2015 Contest: Nonfiction Runner-up THREE GREAT LYRIC PASSAGES by Hugh Martin
Hugh Martin is the author of The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions, 2013). He is the recipient of a Wallace Stegner Fellowship and he was the inaugural winner of The Iowa Review Jeff Sharlet Award for Veterans. He teaches at Gettysburg College.
2015 nonfiction judge Mary Roach selected Hugh Martin as the nonfiction runner-up for his piece, ”Three Great Lyric Passages.” Mary says:
The author of “Three Great Lyric Passages” has done something extraordinary here. He has chosen to focus on two simple moments in his life after Iraq, rather than the more obvious narrative material of deployment. In reflecting on his behavior in these two brief episodes, he tells a story more powerful and resonant than many of the more conventional war or war-aftermath memoirs we read. It’s a quietly courageous, surprising, poignant take on combat, manhood, and the fragility of human psyche. The writing is spare and beautiful and funny where you don’t expect funny to be.
Three Great Lyric Passages
by Hugh Martin
After a night out drinking with friends, I wandered off, alone, and went drinking by myself. I ended up at a place that had a long high bar with plush cushioned stools and a large room with purple lighting where a DJ played and people danced. I sat and drank two tall PBRs because I just wasn’t ready to go back to my apartment.
Somehow, after these two drinks, I ended up face to face with a guy roughly my age, early twenties. We stood near the bar, yelling above the music’s bass, arms tight at our sides, our noses inches apart like we were waiting to peck at each other. I can’t remember how it occurred or what we were yelling about, but both of us were angry and pretended (at least I did) that we wanted to fight. Not that I was counting, but I’d probably had a dozen beers at that point with three or four shots in between. I could hardly stand.
I do remember that he pushed into my chest with his forearm. I know that I grabbed his wrist and tried twisting his arm down. Heads at the bar turned. But then I said something, a phrase I’d used maybe a half-dozen times over the years in somewhat similar drunken, heated situations, “I been to Iraq three fuckin times” (the pre-fight conversation did not have time for any past-tense indicators like “have”). I probably surrounded this information with rhetoric like “look now, motherfucker,” or “listen up, bro,” but the argument was clear: I have been to Iraq three times.
But that was a lie. I’ve only been once.
Before Trinity High School dismissed me my sophomore year for “poor academic performance,” I learned about the importance of the triad. The “Trinity” of course referring to the Christian idea of God being composed of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; all are distinct but make up one God. The number “three” has its own legendary status as, according to Pythagoras, the “perfect number,” representative of beginning, middle, and end.
Saying I’d gone one time just didn’t have a ring to it. Neither did two times. Three referenced that long history of mythic, religious, and philosophical meaning: Faith, Hope, Charity; Oedipus and the riddle of the three stages of life.
In my pre- or post-blackout state I wasn’t aware of the significance of “three” when I’d said it but there had to be a reason why I would. I’d deployed to Iraq once in 2003 and spent roughly eleven months there in 2004. Why couldn’t I just say “I been to Iraq one fuckin time”? Wasn’t this enough?
It’s no surprise that in this country veteran status can help you receive perks, benefits, and generally an all-purpose excuse from other shortcomings you may or may not have developed (or intensified) during your time in the service. A Vietnam Veteran once told me “some people were already fucked up” before they went to Vietnam. To exhibit the benefits of calling oneself a “combat veteran” or something similar, recent laws have gone into effect to prevent individuals from stealing “valor.” In 2005, George W. Bush passed the Stolen Valor Act which, in short, called it a crime for anyone to lie about military service. This was soon considered a violation of First-Amendment Rights (free speech) and an updated version was signed into law by President Obama in 2013: in this version, it is a crime to pose as a veteran in order to obtain any kind of profit, property, or tangible benefit. “No American hero,” Obama said of these situations, “should ever have their valor stolen.”
But could I exaggerate my valor? Could I take my valor and say I had a little bit more of it? Is there only so much valor one man can have?
Maybe I meant “three times” metaphorically: my arrival in 2004; my two-week leave and return in September 2004; then, of course, how it’s remained in my life as a constant echo. Or something like that. According to the writer and social historian, Dixon Wecter, for the soldier, the war years are “the one great lyric passage in their lives.” Why not have three great lyric passages? A tercet.
After driving home from another night out, I left the freeway at two a.m. and had about a mile until I could park at my girlfriend’s apartment. I’d drank a lot three hours earlier, but after some chicken wings, ranch dressing, and water, I’d sobered up and passed on the opportunity to sleep on my friend’s recliner. I’m still not sure if this night of drunkenness was to satisfy the struggling, heavy-drinking veteran stereotype, or if it was a genuine attempt to be drunk.
