Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Why This Is Important (or, What America Means To Me)

I never intended to post any of my fiction here, but while I'm in the patriotic mood, I decided to share the following excerpt from a novel I wrote in 2004. The reason I wrote this story was to reassure myself that America was not going to hell in a hand basket, or -- if it was -- that it would not happen without a fight from the True Believers from Middle America. After the results of the 2004 election, I have never been totally convinced that my vision of America is not utter fantasy, but it's my story and I'm sticking to it!

By way of background, the working title of the novel is "Always Faithful." (That's an intentional reference to "Semper Fidelis" because all of the key male characters are current or former U. S. Marines.) The characters in this excerpt are Connie Rydell, an attorney from Indianapolis, and her daughter, Jessica, also an attorney. Jessica is contemplating marriage to a very damaged Marine who is recently returned from Iraq. She has not yet broken that news to her parents. She is also dissatisfied with her job as a lawyer in a big Chicago firm. She has not told her mother about that, either.

Early in the morning on Thanksgiving Day, Jessica asks her mother why she became a lawyer and how she feels about her profession. At the end of the conversation, the subject broadens from Connie's opinion about the legal profession, specifically, to her thoughts on America in general.

“Mom, before we stop this awfully-deep-shit-for-so-early-in-the-morning, I have one more question?”

What is that?”

How did you handle it when you figured out that so much of what your teachers and your parents told you was untrue?”

Connie looked at her daughter for a long time. She wanted desperately to ask a few probing questions of her own about why Jess wanted this information, but decided to just answer the question that was asked, “I was very angry for a long time until I came to understand and accept that they told me what they believed. I believe that neither my parents nor my teachers intentionally lied to me. They were simply mistaken. They told me what they had been taught. That helped assuage the anger a bit. It didn't help with the sadness and disillusionment that came with learning that the world was not as nice as they told me it was and as I still think it should be. I guess I have still not completely gotten over that. I suppose I am sort of a Pollyanna. I have decided that I don't think that is a bad thing, by the way.”

How did you feel when you learned the government was lying?”

Which time?”

Any time.”

Every time, I feel personally betrayed. I hate our so-called leaders for using the government system that I love and respect in ways that are contrary to the good of all the people. I hate them. This is our country. It doesn't belong to the people whom we entrust to run it. It belongs to us. When our leaders lie to us and violate the trust we have placed in them, it makes me angry.

And since you opened that door, I will add this before I go drag your father's ass out of bed in time for lunch: My parents were part of a generation in which the overwhelming event was a popular war. Our country sent its young men overseas to fight a very real enemy who had actually threatened us. They came back and were treated like heroes.

A generation later our government sent another generation to fight in another war, one that proved unpopular. They lied to us to get us into it; they lied to us about what was happening and what it meant the whole time. We should not have been involved in the war in Viet Nam. Unfortunately, too many people in our country blamed the soldiers who fought in that war both for being involved in the first place (which wasn't their decision) and also for losing the war (which wasn't their fault). The fact is our government officials went into that war without understanding what they were up against and they had absolutely no plans to win the war. Consequently, the entire effort was doomed to failure. The soldiers on the ground in Viet Nam didn't lose the war, but they took the blame. Too many of them internalized that guilt. Many of them have never totally gotten over that.

Those are two radically different experiences. Maybe it is because I love Rick so much and I have known many other good and wonderful Viet Nam Vets who have been as wounded as he is, but I feel that our country failed the Viet Nam veterans in ways that can never be redeemed. On their behalf, I hate and resent that.

Our system provides for dissent. Dissent is important. Hell, I wish there were some dissent going on now! It is important to protest government policies by calling the government officials accountable, not by blaming the soldiers who are just doing their jobs!

I bring this up now because I look at what is happening in our country with the war in Iraq, and I am once again feeling betrayed, angry and terrified. Our leaders have lied us into another war. I see them trying to cloak themselves in the flag and convince America that we must support the war in Iraq in order to support the troops. Nixon used that tactic in the 1970's and it was bullshit then. It is still such unadulterated bullshit, I can't believe anybody buys it! They are sending hundreds of thousands of men, and now women, into combat with no clear enemy and no clear purpose. When the body count builds and the country turns on the war, these same leaders will very likely stand aside and attempt to let the soldiers take the blame once again.

What galls me most is that some of the people who have supported this war are Viet Nam veterans who, by God, ought to know better!

They are flouting the laws, they are lying to us and -- call me paranoid -- but I fear they are setting the soldiers up once again.

As a lawyer I am appalled at the way our leaders are treating the Constitution. As a citizen, I haven't felt this raped since the 1970's when I watched the implosion in South Viet Nam, after all those years and thousands of American and Vietnamese lives lost or, at least, scarred for life. As a mother, I thank God, you're a lawyer and not a soldier. I sent Rick to Viet Nam and saw him come back permanently damaged physically and emotionally. I don't think I could send a child into harm's way, at least not to a war I believe is wrong.”

She started to cry. “That may be off topic, but I'll end up on the same corny note on which you started: the whole reason I became interested in the law in the first place was because I was raised to love and honor my country. I became a lawyer in order to somehow do 'what I can do for my country.' I love the law and I am proud of the job I have done and what I believe to be my contribution to my community and, thereby, my country. However, I feel that the leaders of our country have let us all down. That makes me angry sometimes. It makes me afraid sometimes. But, mostly it just makes me sad.”

She brushed the tears from her face and tried to laugh. “I used to get so mad at my mom when she would go all patriotic on me and cry about how America was going down the tubes in the 1960's. Dad was the decorated Marine in the family, but Mom was the Über-patriot. She was the one who bled red, white and blue. I used to think she was just silly. You may feel the same about me right now.

Maybe you just have to have a real stake in the country to feel that deeply about it. Maybe you have to have sent the man you love off to war to feel that passionately. In addition to that, I have a home and a business and a child, I guess I've built up enough of a stake that the welfare of this country matters to me. It matters very deeply. Very personally.”

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