Retired Army Special Forces Sgt. Maj. Alan Farrell is one
of the more interesting people in this country nowadays, a decorated veteran of
the Vietnam War who teaches
French at VMI, reviews
films and writes poetry.
Just your typical sergeant major/brigadier general with a Ph.D. in French and a
fistful of other degrees.
This is a speech that he gave to vets at the Harvard
Business School last Veterans' Day. I know it is long but a lot of you can't go
outside anyway because of the hurricane:
"Ladies and Gentlemens:
Kurt Vonnegut -- Corporal Vonnegut -- famously told an
assembly like this one that his wife had begged him to "bring light into their
tunnels" that night. "Can't do that," said Vonnegut, since, according to him,
the audience would at once sense his duplicity, his mendacity, his insincerity...
and have yet another reason for despair. I'll not likely have much light to
bring into any tunnels this night, either.
The remarks I'm about to make to you
I've made before... in essence at least. I dare to make them again because other
veterans seem to approve. I speak mostly to veterans. I don't have much to say
to them, the others, civilians, real people. These remarks, I offer you for the
reaction I got from one of them, though, a prison shrink. I speak in prisons a
lot. Because some of our buddies wind up in there. Because their service was a
Golden Moment in a life gone sour. Because... because no one else will.
In the event, I've just got done
saying what I'm about to say to you, when the prison psychologist sidles up to
me to announce quietly: "You've got it." The "it," of course, is Post Stress
Traumatic Traumatic Post Stress Disorder Stress... Post. Can never seem to get
the malady nor the abbreviation straight. He's worried about me... that I'm
wandering around loose... that I'm talking to his cons. So worried, but so
sincere, that I let him make me an appointment at the V.A. for "diagnosis."
Sincerity is a rare pearl.
So I sulk in the stuffy anteroom of
the V.A. shrink's office for the requisite two hours (maybe you have), finally
get admitted. He's a nice guy. Asks me about my war, scans my 201 File, and,
after what I take to be clinical scrutiny, announces without preamble: "You've
got it." He can snag me, he says, 30 percent disability. Reimbursement, he says, from
Uncle Sam, now till the end of my days. Oh, and by the way, he says, there's a
cure. I'm not so sure that I want a cure for 30 percent every month. This inspires him
to explain. He takes out a piece of paper and a Magic Marker™. Now: Anybody
who takes out a frickin' Magic Marker™ to explain something to you thinks
you're a bonehead and by that very gesture says so to God and everybody.
Anyhow. He draws two big circles on
a sheet of paper, then twelve small circles. Apples and grapes, you might say.
In fact, he does say. The "grapes," he asserts, stand for the range of
emotional response open to a healthy civilian, a normal person: titillation,
for instance, then amusement, then pleasure, then joy, then delight and so on
across the spectrum through mild distress on through angst -- whatever that is
-- to black depression. The apples? That's what you got, traumatized veteran:
Ecstasy and Despair. But we can fix that for you. We can make you normal.
So here's my question: Why on earth
would anybody want to be normal?
And here's what triggered that
The words of the prophet Jeremiah:
My bowels. My bowels. I am pained at my very heart; my
heart maketh a noise in me... [T]hou hast heard, O my soul, the sound of the
trumpet, the alarm of war. Destruction upon destruction is cried; for the whole
land is spoilt and my curtains... How long shall I see the standard and hear
the sound of the trumpet?
I dunno about Jeremiah's bowels... or
his curtains, but I've seen the standard and heard the sound of the trumpet.
Again. Civilians mooing about that "Thin Red Line of 'eroes" between
them and the Darkness. Again. ‘Course it's not red any more. Used to be olive
drab. Then treetop camouflage. Then woodland. Then chocolate chip. Now
pixelated, random computer-generated. Multi-cam next, is it? Progress. The kids
are in the soup. Again. Me? I can't see the front sights of me piece any more.
And if I can still lug my rucksack five miles, I need these days to be
defibrillated when I get there. Nope. I got something like six Honorable
Discharges from Pharaoh's Army. Your Mom's gonna be wearing Kevlar before I do.
Nope. This one's on the kids, I'm afraid, the next generation.
I can't help them. Not those who
make the sacrifice in the desert nor those in the cesspool cities of a land
that if two troopers from the One Oh One or two Lance Corporals could find on a
map a few years ago, I'll be surprised. Nobody can help... except by trying to
build a society Back Here that deserves such a sacrifice.
