A young man in my class tells me he's shipping out for boot camp soon. I am surprised. In our class discussions, he has been very critical of Bush and the Iraq War, yet he's joined up.
"Oh, Michael," I say. "I'm going to worry about you. But maybe you won't be sent over to Iraq. Not everyone goes to Iraq." But where else would he go; where else would they send him?
"No," he says. "I'm definately headed for Iraq."
"How do you know?" I ask.
"Because I joined the Marines and they guaranteed I'd see duty in Iraq," he tells me.
No doubt, I think. They won't guarantee decent VA benefits when you get home; they won't guarantee body armor when you go, and they won't guarantee when your tour of duty will end, but they will guarantee they'll send you to Iraq, to kill and maim perhaps and to be killed or maimed perhaps. Regardless, it's a guarantee; you won't come back the same. For ill or good, once you go, you won't come back the same; you won't be the same Michael Santiago ever again.
But I don't say this to my student. Of course I don't. My heart is sinking. I don't know whether to shake him, slap him, scream at him, are you out of your fucking mind? What about your poor mother
? Or hug him. All those responses somehow seem appropriate, even though I'm just his teacher. I'm just one of his college instructors. But he is young, and handsome, and vital, and boyishly sweet, and he reminds me of my own son, so I hug him.
"I don't know what to say,"I say.
"Say you're proud of me." he tells me. "I'm going to watch my brothers' backs over there." He means brothers figuratively; he has no brothers in the military, though he might later - younger brothers who might follow his lead.
I hug him again. "I am proud of you," I say. But really I'm scared and worried. Yet how can you say that to a bright, energetic 21-year old, who is grinning ear-to-ear and whose clear eyes are focused right on yours and whose tanned, clean, open face is blushing just a bit? You can't. "Why did you join?" I ask.
"For college money," he says. "I want to go to film school."
"Wow," I say. "Film school - that's cool. So I expect to see an awesome documentary on Iraq in the future, with the name Michael Santiago on it. "
He grins. And his blush deepens. "Yes," he tells me, "you will someday."
Or, I think, I'll see your name in the newspaper, along with the names of other mothers' boys who have died. But it's a guarantee; they won't show your coffin, long and narrow, somber and stern, draped with a US flag, on TV or in the papers.
He joined for college money. He's here at a community college, but he wants to go to film school in LA, and he doesn't have that kind of dough. I want to ask him if he's worried about never being able to collect that college money. About maybe coming home without hands, or legs, or a brain. Or coming home in a box. Or so depressed, he won't be able to move through his days in anything other than a fog. Why do young men do this? Don't they get it? They might die.
And the answer becomes clear to me. No, they don't get it at all. They don't think they might die. It's that simple. I remember years ago, listening to my father tell me stories about his youth. He served on a carrier in the Pacific during WWII. He told me how one day, he and his buddy were on deck and a Japanese bomber flew over and strafed the ship. He and his buddy hit the deck. And after the plane disappeared into the blue sky, my dad got up, but his buddy didn't. Dead. "I was really scared then," my father told me. "I knew then I could die."
Two weeks later, he volunteered for duty on a fighter plane. Far more dangerous than serving on the carrier. "But Dad,"I asked, "how could you do that? Especially after your buddy died?"
"I was young," he told me. "That moment on deck with the Japanese strafing us and my buddy dying - that was fleeting. I was young. I didn't think it could really happen to me."
Young men are convinced of their invincibility, their immortality. It can't happen, it won't happen to them. And so we should be looking out for them, not letting them slip off to wars based on lies and fought simultaneously against and for a people that never said "come liberate us" to begin with. I'm a pacifist at heart, or so I claim, but I know that some wars are worth fighting; some wars are necessary; sometimes you must risk life and limb and peace of mind - not for a cause per se, not because a leader deceives a nation into war, but for people, people who need you to fight for them, who want you to fight for them. Sometimes you have to fight.
But this isn't one of those times, and no one is protecting these young men. The government preys on them, shows them ads that speak of honor, independence, nobility, appealing to the desire of these young men to be those things, to be strong, to be heroes. And appealing to their parents too, who want their sons to be those things also. And our young men are given war video games to play, to pump them up, jack them up, get them hot and excited and bothered and bursting with unbridled testosterone. But we should be looking out for them, protecting them. And we're not.
I'm not. I'm hugging Michael and telling him I'll light a candle for him, instead of arguing with him, trying to bring him to reason. Instead of taking to the streets and howling and screaming and demanding that we figure a way out of this war, a way that protects our young men, but doesn't do any more damage to the country we invaded - because we are there now, and we've made a mess, and we need to clean it up. We owe our young men, and we owe the Iraqis too.
But, I think, I do do something: I write letters. I write letters to the editor, to my senators, to my congressman. I protested before the war started. And I vote, for all the good it doesn't do me, I still vote. But I'm not protecting anyone. The young men are going. The young women too.
My dad was lucky; I hope Michael is lucky too.* Michael Santiago is a fictious name, but this student & this exhange is true. The student was in my summer class and is in boot camp right now.