Next month marks the eighteenth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. In New York City, and elsewhere, crowds will gather and listen to the solemn reading of the names of those killed in the attacks. News networks will air measured, sombre soundbites from the politicians who attend these ceremonies. All of the talking heads on the morning television shows will relate the story of what they were doing the morning the planes hit the towers.
On September 11th, 2001, when the first plane hit the first tower, I was sleeping safely in my parents’ home. Actually I was passed out—unconscious in that special way reserved for people who drank far too much the previous evening. It was supposed to have been my last night as a civilian and now I was waking up to a jangling telephone and the full force of a hangover. I assumed it was my recruiter calling me to make sure that I was awake and ready to go to the airport. I was supposed to leave for basic training that morning. It was my dad.
He told me to turn on the news and he told me that he loved me. I turned on the television just in time to watch the second plane hit the second tower. While I sat stunned and nauseated, my recruiter called to let me know that my flight was cancelled. Six days later I finally made it to basic training.
I deployed to Afghanistan in August of 2002, less than a year after joining the army. I would return to the Middle East, both Afghanistan and Iraq, on four additional occasions. 9/11 was one of those “beginning of the rest of your life” moments for me.
Next month marks the eighteenth anniversary of the most lethal terrorist attack in American history.
Next month is some kid’s eighteenth birthday, some kid who wasn’t even born yet when 9/11 happened. That kid looks like someone’s son or daughter or sister or brother. That kid looks like the bagger at the grocery store or the barista at the coffee shop. The kid looks like my niece. And she’s just waiting for her birthday so that she can sign her name on the dotted line and head off to fight the Global War on Terrorism, a war that’s been going on since before the day she was born, a war that’s all about some event that she might not even remember.
I hope that she would ask me what it was like. The army. “War.” I wouldn’t discourage her from joining. I would want her to know that, despite any political leanings I might have, the military made me a better person. My capability for contributing to the welfare of the world is due in large part to the military. But I would warn her. I would warn her that I saw war in the near future and war in the distant future as well. I would warn her that war was absurd. And then I would tell her my absurd story.
When the klaxon wails to wake you,
and the robot voice announces,
you unstick crusty eyelids.
In a classified, desert, tent
city in Tarin Kot, Afghanistan,
you lay atop your sleeping bag,
and through slitted eyes
you watch them don armor and helmets
over flip-flops and t-shirts.
The new kids jump up and run
To a concrete bunker
To a fox hole
To a shallow ditch.
You go back to sleep.
Suicide bombs are the rage this season.
Insurgents abandon their rockets and mortars
for vests and belts filled with screws and nails
and explosives. No parabolic arch to detect,
The klaxon sits silent, dusty, cobwebbed.
Once a month it yells at us,
Stationed outside of Nasiriyah, Iraq
you’ve never felt safer. Not an ambush,
no roadside bombs. Now
and then, a rocket falls
like birdshit, a harmless
dusty splash in a sand dune.
The Polish sergeant laughs
And calls it good luck,
when a bird shits on you.
The commander has to write a letter
when the bird shits on Shultz.
In an Iraqi city named
for Alexander the Great,
you pitch your tent on the banks
of the Euphrates and laugh that night
when sixty-millimeter mortars
rain down on you. “Home sweet home,”
you joke, invulnerable.
This tour you see your first corpse
(not counting your grandpa laid out
on a bier in Warlick’s Funeral Home).
Your first real, live corpse
and many more.
You and Doc Bessa load Tim
on a helicopter bound for home.
Blades chop the air overhead
as red blooms through Tim’s
his tan uniform,
his pale flesh.
The desert is no place for an open wound.
There is snow in the mountains of Khost,
Afghanistan. Charlie Company sleeps.
You curl up in a canvas tent
with the other boys, denning.
The pot-bellied stove glows and
arrhythmic, glottic snoring and
musk fill every cubic centimeter.
Cordite and brimstone scream, “Wake up!”
United States Army Dental Command
fillings rattle in your teeth.
Red-filtered flashlights flicker.
There is a zing of sleeping bag zippers
but there is no klaxon. Only
Sergeant Woodland booming,
“Get up you dumb motherfuckers!”
You scramble and run to a foxhole,
donning armor and helmet over
flip-flops and t-shirt.