Thank You To A Friend Going To War
by Angry Mouse, Mon Apr 07, 2008 at 12:03:11 PM EDT
I don't know her that well.
We only met a few months ago, but we clicked instantly. We like the same things: NPR and the Op-Ed page of the New York Times (well, sometimes, anyway). David Sedaris and liberal blogs. The Violent Femmes. The Blues Brothers. Socialized healthcare.
We oppose the same things, too. We both marched against the war way back in 2002. We both oppose the Bush Administration. And the whinier side of feminism. (And we're both women who majored in women's studies in college.)
But there's one big difference between us: In two weeks, I'm hopping a plane to L.A. to celebrate Passover with my family.
And she is flying to Iraq.
My new friend is an Army nurse. She joined the Army a year ago. Before that she worked as a civilian nurse for years in the South Side of Chicago, but she's drowning in debt, and the Army will pay off her student loans, and even pay for her to go to graduate school.
She likes the programs at Harvard and Johns Hopkins.
And yes, she's that smart.
It's not just about the money, though. She dreams of doing relief work, maybe with Doctors Without Borders.
What better experience than working as a nurse for Iraqi detainees in a war zone prison?
And it's not just about the experience. Her mother was a civil servant in England. She has various family members who have served in several wars. She was raised with a feeling of obligation to others, and especially to her country.
And it's not just about the way she was raised. She's a liberal. No question. But she thinks liberals often don't put their money where their mouth is. She's been renting a room from a 60-year-old radical hippie who can't understand how a "smart girl like her" could possibly join the military, especially in a time of war. And why, for God's sake, would she actually volunteer to go to Iraq?
"That's my problem with some liberals," my friend told me over dinner this weekend. "They talk about patriotism and love of country, but how many are really willing to die for their country?"
It's a good question. I know I'm not.
Liberals talk about patriotism. That it is more than the bumper sticker on your car, or the pin on your lapel.
Patriotism, my friend said, is about a love for your country and your countrymen (and women, of course), and for the very best of what your country wants to be, even when it fails.
It is about service, whether it's within your community or overseas.
But putting your life on the line to protect others -- that really is the greatest service of all.
And that's why she's going to Iraq. To pay off her student loans, to futher her education, to get the experience of providing healthcare in a war zone, and, most importantly, above all else:
Because she is a patriot.
I know that as a self-described "liberal elite intellectual", she's a minority in the military. She knows it. She's lived in London and Russia. She speaks many languages. She used to spend her summers in a family home in the south of France. She has to be careful of whom she talks to about politics.
She's tring to think of a code word, a way she and "liberal elite intellectuals" can identify each other, a way for them to know it is safe to discuss the latest outrage from the Bush Administration or the latest Frank Rich column. She wants to create a secret network, the ways gays in the military have a network.
(Yeah, that's right, gays in the military. Apparently, it's rather an elaborate network, too. Secret handshakes, coded language. They warn each other about the ones to watch out for; they identify the ones they can trust.)
We spent the weekend together, my new friend and me. It was her last big weekend before deployment. We had dinner at a French restaurant in Seattle. We stayed up late, talking about our cats and our favorite David Sedaris stories and our crazy mothers and the Democratic primary.
We talked about the Army. About how she reconciles what she thinks of the war with the fact that she is going to be a part of it. She's not going to kill people; she's going to cure them.
But she has no delusions about the ugliness. Sure, she worked in the ghettos of Chicago, but at least, at the end of her shift, she could go home to the peace and quiet of her little apartment and have a long shower and eat organic vegetables.
She knows there will be no organic vegetables in Iraq.
She wants me to send her care packages, and of course I will. She wants my old copies of Harpers. And books. Lots of books. And food, as long as it won't melt in the hot desert sun.
She's not afraid. Or at least, she doesn't want to be afraid. She tells herself she isn't. She's one tough woman. She made it through basic training at the age of 37. She worked in the roughest neighborhoods in Chicago. She lived in Communist Russia when she was ten. And it's not like she's the infantry; she'll be in a hospital. She'll be safe.
At least, that's what she tells herself.
But I think she knows that isn't entirely true. How can she not? She has a subscription to the New York Times, for crying out loud. She's seen the headlines; she's read the stories.
So she knows. She knows that she's going to war. And war isn't safe for anyone. It's not safe for the kids busting down doors in Baghdad, certainly, but it's not safe for the truck drivers, either, or the medics, or the translators.
Anything can happen. She knows that.
This is war.
She knows she wants to be buried in Arlington Cemetery. She's written her will. Just in case.
She calls it her "study abroad." She says she's off to "Italy." We laugh about her having affairs with men who don't speak English. We joke about touring museums and learning about a new culture, as if it is all fun and games, as if it really is just study abroad.
But we know it is not.
She'll be back in six months. Or a year. That's what she told me. It's what I have to believe. It's what she has to believe.
When she was leaving my house yesterday, we hugged briefly. She didn't want to make a big thing out of it, and as much as I wanted to hold on to her -- forever -- I let go. I smiled. I tried to keep it casual.
"I'll be back," she said.
"I know," I told her.
Then she turned to my husband.
"I don't know what to say," said my husband, who is a lawyer, who loves the sound of his own voice (as lawyers usually do). He is a man who is never at a loss for words.
What do you say? What are the last words you say to a friend who is going to war? A friend who promises to return, but who might not? What are the right words to say?
Be safe. Be careful. I'll miss you.
She knows all of that, though. She'll be as safe as she can, as careful as she can.
But there was one thing, the most important thing, I could say to her, to make sure she knew that I understood what she was doing and why she was doing it.
So I turned to her and said the most important words of all:
(Cross-posted at DailyKos.)