Calling Out The Guard

What do we have to do to keep our National Guard at home—where they belong?

A woman my wife teaches with came to school in tears the other day. Her 39-year-old husband—father of their two children, officer in his steelworkers' local, and member of the National Guard for the past 21 years—had received an order to report for duty in support of the war in Iraq. He will leave three days after Thanksgiving, trailing our yellow ribbons behind him like a newlywed's secondhand car.

He had put in for his retirement this past May. He has been told that he will be gone for 18 months. There is no way to be sure. "Tour of duty" has come to mean the same thing in the Bush administration that "term of loan" means to the World Bank.

It is hard to overestimate the effect of the Guard call-up on small communities like the one in which I live. You know you live in a different sort of place if you require more than a minute to estimate the damage. Here in northern New England, Guard members are often the same people who serve as EMTs and volunteer firefighters. In an area where police are few, they make up the difference. Today's local newspaper carries the story of a 67-year-old woman who disappeared from her home in the middle of the night. The photo shows National Guard reservists in camouflage combing the woods around her house. Already the image seems tinted with nostalgia.

The sending of Guard units to the Middle East underscores a number of realities that play in communities like mine. One of them has to do with the dubious value of the printed word. You can hold the mortgage to your farm or the OSHA regs from the shop where you work, you can have that piece of paper right in your hand—you can have the Bill of Rights and the Bible too, as far as that goes—but what you can never have, what will always lie in other hands and in that place called Elsewhere, is the correct interpretation of what those words mean.

For example, this is not really a war if we're talking about the need for a formal declaration from Congress, but it really is a war if we're talking about the need for a blood transfusion from the National Guard. That's how it works, and that's how it has always worked. Think of this the next time you feel like holding forth on the illiterate electorate and the decline of "the language."

Disappearing the Guard can also be seen as one more maneuver in the war against rural communities that has been going on ever since America won the war against Germany and Japan. Having slowly destroyed the livelihoods of small farmers, the oil-driven consumer economy now moves to destroy the remaining infrastructure. The policies of Elsewhere have always had the same purpose and effect: that of taking people away from home by compulsion, deprivation, or allurement. The touted blue-state/red-state split derives from a complex of reactionary causes, but surely one of them is a reaction against the perceived geographical locations (New York, Massachusetts, California) of the expertise that depopulates and demoralizes small communities. The traveling salesman in the old farmer's-daughter joke is a traveling consultant now, but the farmer's daughter still gets fucked.

But these were not my first thoughts when my wife told me about her colleague's husband going away. Something more vague and atavistic—the image of a neighbor getting an order, going to the train station, vanishing "but maybe not for long"—conjured that old nagging question of how nobly one would have acted during a time of pogrom or purge.

Can't we find a partial answer in the attitude we take toward what's happening with the Guard? Too bad, really, that they have to go, but they were never exactly our sort of people. And it was their choice to join the Guard, after all. And I bet not a few of them voted for Bush. Granted that our führer is an embarrassment, but some people get what they ask for.

Don't wince too hard at the hyperbole. Right now the closest thing we may have in the United States to a yellow star is a red neck (or a black one of the same social class). If you don't buy that, you weren't paying close attention to the difference in deference paid to the sexual harassment allegations of Anita Hill and those of Paula Jones; never mind that the former had to do with things as heinous as the mention of a pubic hair, whereas the latter were as trivial as being involuntarily fetched for sexual favors in a goddamn police car. Never mind, because trashy people invite that sort of treatment. People who live in trailers actually like to ride in police cars. It's just another form of mobile home to them.

We interrupt this essay for yet another bout of post-electoral hand-wringing to the tune of "What's happened to this country?" Allow me to clear that one up for you. What's happened to this country is that it suffers from a disease known as morbid disingenuousness, the chief symptom of which is a tendency to ask imbecilic questions like "What's happened to this country?" in place of questions more to the point, such as "What the hell's happened to me?"

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