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Friday, November 10, 2017

Being alive is heroism aplenty

     In truth, we are but sentient gnats, crawling around an enormous, churning, steamy globe which, in turn, is itself a mere warm speck hurtling through the black and frozen void of  a generally empty cosmos utterly indifferent to us, we moist splats of life that ooze and wheeze and shudder for a single instant and then vanish forever.
     So of course we try to puff ourselves up, concocting awaiting heavens filled with ornate glory. Of course we conjure golden deities lavishing their divine attention on our endlessly significant selves. Four score years of messy life is not enough, we are not satisfied just to exist, that highest of honors and rarest of privileges. No, we need to also be brave, strong, peerless, both the apex of nature and the pinnacle of humanity, standing on the heads of our lessers, basking in their praise. 

     Saturday is Veterans Day. Patriotic soul that I am, enamored with tales of action and courage, I was excited to stumble upon one of those amazing tales so apt on such holidays: an aged vet, his heroic deed unsung, the story told now, just in time, before the waves of time and memory roll over the champion. I made my phone calls, then visits, conducted my interviews, took my notes, transcribed my recordings, scoured the internet, read dozens of pages of material.  I began to write. I had tears in my eyes. Thrilling stuff. Heroism.
     It was 4 a.m. Thursday when my eyes, now dry, blinked open and I thought: "What if this isn't true?"
     Because really, as much as I dug, it came down to an amazing story that one man was saying, richly detailed, filled with verisimilitude, facts and dates and places, official-looking documents that, on closer inspection, did not quite prove what had been claimed. It was an incredible tale, which was the problem. Incredible is very close to "not credible," or should be.
     I'm not going into the exact details, not to be coy, but because the story isn't in the paper, in part, because we don't want to out the guy. A major metro daily is a big bazooka to turn on an individual whose crime is, in essence, losing touch with reality, concocting a self-flattering fantasy and taking it to market to see if anyone will buy it. We're not the sheriff of old men basking in unearned glory. A few hours of frantic extra digging showed that not only wasn't it true, but other people already knew it wasn't true. "The entire story is fiction" said one historian I found at the last minute. "His claim is preposterous."   
     I can't remember ever yanking a story in this fashion, and as much as it represents a fuck-up on my part—I was rushing to make Veterans Day, and should have done this work last week, should have pressed harder, sooner. But I was mesmerized by the narrative, incredulous at the idea that someone could construct it all out of whole cloth, and certain that as I beavered away through his story that the verification I needed would present itself on the next page, just around the next corner.

   It didn't. 
     My bosses saved me, because I was happy to serve up the entire complicated mess as it was, a steaming bowl of contradiction, as a story that might be true, might not—you decide! You got a tale of heroism plus, as a bonus, a nagging mystery to unpack. I convinced myself it was even better this way. Complicated and enigmatic, like life itself. 
     That just won't fly, the editors chorused. Keep digging. I did, and on Thursday afternoon found one, two, three smoking guns. A damning archival document dredged out of a military web site and my two concurring historians.
     I felt so good, almost proud, standing at the edge of that cliff, pinwheeling my arms. Let me tell you why. We judge the media by what they publish, but we should also judge them by what they do not publish when a story falls below our standards. The rampant speculation, fabrication and distortion that geysers online, particularly from the Right Wing press, is anathema to those of us in what they glibly slur as "fake news." We sweat this stuff, or try to. 
     Up until yesterday, I was worried that any doubt I cast on his story would be seen as insulting a hero, and I had an answer ready. Challenged, I would say this:
     The soldiers who we honor today were not fighting for the flag, not to venerate a piece of colorful cloth affixed to a stick. Rather they fought—and fight—for the freedom of thought that the flag represents, and what can be freer than to look at a thrilling tale and ask, "Is this true? Is the hero really a hero? Are the facts as they are being presented really facts?"
     Some leaders demand loyalty, blind obedience even. They tilt their heads back and puff out their lower lips as if they were Il Duce. That isn't America. America is a lean Yankee, stepping back and squinting his eye and examining the goods. Is this real? Is it quality? Or are you pulling the wool over my eyes, mister? We are a dubious country—at least those of us who haven't become eager dupes—and should always be proud of that. Skepticism is American. Credulity is not, or shouldn't be, though it too often is.
     So no column in the paper today. By the time the story was spiked it was after 3 p.m., and I was tapped. I put on my jacket and my cap and walked out into the gathering Chicago evening. The city was glittery in the twilight, the people rushing home, dark forms under twinkling lights. I felt oddly happy, the relief of a guy who almost stepped in front of a bus but then didn't, who pulled back or, rather, was pulled back by the steady hand of a heroic passerby. 
    It is a buoyant thing to be in the truth business, working with people I respect, who had my back, and in general a boon to be alive and to not feel the frantic need to be glorious or a hero or live forever. They suffer from a curse—born of deep insecurity and feelings of unworth, no doubt—a kind of addiction, as we see in people who have achieved wealth and fame yet find it never enough. Who need nine houses, or would scorch the planet and kneecap democracy so they can get an extra $10 billion in the next fiscal year. Breaking their teeth, King Midas style, on their golden fruit. 
     Give me real fruit. I hope I can continue mushing my face into a dripping melon, unseen and unremarked upon, grinning with simple satisfaction, blissfully ordinary, unheralded, mundane. That I can amble into my own decrepitude and, unlike this guy I got to know over the past few weeks, not find myself clawing at life as it recedes, trying to dig up a false distinction that I don't deserve, claiming to have secretly written "Infinite Jest" or beaten Barack Obama at pick-up basketball or won two Pulitzer Prizes. 
     This is not to pooh-pooh soldiers who do heroic things. That is definitely important, and something they should be proud of, assumed they did what they are supposed to have done, and something they should be honored for doing, especially today. Though a word to the wise: let others do the honoring. It's already suspect and half curdled when the praise comes from the hero himself. That said, to point out that we who never got the chance to rescue our crew mates and defeat the Germans single-handedly should not despair, nor be tempted to conjure up imaginary greatness for ourselves. There is a heroism in facing quotidian life, and we all do it, earning our medals the hard way, in anonymous solitude and silent struggle, every goddamn day.


