Love’s Labour’s Lost

Ever critique the empire in these positions: push-ups, sit-ups, pull-ups, self-destructs, 59-Chevies?

After my first year of college, I was restless, impatient. I knew I wanted to document “the military,” “the cold war,” “The Spanish-American War,” “The Philippines-American War,” “WW2,” “Vietnam,” “Beirut,” and “Afghanistan.” But I didn’t know in what form or shape. I took on my stepfather’s challenge, to know REAL work. I enlisted.

This path is rooted in the military base library, my day care. My parents gone for hours, returned at closing. Having exhausted children’s lit, I explored military history, anticipated the course of future wars. (So when 9/11 happened, I was not surprised.)

I wanted to be a journalist, always wanted to write for the Stars and Stripes—but I tested too high and qualified for bubblehead—Nuclear Submarine Sonar Technician. But I didn’t see myself listening for anomalies hundreds of feet submerged. I went to bootcamp unfortunately in winter north of Chicago. I wanted to embody the physical and mental indoctrination experienced by so many of my fathers, uncles, and cousins, alas the snow.

Imagine, marine bootcamp in Full Metal Jacket for an approximation of my experience.

Before, I appreciated my family’s military service voyeuristically. War films. No one talked. My stepfather, a Vietnam Vet, and I sat quietly through bootlegged VHS tapes. I was 10 watching Apocalypse Now and The Deer Hunter. My stepfather warned, how I will understand these movies and their context when I was older. Gallipoli had a profound influence. Accepting the futility of the infantry charge against a trench. In many dreams I ran towards bayonets and machine gun nests. Waking up wondering if I could do the same in real life. Jump on a grenade to save the many. My childhood films were “Romantic.” Then Saving Private Ryan set the standard for gruesome.

Having critiqued my experience enough, I endured the Navy 8 months, leaving on a “failure to adapt.” The military psychiatrist loosely translated: I should be in college, and was eager to speed my return to the civilian world.

9/11 happened in my last year at CAL. My first conversations at the Free Speech Movement Café afterwards were about re-enlisting, but this time in the Army. I’d call the recruiter every other month. But I feared the previous “Failure to Adapt” in the navy would be an obstacle. In 2002, I went to SFSU for the MFA. I was the only student in my workshops writing insistently about the War. Then the invasion of Iraq led me to finish the MFA at Mills College.

What was I supposed to do for gainful employment? My resume has travelled the world. From the Bay Area to as far as the American University in Kurdistan.

How was I to pay off student loans, or child support? Where was my Bailout?

When I was 10, I collected Soldier of Fortune magazine. In one issue from the 80s, a picture of a mujahedeen child soldier cradles an Ak-47. He was stoic. My family has a history of children in War. My mother was a refugee in her own country. Other pictures--children maimed from Soviet mines. I wanted to be there. Why couldn’t I be a child soldier? At the rifle range, I was sharp within 100 yards..

So these images from my youth, and the desperation of unemployment, finally pushed me in to the Army recruiters office in Alameda. I was resigned to learn a “strategic language” (like Farsi, Urdu, Arabic) or to disable IEDs. I psyched myself to kill. For 8 months I waited for my re-entry file to be processed. For 8 months, I wrote for McSweeney’s about the anticipation becoming a Poet on the Ground. I did pushups and sit-ups. I imagined killing people, how easy it would be in the right frame of mind. Applying transference. If the Dept. of Education wanted its money back, then the Dept. of Defense must put a weapon in my hand. The eerie and most exhilarating part of reenlistment, I was expecting to sign my name to a $250,000 life insurance policy, and naming my son as beneficiary.

Then karma intervened.

Now, I am beginning my 2nd year teaching English, Poetry, World History, American History, Government, Economics. (And echoing Jackie Frost, last year I taught my high school students “The Libidinal Economy in Charles Dickens’ David Copperfield.” Likewise “Marxist Buddhism in The Matrix Trilogy.” And I teach Gardening. At a Buddhist School.

I am trying to understand the meaning of this karmic intervention. What I must do in return for such Providence. So this book/this conversation, Conversations at the Wartime Café: a Decade of War 2001-2011 was produced. So I host a monthly MFA Mixer in the City. So I get people to write on subjects as Suicide to Stockholm Syndrome. So I teach my students how history is a record of violence. How Compassion is an end to history.

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