Tuesday, May 12th, 2009
“Regardless of her motive, when a wife shields herself from controversy, the strength of her buttressing is bulldog tough. It’s not a Green Curtain. Sweetie, it’s a brick wall.”
The ramifications of vowing “for better or for worse” in a military marriage are heightened—I’m attached, by law and in spirit, to my husband, and by association, to the institution and the national populace he serves. When the news of the atrocities at Abu Ghraib broke in April of 2004, I felt so acutely pained, I was almost physically ill. Here it was—every negative punk rock stereotype I held about the military come true: They were goons and thugs, flouting the Geneva Conventions and shattering souls on the public’s dime. The Man gone mad. “For worse” was in my face—on the Web, on TV, detail upon detail of hoods and leashes and dogpiles of stripped and quivering prisoners. Is this how we “bring democracy?” The image that haunted me most was the one that became so iconic: Satar Jabar atop that wooden box, draped in black, a pointed hood on his head and a ragged blanket cover, arms dangling from wires like a gruesome marionette or a faceless Halloween ghoul. The more information that came out, the worse it got. Even though I knew better, I was forced to wonder: Was my husband capable of such evil? I was familiar with his relaxed, fair-minded, at-home persona, but his combat-self was unknowable. The shock had rendered me paranoid. Everyone was suspect.
Abu Ghraib upset me in a way I couldn’t have imagined. If you’ve ever had someone cheat on you—the feeling was the same. The hot shock at the moment of discovery. The immediate disbelief—”Oh God, this can’t be happening”—followed immediately by a frantic search to scare up more evidence. At first, you can’t even be mad, you’re just so stunned and hurt. All you can think of is your world ending as your heart breaks. Then it’s so fucking painful, you can’t believe it’s possible to reel so much from the hurt, and suddenly, you want to know everything. The hunger for knowledge consumed me like a craving sickness. I started patrolling Web sites, wire stories, televised news reports, each story a nail driven deeper. No, no, no! I’d end up with an ache in the middle of my chest that made it impossible to sit up straight. Nothing but nothing tops the agony of betrayal, and this was the first gross violation of my carefully placed trust in the military. It was a uniquely shattering pain.
I looked at Mike. How did this happen? Why did this happen? When he saw the pain and confusion in my face, he could only say, “I wasn’t there.”
While I knew that Commanding General Janis Karpinski bore most of the responsibility in allowing the exploits inside the prison, Lynndie England emerged in my mind as the poster girl for the wrongdoing. I couldn’t shake the image of her pointing at some blindfolded guy’s penis and giving a big thumbs up, a cigarette clenched between her teeth like Tony Soprano with his gangster Macanudo. I work hard to be a compassionate, forgiving person, but I had trouble with this one. On behalf of Army wives, hardworking servicewomen, and every woman who gave a damn how the military came across in the eyes of a trusting public, I wanted to slap that smile right off of her smug little moon face.
War is a profoundly human event that often has a dehumanizing effect. Under tremendous pressure and strain, soldiers find themselves doing things that they would never otherwise do. That’s what my philosophical self says, anyway. In my heart, I was less able to make sense of the horror. I grappled for some semblance of understanding for SPC England. Maybe she felt so lost in that hellhole that she wanted to do something to create a semblance of belonging, to show she was one of the guys. Something crass and vulgar that stretched the limits of good-girl behavior.
Honey, couldn’t you have just made a sex tape instead?
I naïvely expected that the news of Abu Ghraib would explode at West Point like a bomb, the details dominating every conversation. I could not have been more wrong. In fact, the entire war remained, as before, an almost spectral presence—topic non grata. I’d search the faces of the people on post—does this bother you, too? Do you also fight the urge to cry and scream? Does it make you want to just run? Am I the only one who wants to march down to Washington and give Donald Rumsfeld a hundred-decibel piece of my mind?
I could, of course, deny any outrage, opting instead to duck and dodge any controversy with the ol’ Household Six hand-wave: “The Army is a wonderful institution, and I’m so proud of my husband because he is fighting to defend our nation’s freedom. Thanks to him, we’re entitled to our opinion and to our free speech!” La la la la, can’t hear you! Plenty of Army wives default to this speech. For some, the sentiment is sincere. Others believe discretion is a necessary professional courtesy—why rock the boat when your husband is on it? Still others, well, maybe they’d give you an earful of opinion, but they don’t want to engage. They just want to hustle the groceries into the car and get home. Regardless of her motive, when a wife shields herself from controversy, the strength of her buttressing is bulldog tough. It’s not a Green Curtain. Sweetie, it’s a brick wall.
And there, within the silence, the rounds of “Taps” accelerated, the lone mournful bugle rolling up the hill to my front door. After the bugle came the twenty-one-gun salute comprised of three volleys from seven rifles. In the heart of the Army’s glamour bubble, the grim reach of this war was unavoidable. Yet amid the burials and the news of the human-rights violations, family life on post continued as before. Troops were dying, innocent men were being terrorized by attack dogs, and Wheat Thins were two-for-five dollars at the commissary.
