Thursday, January 9, 2014


What she says, instead of the name, is “over there.”  The name of the place she won’t say is Afghanistan, and the soldier serving is her cousin.

“Hope you get some turkey over there,” she told him at Thanksgiving via Facebook. Once she called it “far away,” but usually it’s “over there,” George Cohan’s WWI anthem, with Johnny and his gun, the indomitable Yanks, a cheerful bleating that sounds less like a war score than kicking music for the Rockettes. If you need proof of how far we’ve moved psychologically, listen to the scores of war movies. The sugar-toothed patriotism of “Over There” becomes the slo-mo sturm und drang of Barber’s Adagio for Strings in Platoon, becomes Zero Dark Thirty’s Jason Clarke quipping Wu-Tang Clan between waterboarding. We’re a country of ad men because we know when to nudge the dial.

But she knows the name, just as she knows what she wants. For her cousin to come home safe, for the photo of an explosion on his Facebook page to be a movie still, for his leave to roll around so he can spend time with the family. Instead of his fire cloud, his Christmas tree garlanded with ammo rounds, her page displays her little girl garlanded with a pink beaded necklace over her bare chest, a princess tiara sliding from her scalp.

“Over there” feels like something a child would say. Like “down there,” hands cupped over her privates when she has to pee. The shame of what is happening in places you’ve never seen. George Cohan of course would disagree. FDR awarded Cohan the Congressional Gold Medal for “Over There.” Being vague is the point. Wikipedia: “As the specific country ‘over there’ is not named, the words can serve as an exhortation for sending troops to any foreign military intervention.” We’re a country of ad men because we understand one size fits all. “Over There” was also used as an advertising jingle. “Pack your little kit, show your grit, do your bit.” WWI becomes a commercial for a Gillette Pro-Glide Razor: Johnny in the shower, running a blade over his jaw.

But here is the best part. She says, “Hope you get some turkey over there,” and he says, “I blew something up, does that count?”  A day ticks by before she responds: “If it made someone safer, yes, it counts. Now go eat turkey.”

The specificity of the turkey is what kills me. So many unknowns in this “over there” – where war is happening, who “someone” is, how to score the war that never ends.  But let’s give thanks for that big uncomplicated bird.

Life exposes the fallacy of “over there.” Boston marathon bombs in pressure cookers. American kids in mansions stock-piled with ammo. An Afghanistan or a US in which two things can exist side by side: a girl in a princess tiara and a soldier’s severed leg.

If life exposes the fallacy, so too must literature. Often war writers use second person or first person plural, injecting us into what is foreign, the battlefield – Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried – or home ground, alien ground for those left behind. “Our fathers, so many of them, climbed onto the olive green school buses and pressed their palms to the windows and gave us the bravest, most hopeful smiles you can imagine, and vanished. Just like that.” Ben Percy’s “Refresh, Refresh.” Siobhan Fallon: “You also know when the men are gone. No more boots stomping above, no more football games turned up too high…no more sneakers on metal stairs, cars starting, shouts to the windows above to throw down their gloves on cold desert mornings.” These writers don’t leave blanks.

Maybe it’s the writer’s job to complicate what’s “over there.” Maybe the job is to simplify. A soldier’s brain, plain gone. Legs gone.  A brand new face.

Now that you’re looking at them, are these the least or most complicated of images?

The best writers let us decide for ourselves. Put us inside it. Make it here, where it counts.