We gonna win the war? I dunno. They
tell me I lost mine. I know I didn't start it. Soldiers don't start wars. Civilians do. And civilians say
when they're over. I'm just
satisfied right now that these kids, for better or worse, did their duty as God
gave them the light to see it. But I want them back. And I worry not about the
fight, but about the after: after the war, after the victory, after... God
forbid... the defeat, if it come to that. It's after that things get tricky. After that a soldier needs the real
grit and wit. And after that a soldier needs to believe. Anybody can believe
before. During? A soldier has company in the fight, in Kandahar or Kabul, Basra
or Baghdad. It's enough to believe in the others during. But after... and I can
tell you this having come home from a war: After ...a soldier is alone. A batch
of them, maybe... but still alone.
Years ago, maybe... when I was still in the Army, my A Team
got the mission to support an Air Force escape and evasion exercise. Throw a
bunch of downed pilots into the wilderness, let local guerrillas (us) feed them
into a clandestine escape net and spirit them out by train just like in The
Great Escape to... Baltimore, of all places. So we set up an elaborate underground network: farmhouses, caves, barns,
pickup trucks, loads of hay where a guy can hide, fifty-five gallon drums to
smuggle the evadees through checkpoints in. We've even cozened the Norfolk and
Western Railroad out of a boxcar. Sooooo... come midnight, with our escapees
safely stowed in that car, we wait for a special train to make a detour, back
onto the siding, hook it up, and freight the pilots off to Maree-land. Pretty
realistic, seems to us.
Now, for safety's sake the Railroad requires a Line
Administrator on site to supervise any special stop. Sure enough, just before
midnight two suit-and-ties show up toting a red lantern. Civilians. We sniff at
them disdainfully. One of them wigwags to the train. With a clank she couples the boxcar and chugs out into the
night. The other guy -- frumpy Babbit from the front office -- shuffles off
down the track and out onto a trestle bridge over the gorge. He stands there
with his hands behind his back, peering up at the cloud-strewn summertime sky,
a thousand bucks worth of Burberry overcoat riffling in the night breeze. I
edge over respectfully behind him. Wait. He notices me after a while, looks
back. "You know," he says, "Was on a night like this 40 years ago that I jumped
Who'da thought? Then I thought... back to right after my return from Vietnam. I'm working
nights at a convenience store just down the road from this very spot. Lousy
job. Whores, bums, burnouts, lowlifes. That's your clientele after midnight in
a convenience store. One particular guy I remember drifts in every morning
about 0400. Night work. Janitor, maybe. Not much to distinguish him from the
rest of the early morning crowd of shadows shuffling around the place. Fingers
and teeth yellowed from cigarette smoke. A weathered, leathered face that just
dissolves into the colorless crowd of nobodies.
Never says a word. Buys his margarine and macaroni and
Miller's. Plunks down his cash. Hooks a grubby hand around his bag and threads
his way out of the place and down the street. Lost in another world. Like the
rest of the derelicts. One night, he's fumbling for his keys, drops them on the
floor, sets his wallet on the counter -- brown leather, I still remember -- and
the wallet flops open. Pinned to the inside of it, worn shiny and smooth, with
its gold star gleaming out of the center: combat jump badge from that great
World War II... Normandy maybe, just like the suit-and-tie.
Two guys scarred Out There. Not sure just where or how
even. You can lose your life without dying. But the guy who made it to the top
and the guy shambling along the bottom are what James Joyce calls in another
context "secret messengers." Citizens among the rest, who look like the rest,
talk like the rest, act like the rest... but who know prodigious secrets,
wherever they wash up and whatever use they make of them. Who know somber
despair but inexplicable laughter, the ache of duty but distrust of inaction.
Who know risk and exaltation... and that awful drop though empty air we call
failure... and solitude! They know
Because solitude is what waits for the one who shall have
borne the battle. Out There in it together... back here alone. Alone to make way
in a scrappy, greedy, civilian world "filching lucre and gulping warm beer," as
Conrad had it. Alone to learn the skills a self-absorbed, hustling, modern
society values. Alone to unlearn the deadly skills of the former -- and bloody
-- business. Alone to find a companion -- maybe -- and alone -- maybe -- even
with that companion over a lifetime... for who can make someone else who hasn't
seen it understand horror, blackness, filth? Incommunicado. Voiceless. Alone.