I realized that I might do better if Mike and I put some space—metaphorically, geographically—between the Army and me.
In November, Mike came home waving a couple tickets in the air: “It’s that time of year again!” The first weekend in December, we bombed down to Philadelphia for the annual Army-Navy gala and game. Army-Navy, dating back to 1890, is one of the oldest, and most bitter, rivalries in college football, and the manic enthusiasm surrounding the game is infectious enough to captivate even the most football-averse individual (me). The gala was the predictable cocktail-hour/mingle/dinner affair, punctuated with athletic displays by the Army’s cheering squad, the Rabble Rousers, that paled in comparison to the acrobatics that the attending officers laid down on the dance floor later that night. You really can’t comprehend the scope of God’s humor until you see military brass rocking out to Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.”
The next morning, we rose early for the game and piled into a van as part of the superintendent’s entourage. Since it would be a long, frigid day at Lincoln Financial Field, Mike had bought me a ticket to the VIP warming room where I could hang out with the other wives, and, if need be, escape from the chill in the stands. Shortly before kickoff, the warming room filled with injured veterans from Iraq and Afghanistan, bussed up from Walter Reed Medical Center to watch the game. Some came in on crutches, others rolled through in wheelchairs, men and women missing arms, legs, a hand, some scarred ear to ear. Each of them heartbreakingly young. I stood near the bar watching the whole scene when I heard a man talking in a low voice: “She’s about five-foot-six, with long hair and this tight sweater and . . .” I pivoted, ready to scowl and maybe offer a searing word of correction to the tool bag who dared turn the military academies’ most revered athletic event into an ogling opportunity. But when I turned, I saw that the man speaking was a Marine officer in dress uniform, leaning over the shoulder of an injured jarhead with a jagged scar zigzagging over his entire scalp. One of his eyes was just a fleshy, empty socket stitched shut, the other fitted with a glass eye emblazoned with a skull and crossbones where his pupil should be. He sat listening intently as his friend described the hot chick he would never himself be able to see. In an instant I shifted from offended to deeply touched. As far as I’m concerned, if you’ll check out women for your war-blind buddy, you don’t deserve a lecture. You deserve a blessing. God bless you, you knucklehead. God bless you and your ever-loving red-blooded American male heart.
Before kickoff, I took my seat in the stands. Rubbing my hands together to keep warm, the winter wind biting clean through my lined leather gloves, I looked over my shoulder to the row behind me. Well, what do you know? There sat Donald Rumsfeld, with his wife, Secretary of the Army Francis Harvey, Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker, and a small tribe of Secret Service agents. The game hadn’t yet started, and everyone in the VIP section had that early-to-the-party vibe, glancing around trying to grope their way into some time-killing small talk. I had wanted so badly to give Rumsfeld a piece of my mind, and here was the perfect opportunity. So many options, where to begin? Maybe with a comic opener:
“Hey, Sec Death. I mean, Sec Def. Wassup?”
“Boy, this cold weather is torture, isn’t it, sir?”
Or maybe I’d be more to the point: “What kind of monster are you?”
* * *
I glanced from Secretary Rumsfeld to his wife, a handsome woman bundled up against the cold in gleaming black mink. What was it like, I wondered, to sleep next to a man who was now regarded as an architect of evil? What manner of opinion did she keep under her hat? I stamped my feet to get the blood circulating, trying to bring some warmth to my toes. I wasn’t just cold; I was numb with shock, standing an arm’s length away from the man who couldn’t even be bothered signing the Killed in Action letters sent to families of fallen veterans—he used a signature stamp instead. The man who, when confronted by a soldier who stood up at a press conference in Iraq and asked why he and his comrades were forced to dig up rusted scrap metal to cobble together protection for their unarmored vehicles, said, “You go to war with the Army that you have, not the Army that you might want.” Shifting back and forth, I weighed the possible outcome of saying something to her husband, and no matter how
angry I was over the hell that Rumsfeld and his crew had wrought, all I could envision were my words casting a long, dark shadow over my husband. For all my fury and indignation, I would not win this war with a personal attack, and by putting Rumsfeld on the spot I would be serving no one but myself. What he did to our country might be unforgivable, but so, too, would be turning a football game into my own personal bully pulpit. My husband committed to a vocation of selfless service and sacrifice. I would match his sacrifice with discretion. For the first time in my loudmouth life, I chose impassioned silence.
One of the men in my husband’s shop came up to me, holding out a camera. “Lily, will you take my picture with Secretary Rumsfeld?” When I was finished, he said to Mike, “Your turn. Come on, you two.” We clustered together—and I never, ever thought I’d say this—hubby, Rummy, and me. The shutter clicked. In the photo, I am smiling.
© 2009 by Lily Burana. Excerpted with permission from Weinstein Books.
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