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?”
What’s happened to me that I can watch a neighbor of mine forced from his home under the thinnest pretext and for the most mercenary aims, and that I can actually find the wherewithal to turn from his disappearance and phone in a reservation to a restaurant? Or that I can accept as a simple matter of fact that almost 900,000 African Americans have disappeared into prison? What’s happened to me that I’m not throwing a brick?
Answer that question and you won’t need to ask what’s happened to the country.
It goes without saying that most of the Guard will cooperate with their fate. As old as the ballad, as fresh as the latest country-western song, the code that says it is the lot of the working class to suffer unjustly, to do the dirty work of its betters—it still plays, and it still wins ribbons for integrity. It amounts to the belief in karma that accompanies the belief in caste. Something you or your daddy did in another life, or in your sophomore year of high school. Should’ve listened to that guidance counselor, kid.
I know it is pointless to argue against beliefs so ingrained, but I find myself wondering if it might be possible to appeal to the code itself. What if we could say to those in the National Guard: Don’t abandon the calling to defend your homeland. Don’t go AWOL on us. You are being asked to desert your post by a commander in chief who, during his own term in the Guard, apparently had no scruples about deserting his.
And what if their neighbors could find it on some ruby ridge of their embattled farmers’ hearts to say to the said commander, “If you want them, come and get them.”
And I have the nerve to speak of “morbid disingenuousness.” None of this is going to happen, you think, and all the key indicators show you’re right. Isn’t that what the calling up of the Guard means more than anything else: that Americans have become so docile in their love of comfort, and so cowed in the face of “terror,” that the authorities have no fear of domestic insurrection? Three big towers went down on September 11: two buildings and one backbone. Barring a tornado or some other natural disaster, what possible reason could we have for the National Guard? A strike? Don’t you need a union for one of those?
In the end, the only effective way to keep the National Guard at home is to create disturbances requiring its use. Call that reckless or retro, but you weren’t there when I went to visit the man whose wife works with mine. You didn’t sit at his kitchen table or meet his kids. You didn’t register the steadiness of his “no” when I asked if he’d ever thought of refusing the order. I’d rather have a man like him taking a shot at me on a street we both love than have him taken Elsewhere only to be shot.
Garret Keizer’s latest book is Help: The Original Human Dilemma (HarperSanFrancisco).