Monday, December 17, 2007

What We Talk About When We Talk About War

(With Apologies to Raymond Carver)

“I’ll tell you what we should do…” Phil said. “We should start up a third party and call it the goddam “Jesus Cowboy NASCAR” party… Just that: Jesus. Cowboy. NASCAR.”

There were four of us sitting around the table drinking beer and talking about politics.

“And that’s not just the name of the party,” he went on, “I mean that’s the whole fucking platform. All we gotta do is say we believe in Jesus, we like Cowboys and we’re into NASCAR. That's it. We’d win every election from now until Doomsday.”

Everybody laughed except Lynn, who’d probably heard it before. Lynn was Phil’s second wife. I’d never met the first one.

I pictured myself in a voting booth, looking down at the candidates names with the words “Republican”, “Democrat” and “Jesus Cowboy NASCAR” after them. There was no question in my mind about who would win. Everyone went quiet for a second. There was sadness in the light that was coming through the curtains, like the sadness we all felt knowing Phil was right.

“So it pisses me off when I hear Chris Matthews, or any of those assholes, start asking about foreign policy experience. Where the fuck were they when Commander Chucklenuts was running? The asshole had only been out of the country twice! Twice!”

My wife, Therese, put her hand on my shoulder. She’d been up north, taking care of her mother for the past two weeks. I was glad to have her back. “Oh come on,” Lynn said, “You don’t know that.”

“Of course I know that. We all knew that! Right?” Phil looked at Therese and me and we nodded. The asshole had only been out of the country twice. And we’d all known it.

“Well I didn’t know that.” Lynn said.

“Mexico and Israel.” Therese said. Usually I called her Terri.

“Yeah.” Phil said, “We elect a guy who'd been on one trip to Israel and a whorehouse in Juarez and now we’re supposed to pretend like we give a fuck about foreign policy experience!”

Phil was a cardiologist, so he could say things like that. He was an alright guy. Kind of a drinker.

“It wouldn’t be so bad,” Terri said, “if his dad wasn’t head of the CIA, and ambassador to China and all that.” I was thinking about the bottle of bourbon I had in the cabinet, whether or not to bring it out. I thought it was about half full.

“And Grandpa wasn’t ambassador to the Third Fucking Reich.” Phil said. Lynn rolled her eyes and put her hand on top of his.

Terri started talking about the first Bush President and the Savings and Loan thing and I decided to get the bourbon while I still could. “Does anyone want glasses?” I asked.


I put the bottle on the table. “’Nother Beer?”


I went to the refrigerator and took out four beers. That was it: now we were out of beer.

“It’s not that complicated,” Terri was saying, “All these bankers went up to him and said, ‘We wanna be deregulated so we can loan all the money out to our friends! So then Bush says Okay! So then all the bankers came back later and said Gee, we loaned all the money to our friends, and then they didn't pay us back!"

I put the beers down on the table.

"So then Bush says Gosh that’s terrible, here’s a bunch of new money! And that’s all you need to know about the S&L bailout. End of story.”

Lynn asked how much money it was and Phil said ninety billion dollars. Terri opened her beer, put it down, giggled a bit and then took a swig from the bourbon. Outside one of the dogs began to bark and I watched the curtains glow for a moment as the sun came out from between the clouds. I wondered if there was any gin left.

Lynn said ninety billion dollars was a lot of money and Phil said it was nothing compared to Iraq. Terri reached under the table and squeezed my hand because her brother was there. In Iraq.

“The trouble with Iraq…” Phil started saying and then Terri cut him off. “I’ll tell you the trouble with Iraq…” she said. “The trouble with Iraq is we told a bunch of kids they were killers when they weren’t really killers. They were high-school football players and videogame champions. And we sent them over there and told them it was just like football or a videogame but it wasn’t: It was killing people. And people trying to kill you.”

Phil and Lynn had picked up their beers, holding them up with their elbows on the table. I don’t think they knew about Terri’s brother. He’d already been back once and was on his second tour. He’d stayed with us for a couple of days while he was back and seemed okay. Terri said he hadn’t killed anybody, but he’d seen things. She told me that after he left.

Lynn said she knew about that and Terri said “Do you?” and Lynn said she did. Phil put down his beer and picked up the bourbon.

“I had a boyfriend who was in the first Gulf War.” Lynn said. “My first real boyfriend. When I was in Boulder.” Phil put down the bourbon so I picked it up, drank some and passed it to Terri. I was pretty sure we still had some gin, but wasn’t sure about mixer.

“When he went over there, to Saudi Arabia, he said he was going to be an ambulance driver. He’d taken some tests or something. But once the war started it turned out they didn’t really need any ambulance drivers. Almost nobody got hurt. Not on our side anyway. And when they did they all went by helicopter.”

“So what did he do?”

“He ended up on a truck clearing out bunkers – going through all the Iraqi positions after it was all over and helping clear away the bodies. Put them all in body bags and loaded them on the truck. He said there were hundreds of them… thousands.”

“You’d think that’d be their job… the Iraqis I mean.” Terri said.

“Well that was the thing – all those dead guys, they were the Iraqis.”

“Oh yeah.”

“He said there were Australians too. But they had their own truck.”

Terri stood up and braced herself for a second with her hands on the table. She walked into the kitchen and came back with the gin. “I think we still have some grapefruit juice.” I said. “In the fridge.”

“Anyway, he said the bunkers were the worst. The closed places. When the bombs hit they didn’t just blow everything up. Sometimes they did, but not usually. He said the bombs created a shock wave that went through the bunkers, and that most of the soldiers died from that.” Terri put the gin bottle down next to the bourbon and went back for the grapefruit juice. The room was getting dark but I didn’t feel like getting up to turn on the lights yet.

Phil said that didn’t sound so bad to him: “I’d rather be picking up that – whole bodies - than a bunch of little pieces.”

“He had to do that too.” Lynn said. “Pick up pieces and, you know, try to figure out what went where. But he said that wasn’t nearly so bad.”

“How come?”

“He said the concussion victims didn’t die right away. Sometimes they did, but most of the time they didn’t.”

Terri stood in the middle of the kitchen listening.

“He said what normally happened was that their sinuses burst. Their sinuses and eardrums. They’d still be alive for a while, but with all their brain fluid coming out of their mouths and noses.”

Terri came back to the table with the grapefruit juice and sat down.

“So he could look at their bodies and see how they’d died. You know… looking at pictures of their families. Or just crawling around.”

The four of us sat there for a while in the dark, just breathing. I was pretty sure we were all out of ice, but one of us was still going to have to get up for glasses. Probably me.


Anonymous said...

God forgive us....if there is one.

Max In Raleigh NC

Anonymous said...

Extraordinary and unbelievably sobering

Anonymous said...

A hard rain is gonna fall; all of us will be soaked to the bone!

George said...

I need a drink now.

Carnacki said...

me too, george.

one day i'm gonna give up drinking. but it's not gonna be during this administration.

cavalaxis said...

I think I have some gin and juice in the fridge... Whose got glasses?

(Fantastic piece of writing, btw)

Anonymous said...

Goddamn, how fucking true.

Anonymous said...

That was astonishing.