My Railroad president wandered off by himself to face his memories; my Store 24
regular was clearly a man alone with his.
For my two guys, it was the after the battle that they
endured, and far longer than the moment of terror in the battle. Did my
Railroad exec learn in the dark of war to elbow other men aside, to view all other
men as the enemy, to "fight" his way up the corporate ladder just as
he fought his way out of the bocages of Normandy? Did he find he could never
get close to a wife or children again and turn his energy, perhaps his anger
toward some other and solitary goal? Did the Store/24 guy never get out of his
parachute harness and shiver in an endless night patrolled by demons he
couldn't get shut of? Did he haul out that tattered wallet and shove his jump
badge under the nose of those he'd done wrong to, disappointed, embarrassed?
Did he find fewer and fewer citizens Back Here who even knew what it was? Did
he keep it because he knew what it was? From what I've seen -- from a distance,
of course -- of success, I'd say it's not necessarily sweeter than failure --
which I have seen close up.
Well, that's what I said that woke up the prison shrink.
And I say again to you that silence is the reward we
reserve for you and your buddies, for my Cadets. Silence is the sound of Honor,
which speaks no word and lays no tread. And Nothing is the glory of the one
who's done Right. And Alone is the society of those who do it the Hard Way,
alone even when they have comrades like themselves in the fight. I've gotta
hope as a teacher that my Cadets, as a citizen that you and your buddies will
have the inner resources, the stuff of inner life, the values in short, to
abide the brute loneliness of after, to find the courage to continue the march,
to do Right, to live with what they've done, you've done in our name, to endure
that dark hour of frustration, humiliation, failure maybe... or victory, for one
or the other is surely waiting Back Here. Unless you opt for those grapes...
My two guys started at the same
place and wound up at the far ends of the spectrum. As we measure their
distance from that starting point, they seem to return to it: the one guy in
the darkness drawn back to a Golden Moment in his life from a lofty vantage
point; t'other guy lugging through God knows what gauntlet of shame and
frustration that symbol of his Golden Moment. Today we celebrate your Golden
Moment. While a whole generation went ganging after its own indulgence, vanity,
appetite, you clung to a foolish commitment, to foolish old traditions; as
soldiers, sailors, pilots, Marines you honored pointless ritual, suffered the
endless, sluggish monotony of duty, raised that flag not just once, or again,
or -- as has become fashionable now -- in time of peril, but every single
morning. You stuck it out. You may have had -- as we like to say -- the camaraderie
of brothers or sisters to buck each other up or the dubious support (as we like
to say... and say more than do, by the way) of the folks back home, us... but in
the end you persevered alone. Just as alone you made that long walk from Out
There with a duffle bag fulla pixelated, random computer-generated dirty
laundry -- along with your bruised dreams, your ecstasy and your despair --
Back Here at tour's end.
And you will be alone, for all the good intentions and
solicitude of them, the other, the civilians. Alone. But...together. Your
generation, whom us dumbo civilians couldn't keep out of war, will bear the
burden of soldier's return... alone. And a fresh duty: to complete the lives of
your buddies who didn't make it back, to confect for them a living monument to
their memory. Your comfort, such as it is, will come from the knowledge that
others of that tiny fraction of the population that fought for us are alone but
grappling with the same dilemmas -- often small and immediate, often
undignified or humiliating, now and then immense and overwhelming -- by your
persistence courting the risk, by your obstinacy clinging to that Hard
Way. Some of you will be stronger
than others, but even the strong ones will have their darker moments. Where we
can join each other if not relieve each other, we secret messengers, is right
here in places like this and on occasions like this -- one lousy day of the year, your day, my
day, our day, -- in the company of each other and of the flag we served. Not
much cheer in that kerugma. But there's the by-God glory.
"I know..." says the prophet
... I know that thou art obstinate, and thy neck is an iron
sinew, and thy brow brass...I have shewed thee new things, even hidden things.
Behold, I have refined thee, but not with silver; I have [refined] thee...in the
furnace of affliction...
Well, all right, then. Why on earth would anybody want to
be normal? Thanks for Listening and Lord love the lot of youse."