  1. God damn it! That was very beautiful! I thank for your service to the truth. I once asked you if you prefer being a mensch to being a wealthy but deceitful producer of drivel. You replied something to the effect that your answer would probably be one that disappointed my view of you as a writer and human being.
    I think today you confirmed my original belief that you prefer the mensch.

  2. I just finished reading Rory Fanning's book, "Worth Fighting For." An honorable veteran if ever there was one.

    1. He really is. I read the book in manuscript and encouraged him to try to take the reader on the same transformative political journey he went through while they were taking the physical journey. I haven't re-read the book as published. Do you think he accomplished that? And the ending -- without giving it away to those who haven't read it? Wasn't that incredible? I mentioned it to someone yesterday.

    2. Neil, I'm not sure what the manuscript looked like, but yes, there was a political message to the story as published. And yes, the ending was incredible. I don't think it would have occurred to me to end the journey the way he did. I would undoubtedly have done the complete opposite. Rory has the heart of a lion, and the soul of a saint.

  3. Early in George H.W. Bush's Diary (not sure of the exact title of the book), he confides that he finds disturbing the prejudices of his fellow soldiers-to-be about the demonized character of the enemy. It is a moment of unalloyed honesty in a book otherwise politic and to some extent self-serving and it earned President Bush a place in my heart. Other such moments in writing and filmed documentaries abound these days in tales of veterans returning to Viet Nam to meet the erstwhile enemy and discover his humanity. Right now, in the U.S., the process continues to label those we regard as enemies as inhuman, brutal, depraved creatures who deserve to be wiped off the face of the earth. That can't be good for us, not to speak of the innocent who will suffer more than those who perpetrate the crimes we abhor.


  4. On the other end of the spectrum there are veterans who are modest to a fault. They acknowledge they fought in a war but reticent about providing details. After they pass away and reviewing their discharge papers, OMG discovering they where in the middle of some of the hardest fought battles, with the medals awarded as proof of their valor.

  5. Good going, Neil. I hate to say it, but in your shoes, I might have fallen for it.

  6. Thomas Hardy wrote a good poem on the subject. A few stanzas:

    "Had he and I but met
    By some old ancient inn
    We should have sat us down to wet
    Right many a nipperkin.

    But ranged as infantry
    And staring face to face
    I shot at him as he at me
    And killed him in his place.

    Yes, curious war is!
    You shoot a fellow down
    You'd treat, if met, where any bar is,
    Or help to half a crown."

    About Neil's fine column, talk about being handed a lemon and making lemonade of it.


  7. This column is superb and should have been in the paper. It is a wonderful reverie that tells us more about American Ideals than a hundred columns on the sort flag waving and self proclaimed patriotism that passes for military reverence in this age of you know who.

    1. Thanks Dennis though, in the paper's defense, I never offered it to them. At 3:30 p.m. I was grateful to be excused from my tri-weekly duty. I needed a couple hours to chew on this before I could write this.

    2. I agree, but can see the bosses' reluctance to publish such a column on Veterans Day. Comparable to printing a column on Mother's Day discussing how many women kill their children.


  8. That a soldier entered a war zone at all is heroic and should earn a lifetime of respect and honor. It is sad this man did not feel that whatever he did do there wasnt enough to deserve acclaim. He is wrong. He served. That was enough.

    1. A cousin listed on Facebook the names of family and friends that he knew had served in the military. I added "And to those who would have served if they had been able." I intended to continue with "but were unable to serve because of crippling bone spurs," but thought better of it. I've received at least a dozen thank-you's for the comment. Which tells me that there are many people who feel left out because they did not do military service, i.e. did not contribute to the health, welfare and safety of their country, whereas as Neil states, "There is a heroism in facing quotidian life...every goddamn day."


  9. The simple fact is that modern warfare does not call for vast armies. Even if they wanted to serve, and most do it only to earn the King's shilling, there would be not be room for all.

    Too bad in a funny way. As Doctor Johnson put it "Every man feels meanly about himself never to have been a soldier or been to sea."



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