Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Reflecting on Wallace and September 11th

I was twenty-one years old when the Towers fell. I was an English major, but I had not yet heard of David Foster Wallace. I made it through four years of college without reading Wallace, Barthes, Borges, Powers, Egan, Franzen, Smith – and a long list of others. But then, I’ve never been a literature scholar – I’m a creative writer. I never spent enough time learning the canon – I instead picked up Stephen King, Ray Bradbury, J.K. Rowling. I read the books that grabbed hold of my face. Had I read “E Unibus Pluram” – I was in eighth grade when Wallace wrote it – I might have recognized myself, I might have understood that my choices of reading mimicked American choices in television. Instead, I thought myself elevated because I read The Economist, and because I earned a B in my journalism class.

When the Towers fell, I turned to CNN. We all did. We gathered in the common room of our dorm and we watched the coverage until the shadows of day grew long. I don’t remember what happened after. Did I wander back to my room? Join friends for dinner at the dining hall? Write a story? Fall asleep? I have no recollection.

In those devastating days – those weeks without airlines, the days of cancelled classes, the uncertainty about which people in your orbit had known someone – Wallace sat down with his neighbors. He watched the Towers fall among women who prayed. He noted the absence of a veteran, a contractor who had to leave early for work. In New York City, the sky fell – in Illinois, the soil was dark and fertile and planted with American flags. He explained the view of terror, as seen from the Midwest.

Did it bother me, that we all flew our flags? I don’t know. But Wallace noticed it. He described it, the large flags and the small flags and the tiny parade flags, all appearing all at once. He didn’t simply report the horror – he voiced ambivalence. He found an undercurrent in American life, a patriotism without awareness. It’s an ambivalence that I’ve heard from others who have seen this before. My German professor from Spring 2002, she noted the anxiety that came with seeing so many many flags flying from so many windows. This was advanced German, a 300-level course – most of the discussions were in German only. But for this conversation, she spoke in English, to help us understand. “Before the war,” she said, referring to World War II, “they had the flags everywhere.” Die rote Nazipfannen – they were everywhere. Later – in 2009, I think – I went with a friend to a lacrosse game at Johns Hopkins. We were master’s students, young and yet adults. And because it was a college team, the ROTC students came out in their uniforms with their flags, and we all stood for the National Anthem. And my friend – who also happened to be from Germany – she turned to me, having never seen this before. “I am horrified,” she whispered. Later, I had to explain that this was America, that this was the tradition. She almost didn’t believe me, when I explained that this was every sporting event. I wonder, now – what did it mean, that I was not also horrified? No, I was only horrified that time I watched on TV as a B-2 Spirit bomber came in low over the Super Bowl. I believe that, too, has become a tradition – to display our nuclear-capable first-strike bomber at sporting events, since these dark angels of night have not yet retired to the museum.

But in 2001, I did not question the need for America to police the world. I didn’t seriously question my own desire to join the military. I believed that September 11th had brought me a realization, that the national trauma placed my own meager life into the perspective of a greater cause. Compared to the “fight for freedom,” I came to believe that all other goals would prove trite. That’s not the only reason I joined, of course – I yearned for the adventure, the steady paycheck was far better than anything I’d ever known as a college student, and the promise of G.I. Bill for graduate school cast a sufficiently academic veneer of respectability. In my rootless, aimless journey toward meaning, I could reassure friends and mentors that the Army was simply a step on the journey, that there was a promise of graduate school and “a future” in this decision to go chase Al Qaeda. But I was young, and I was not so thoughtful. I was a writer, then, but I was not a reader. Not a serious reader. Not someone who noticed Wallace – or so many others who mattered.