Whether it’s from films, books, or television representations, I wonder how many veterans return home with ideas about how they’re “supposed” to act. How much was I influenced by those ideas and perceptions about the “returning veteran” and his or her place in America? Was there a pressure to conform to these stereotypes? Should I be more angry? Less angry? Should I be like Toby Maguire in the film, Brothers, and destroy my wife’s kitchen cabinets with a crow bar?
Red lights flashed in my rear-view.
I pulled over.
This is one truism after Iraq: there is a first time for everything “after.” Watching TV. McDonald’s. Denny’s. A grocery store. Sitting in a civilian vehicle. A kiss. Walking alone without holding anything (not even a rifle). Sleeping whenever you want. Filling up a gas tank. Putting on jeans. Sitting on a couch. Walking down your driveway to get the mail. This was my first time being pulled over since Iraq.
As the officer approached, I knew I was going to mention Iraq. I was scared the alcohol was still in my system, my breath. My hair was still cut in a high-and-tight. Dog tags hung around my neck. I pulled open my jacket and lifted the silver chain so it’d be more visible, resting on my collar bone in the light. I held my Ohio ID, my military ID. Fortunately, I’d shaved the previous morning.
He pointed the flashlight in the windows, then on me.
“How you doing tonight?”
“Good, sir, just heading to my girlfriend’s right down the road here.”
“You didn’t make a full stop at the intersection back there.”
“Sorry about that, sir.”
“Can I see your ID?”
He looked it over.
“You got anything on your record?”
“No, sir, I’ve been in Iraq.”
When I said that word, it burst into the night like an expletive. That’s when he actually looked at me. Directly at my face. Into my eyes. His flashlight pointed to my legs, my hands on the steering wheel. I knew he noticed the dog tags, the haircut, the clean-shaven face.
“You got your ID?”
I handed him the military ID. He took it, with the driver’s license, back to his cruiser. Right then, I was nervous since I’d just told a lie: I’d been back from Iraq for almost two years. I justified it: like it’s so often said, soldiers are always “coming home.” Was there a way for him to know?
What if he returned and asked, “When’d you get home?”
“Oh, sir.” I’d pause, look out into the night, barely able to continue. “Every day feels like I just got back…”
“Well, son. Thank you for your service.” He’d hand me the IDs. “We appreciate all you’ve done. You get on home and have a good night.”
As I considered all of this, he walked back after a few minutes and quickly pushed the IDs into the window.
“You’re just going down the road here?”
“Yes, sir. To my girlfriend’s, really close.”
“Okay, be careful. Have a good night.”
When he walked away, I was just glad I didn’t have a ticket. I was happy he didn’t test my breath. Happy that I’d embellished. I drove off and wondered how long it’d be until I no longer felt comfortable saying I just came home.
Like the character Krebs in Hemingway’s collection, In Our Time, I soon understood some facts about lying. Certain moments and contexts required me to exaggerate or overemphasize or, sometimes, understate, my—one and only—deployment. After returning to Oklahoma from the Rhine in WWI, Krebs learns that he can’t always tell the truth: “Later he felt the need to talk but no one wanted to hear about it…Krebs found that to be listened to at all he had to lie.” Krebs soon understands that the “…town had heard too many atrocity stories to be thrilled by actualities.”
Today, the “atrocity stories” are still abundant. Maybe because I know some of those soldiers who’ve deployed two, three, four (more), times, I have to amplify my experience out of fear that once is just not enough. Out of fear that someone will respond (as I’ve heard them before) that their “son’s friend’s neighbor is a Marine who went four times”; or that their “stepfather’s uncle’s son went to Afghanistan twice and he’s going back again.” Sometimes when I’ve mentioned “Iraq,” civilians will go to great lengths to mention some connection–no matter how small–that they have to the war.
Being a veteran, I could often adjust the volume on my status to suit the situation. I sincerely felt these emotions: confusion, anger, fear of going back; but at the same time, I was relieved to be home. Sometimes, people treated me like I was damaged or broken, and it made me ask myself: am I damaged or broken? Can I not see it since I’m so far inside myself? I drank for a lot of reasons: my friends did it; I had to make up for lost time; to not care if I talked too much about Iraq; to not care if I didn’t talk about Iraq; to think of something to say not involving Iraq. I think it took years to distinguish between my genuine feelings about the war, about being a veteran, from those that were pressed upon me.
