shown by throwing them into Unnecessary Wars and Impossible Occupations. There are now almost 500 soldiers dead in Bush’s Folly in Iraq. Not one of those deaths and not one of the thousands of injuries were Necessary.
That handsome young man at the end of the table is about to be shipped off and serve as a Walking Target for Iraqi nationalists, fighting off – as nationalists always do and always will – the illegal occupation of their country. I’ll watch for his face in lists of the dead and injured while I fight this year for an end to the Bush regime and everything it stands for.