Fifteen years passed before I finally read “9/11: The View from the Midwest.” In those fifteen years, I spent five in the army and eight in graduate school. Plus many scattered months adjuncting, bartending, and working at summer camps. I found myself – an American and a veteran – inhabiting what has become a foreign country to me. When I was young, America was a good place – a decent place. Sure, I grew up in Chicago, and yes, I was once held up at gunpoint after school, but I simply couldn’t perceive the fractures in our society – fractures that Wallace not only noticed, but expressed. As Wallace questioned the arrival of the flags sprouting from the ground, I contemplated my future, unaware how my own decisions were shaped by unquestioned social forces. Logically, I knew that teaching English was my only viable career option. I was a writer – I had already dropped out of chemical engineering, quit my job in a biology lab, and given up on dreams of science. Sometimes, I thought about graduate school – about getting an MFA in creative writing – except we were well into application season by the time the Towers fell. And when the Towers fell, I passed into a realm I don’t remember fully. No, I wasn’t touched by September 11th, so all I knew was the echo. I didn’t know anyone who died in the Towers or at the Pentagon or on Flight 92, but I wanted to. I yearned to know their absence, to truly feel what had been lost. But I couldn’t. I lived in Cleveland – not New York.

I didn’t wake up from this daze until months later. In October, I had a paper to present at a conference in West Virginia. I should have purchased airline tickets, but I didn’t. The conference was in October, and I didn’t want to fly. So I rented a car. And then I had a car accident. A small one – I didn’t hit the brakes hard enough, and so I rear-ended a truck. A few days later, driving the same damaged rental car, I knocked the side mirror off yet a third car. What am I doing? I asked myself. How can I be a man when I can’t even drive a car in a straight line?

I should have realized, then, that I was not yet grown up, that I was not yet an adult. But I was twenty-one years old, the Towers were gone, and I had no career in sight.

Did I plant a flag on my lawn? No. I lived in the dorms – I didn’t have a lawn. But I planted one, just the same. Held it in this imagined fist, thinking I might channel my sorrow and my desire for anger into something worthy. By the time I visited the Army recruiter, I should have realized my fate was sealed. I should have realized that there was nothing my mother could say or that common sense could reveal that would stop me from going to Basic Training, hoisting up an M-16, and learning to shoot plastic targets in the rain.

Had I read David Foster Wallace’s view from the Midwest, I still wouldn’t have understood. I could have read his words, but they wouldn’t have registered – I wouldn’t have realized that my own desire for purpose and understanding and defending what is right had somehow missed the point. And so, I am caught at a strange crossroads. I am proud of my military service, and I am proud of our military. And yet, the harm we have caused – the harm I have taken part in, simply by signing my name to a sheet of paper promising to give everything I had, including myself. We swore to preserve freedom – even if it meant placing our freedoms in a coffin and draping them in a flag to preserve their memory.

I was discharged from the Army in September, 2007. In November of that year, Wallace asked the question we should have all been asking: “Are some things still worth dying for?” Wallace asked if freedom was worth the price of occasional terrorism, if the Patriot Act and other restrictions were truly worth it. I ask myself, now, just how many lives we sacrificed to ensure that no one else would die. Was it worth it, to have 6,900 service members return home draped in our flag? Was it worth it, causing a civil war that has claimed 500,000 Iraqis?

Sometimes, people will thank me for my service. I wish I could explain that there is nothing to thank me for, that I simply did my part. But really, I do not want thanks. I do not want the reminder that I, too, became an agent of vengeance. Yes – I donned the flag patch, centered the brim of my patrol cap low over my brow, and marched in step. And then I watched, in 2003, as we directed our hurt upon Saddam, as we channeled upon the people of Baghdad every ounce of pain we vowed New York would never again know.

Looking back, I wish I had been a better reader. I wish I had taken more time to understand this America we live in – this America that my son has also been born to. On this day, when so much attention will be directed toward the veterans and the victims and the survivors, I think it’s worth noting that our nation is still more complicated, that we still need those voices who are able to articulate the feelings that many of us feel without identifying. This is where Wallace excelled – the ability to sit and observe and write, expressing in words the thoughts we didn’t know we felt.

Tomorrow will mark ten years since Wallace passed away. He took his own life on September 12th, 2008. In the ten years since we lost his voice, it’s tempting to say that much has changed in America. But really, little has changed. We see the same political strife, even fight the same wars. If anything, America has simply become better at revealing and reveling in the tensions that Wallace noticed most.

I wish that there was some way to go back and talk with him, to hear the commentary he would have given on today. Would he have said “I told you so”? No – I know he wouldn’t have said that. Instead, I have a feeling – based on the descriptions I’ve heard – that he would have slapped on another nicotine patch, placed pen to paper, and set to work.

1 comment:

  1. Well said. "A view from the midwest" is probably my favorite of Big David's essays. Thank you.