While interning for a news station in Washington, D.C., I tagged along for a story about WWII veterans visiting their memorial on the Mall. We stood by the large fountain at the memorial’s center on a cold November day. The producer was having our talent, Claire Shipman, interview veterans. Where did you serve? What branch? What memories do you have? We saw a man wearing a black “World War II Veteran” ball cap. Perfect for the shot we wanted. Before recording, Claire asked pre-interview questions.
“So where did you serve?”
“Well, well, actually…” He leaned in beside her. Before looking around the memorial to see if one of the many other veterans were close enough to hear, he whispered, “I actually didn’t go overseas–my shoulder–” He grabbed his shoulder as if to present it as an exhibit: Here, look at this. He talked about how he’d hurt it–something about a construction job–and why they wouldn’t send him overseas. At this point, Claire could no longer interview him. We only wanted former soldiers who’d been overseas. But the man kept talking. He made it clear that he served in the States during wartime but regretted it every day that he couldn’t go, that he didn’t. The shame he carried was so overwhelming that once he began discussing the shoulder and why it wasn’t his fault for not going, we couldn’t get him to stop. Claire gave him a hug. We moved on to find another veteran, one who’d gone overseas. The man continued talking even as we folded up the tripod and began moving away.
This was my first time seeing guilt for not going. It reminded me of the line in Tim O’Brien’s collection, The Things They Carried: “Men killed, and died, because they were embarrassed not to.” I first encountered this line in a short-story class in undergrad. It stopped me. I disagreed with it whole-heartedly. What about glory? Honor? Brotherhood? Selflessness? Sacrifice? These pretty much make up the Army Values. But even if you think you’re doing it for brotherhood, glory, honor, sacrifice, nation, you’re still saying that you’d be embarrassed—ashamed–to not fire back, not fire first. Not run across the street as gunfire echoes. Not jump on the grenade. Not climb over that trench into machine-gun fire. Some men would rather die than live their lives knowing that they said no. That they didn’t (or couldn’t) go.
This is why saying you went carries that power. To many of those who didn’t go, it remains some experience held atop a pedestal with the dust of mystique, and desert. It’s what Christopher Isherwood discussed in his memoir, Lions and Shadows: “‘War’, in this purely neurotic sense, meant ‘The Test.’ The test of your courage, your maturity…‘Are you really a Man?’” Whether passing means going and coming back or going and coming back in a casket wrapped with a flag, I’m not sure. According to Isherwood, and many others, failing The Test certainly means backing out. Not going.
For this WWII veteran, he’d signed up for The Test, but couldn’t take it for personal reasons. At the time, as he kept on talking, I just wanted us to point the camera and let him speak. No need to tell him we couldn’t use his interview. Just let him talk. It was clear this guilt had been following him his entire life. We didn’t need to forgive him, but at that memorial, it seemed he just wanted someone to listen to him explain. To tell him, yes we understand. It wasn’t your fault. We forgive you. Don’t be embarrassed.
I’ll probably never know how much of my early adolescent failures are conflated with my struggles after Iraq. There is a tendency for veterans to think that who they were before they deployed, before they joined, is somehow omitted from existence after they return. In some cases this is true. But many of the insecurities and issues one has before Iraq carry over into their lives after.
I can’t say enough how much my joining was prompted, prior to 9/11, because of my own failures. You can be terrified, dumb, naïve, but joining will make you brave. Joining is the easiest part.
In that bar, the man backed off. I don’t remember what he said afterwards, or if he said anything, but the possibility of a fight ended immediately after I said Iraq. I would’ve ended up with a black eye (eyes) or knocked out or something else similarly deserved. I wonder how often I appropriate that word, Iraq, and the war in general. But then again, to appropriate is “to make one’s own,” and isn’t the war mine, my life, mine for the taking? I tell myself: you burned shit; you sat, literally, through IED blasts; you went out into the July Iraq heat with no sleep in layers of gear while waiting for people to shoot at you or blow you up; you spent the 19th and 20th year of your life training for a war, then being in a war; you stood in all those lines for shots and vaccinations and planes; you did hundreds of police-calls where you stood in a formation to pick up garbage and cigarette-butts in fields, parking lots, vast spaces of Mesopotamia covered with gravel poured from dump-trucks driven by contractors; you went all those nights not showering, only wiping your ass with baby-wipes in a freezing forest at Fort Bragg. But you signed up.
Why not take what you can: the free coffee from Starbucks; the 5% off rental cars; the complimentary Applebee’s meal; the discounted hotel room? Tell the cop you were in Iraq. Tell anyone talking shit that you were in Iraq. When it’s necessary, say you went three times. Four times. Whatever. Use that great lyric passage whenever you can. Who knows when they’ll be bored by “actualities.” Who knows how long it’ll be until you say Iraq and they say, What? Where? before they punch you in the face.