well i thought about the army
dad said, son you’re fucking high
and i thought, yeah there’s a first for everything
so i took my old man’s advice
three sad semesters
it was only fifteen grand spent in bed
i thought about the army
i dropped out and joined a band instead
— Ben Folds, “Army”
My career options are limited. It’s not that I couldn’t get a job of some kind, if jobs were all that were wanted. According to the New York Times, even during this depression, white college-educated guys like me have seen basically no change in our employability, which is pretty much golden to begin with. (This is not, however, a good time to be a black man over 50 without a high school degree. If there ever is such a time.)
But as people rightly wondered about their returning soldiers at the end of World War I, “How Ya Gonna Keep ‘Em Down On The Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree)?” Or, to put in modern terms, can you really work at Wal-Mart after hunting terrorists in Baghdad?
This is the question posed by the most interesting Iraq war film so far, The Hurt Locker, about a talented EOD tech whose work is destroying his psyche but who can’t seem to tear himself away from it. Being a bomb tech is, of course, only the most extreme version of wartime military life in general — grinding and relentless and psychically wearing, but also, for the right kind of person, intellectually demanding and morally satisfying.
I detailed my own annoyance with a lot of things about military life here and here. But the truth is that the Army was the first organization to offer me a straightforward path to a professional career, the first to really channel my intellect to a useful purpose, the first to pay me an adult’s wages, and the first to provide me with work that I didn’t feel could be done by a talented orangutan. (Your mileage may vary.) And I know reasonable people can disagree about this, but I also found I was totally at peace with finding and catching insurgents in Iraq. How I would feel in a different war, especially if I were called on to fight conscripts, I can’t say.
When I came off active duty, I had some money saved up, and I was single, so I didn’t really care about making a decent wage. I thought I might head to Hollywood and try my hand at writing for TV. Sure, it was a long shot, but if I could get in, it seemed like potentially intellectually satisfying work, work I would be good at, and work that in a small number of cases is financially remunerative. Not that I cared about that.
Well, obviously, having a baby means the end of screwing around. Not just in terms of screenwriting, mind you. I have now effectively priced myself out of becoming a blacksmith, learning to drive Formula One, or starting a kung fu school — that is, I no longer have the luxury of poorly- or unpaid apprenticeships. The entire film industry is right out, but so are lots of other fields I might be just as interested in — journalism, cabinet-making, businessmanery, organic farming, competition barbecue, advertising, card-sharping, dog whispering, barbering, DJing for a hip-hop crew, zookeeping…. Anything that’s worth doing, apparently, is worth several years of living with roommates and eating rice for dinner.
No, I’ve served my apprenticeships already — a somewhat abortive one in film and photography, and one in government service. The weird thing about the one in film is that I was sort of on the cusp of making grown-up money (albeit doing something kind of boring like coordinating), but when I left it for seven years to go be a soldier, I essentially reset the clock to zero. I’d have to start all over again at the bottom as a production assistant and work two or three or four years just to get a dull job I don’t really want with (at best) a moderately middle-class income.
So that leaves the military or other government work. Certain kinds of government work, including the military, the police, and the fire department, are great precisely because they pay you enough to live on during the apprenticeship phase. I’m too old to become a cop in most districts — though, curiously, not in L.A. Of course, L.A. just dropped its starting salary for cops by about $15,000 as part of a negotiation between the union and a strapped city government. But still — a guy with a college degree and some military experience can make about $50,000 to start with. That’s not bad.
I’m probably not going to become a cop. I thought about it — took the exam, even — but Elana squirrelled out of me that the primary reason I wanted to do it was to take her back to L.A., at which she balked. She took me firmly aside and explained that if I had dragged her away from all that was holy and decent — or at least, all that was sunny and governed by Schwarzenegger — in order to have a baby, and if, therefore, God only knew when and if and how her writing career might recover (living in L.A. or not), then at least one of us was damned well going to move forward with a professional career doing something he likes.
Which is the other reason I can’t start a kung fu school.
Here’s something nobody talks about much when it comes to joining the Army: for some of us, it’s a form of suicide. That word is usually fraught with negative associations, like depression and aggression and Morrissey songs. But that’s not how I mean it. I mean that it’s a way of rejecting the bonds that hold us here to earth, of embracing danger, of questioning the notion that death is the worst thing that can happen to a person. In a society conspicuously lacking in vision quests, enlisting is the one definitive ritual for sticking a thumb in death’s eye.
Of course, after you enlist you spend the rest of your time building up your ability to stay alive. You learn how to shoot and how to use a gas mask and how to survive an ambush. You get in shape so you can run faster and you get stronger so you can carry more body armor. You do pushups so that you can push the enemy away from you before running away quickly and hoping that he shoots you in the body armor and not the ass.
Still, when you are deployed, you are starkly confronted with your own mortality, and you find ways to deal with it. I dealt with it by buying a burial ring and by engaging in superstitious rituals to create my own luck. I learned to smoke a pipe and I wrote a song about how comforting it is to think of dying of cancer rather than by enemy fire. I made myself ready for death, and death didn’t come.
Which is great. It’s a cool way to live, and if you die… well, you can’t say you didn’t see it coming.
On the other hand, it’s apparently nerve-wracking as hell for the people you leave behind. My parents, for example, were initially encouraging about my joining the military, but that was before Iraq started, and their enthusiasm waned considerably as it became increasingly clear that, four years after the initial invasion, my unit was going to be deployed. They dealt with it in different ways — my mother worried a lot and demanded to know what kind of snacks I wanted her to send in care packages, while my dad periodically got gloomy and argued with me over whether having a military was a good idea. It was a bummer. Recently, they ambushed me in the kitchen of their house as I was coming in the door, demanding to know whether I was planning to re-enlist. I tried to talk them down off the ceiling, but to be honest, I haven’t ruled it out.
Your parents’ claim on your emotional loyalties loosens somewhat over the years, but unfortunately in my case it’s replaced by the claims of my wife and baby son. Now that I’ve successfully reproduced, I feel I’ve basically fulfilled my filial obligation not to go around leaping into the abyss, but the same act of parentage has now bestowed on me additional duties. Hard as it might have been to detach myself from this world and live only in the moment (or the “mission,” as we call it in the Army) when I was only a son, it was still possible. But now that I’m a husband and a father, I find it nearly impossible.
I knew a girl in college who once told me that when she was young she often felt she was floating above or outside of herself. She had a theory that when we were young our souls still weren’t used to being in bodies, and that as you got older, you were gradually more tied to your body, until eventually you didn’t float away anymore.
I think I know what she meant, now.
So here’s to the end of childhood! I don’t know what I’m doing yet, but it’s not going to be this: