Soldier of . . .
When the Abu Ghraib photos were made public in April of last year, I
was worried. Beyond outrage, I just hoped none of those guilty happened to be a soldier
from my hometown in Missouri, a place masking poverty with an Applebees and a
Wal-Mart Supercenter. Home to a few wealthy last names, two recently emptied factories,
three interstate exits, and the highest per capita meth traffic in the Midwest, my
hometown - and particularly those families with children in the service - wasnt
exactly ready for the media spotlight. What small town is? One day theyre prepping
firecrackers and a Main Street heros parade for their hometown girl; the next
morning their G.I. Jane is front-page silage, chain-smoking and flashing a thumbs-up of
youthful exuberance to those naked Iraqi POWs under her size-six boot.
While I was relieved not to recognize any homegrown
torturers in those early pictures, Im still concerned by rumors of videos soon to
circulate, giving Internet porn and NBCs "Fear Factor" a run for their
money. The only hometown soldier I know who is currently in Iraq was always a fan of
recording things, his bulky VHS camcorder as prominent in memories of my early teens as
acne and Guess jeans. Rupert Hogan was a grade below me in junior high, then two and half
grades below by the time I graduated in 1995, and while we ran in the same vague circles,
I wouldnt go so far as to call him a childhood friend. This doesnt mean I
wasnt around for (or even a bit player in) several of his early productions,
including "Cow-Tipping in the Farm Behind Elizabeths House" and
"Setting the Single Evening Mail-Box Bashing Record of Laclede County." I bowed
out of a starring role in "Dragging Halloween Decorations into the Middle of Osage
Street for a Bonfire," but I caught a screening at my friend Jonathans. By the
time Rupert was filming brawls between the hicks and the skaters, as well as the
disemboweling of road-kill on the hoods of cheerleaders Toyotas, I was out of that
loop, focused on gaining a college basketball scholarship and high-tailing it out of
Beyond the videos, Rupert had other interests,
including helping his father run a yard-mowing business and drinking beer with friends. He
was also a staunch supporter of the basketball program, never missing a home game, and
often showing up slathered in the home teams colors. Maybe he couldve relieved
my mother of her videotaping duties had he not picked second-half fights with the visiting
fans and our schools pep band. By the time he graduated, though, many friends and
interests had slipped past him and out of Lebanon, taking much of his passion with him.
When Rupert joined the Marines, I heard it from my grandmother, who was a neighbor and a
customer of the Hogans. I scoffed mutely at Ruperts decision. At this point,
Id been afforded three years of a liberal education, and after quitting basketball
during my sophomore year, I was starting to get my sea legs for my incarnation as a
peacenik. I couldnt imagine trimming the hair out of my eyes, much less joining as
corrupt an institution as our armed forces.
"I hope he stays safe," my grandmother told
me. From her kitchen window, you could see the Hogans property across the highway. A
beaten tractor stood gracelessly near a garden, which bristled with green and brown. Their
house sat low, and only the roof was fully visible through the passing traffic. She said,
"Hes a good boy."
Rupert, I should mention, was also an excellent cook,
and had fixed her a casserole when her second husband passed away.
"Hell be fine," I told her, confident
in my belief that, in late 1997, the military got too much money as it was. They were
bound to be safe with such a distended budget. "Were not going to war anytime
My old friend Jonathan and I were both living in
Springfield, a city fifty miles down the Interstate from Lebanon, when Rupert got his
first leave from military service. Hed stayed close with Jonathan and several of our
mutual friends in those years before he enlisted, and as several of them now lived in
Springfield, Rupert wanted to make this his first stop. He was traveling with a military
buddy, both of them so anxious for a break they were driving sixteen hours straight from
North Carolina. From Springfield, Rupert would visit his mother for a few weeks before
shipping out again. For the first time, Im sure, hed also visit his
fathers grave, perhaps watching the recording of a service he was too far around the
globe to attend.
"His buddys a big son-of-a-bitch,"
Jonathan told me, while we shot baskets outside his apartment the night before they
arrived. Rupert had passed through Springfield with this guy one time before. "A big,
goofy son-of-a-bitch, but still."
We thought we might use this guy in the three-on-three
tournament wed entered for the weekend. This was early 1999. Id been out of
basketball for two years, and while politics had continued to keep certain fires burning,
I was getting back that old hankering for competitive sports. It wasnt uncommon for
me to spend a week nodding along to the pacifist writings of Howard Zinn, then spend a
Saturday night hurling passionate obscenities and threats at a YMCA referee.
"Cool," I told Jonathan, as I fired one hard
off the back iron. He jogged after the long rebound, then zipped me a chest pass.
"Money," I called at my next shot, missing again. Truthfully, I was a bit wary
of Ruperts visit. A fight seemed inevitable. Recently, Id written several
pieces for the college newspaper, deriding the U.S. military for Operation Desert Fox,
Plan Columbia, and the cruise missile annihilation of a medicine factory in the Sudan the
past August. (This was a time when it was PC to attack the troops, not the
Commander-in-Chief giving them the orders, seeing as that Commander-in-Chief was a
Democrat whod bravely declined service in Vietnam.) I volleyed around terms like
"raping" and "pillaging" whenever discussing the armed forces, soon
starting an underground newsletter on campus, where I was able to take cheaper, albeit
funnier, shots at the military oh, the caustic headlines you can create when
marines are participating in a local Toys-for-Tots drive. And the schools literary
journal had published my first short story, "Soldier of Love," a self-indulgent
piece about a girl who leaves a boy (a writer) for another boy (a Marine) who, in turn,
pre-emptively kicks the first boys ass. (This was also a time when hating marines
served not only my philosophical notions, but my selfish ones, too.)
How this concerned Rupert, however, I dont know.
It wasnt like I was going to autograph a copy of my newsletter for him and his big,
goofy son-of-a-bitch friend, then try and talk them out of the benefits their service was
paying for. Rupert and his buddy hadnt been privileged to any missions of doom and
destruction, just a peaceful Japanese base, where Rupert stood guard at the military
library and worked part-time in the mess hall, and his buddy drove a truck. Mine seemed a
tension existing only in my head, and only for my ego. Rupert was an old acquaintance,
someone whod always been good to me and especially my grandmother, and a friend of
Jonathans (whod asked off this weekend at Price Cutter over a month before);
he was back for a simple weekend of reunion. "Ruperts a good boy," I heard
my grandmother saying, and for the greater good, I decided to agree.
Rupert and Matty got to Jonathans around six on
Friday morning. After hitting their case of Old Milwaukee pretty heavy during driving
hours eight through twelve, they were weary and on the verge of sobering up. Jonathan
drank a few beers with them to help them nod off, so they could be ready for action by
evening. When I finished my afternoon classes, I headed to Jonathans to shoot a few
more baskets, hoping whatever practice we got in that afternoon might offset the decadence
we were sure to find that evening. See, I was all for drunken reunions, too. "Just as
long as they dont involve napalm," Id joke with Rupert hours later, when
Id been drunk enough to find out that Rupert wasnt as pro-military as I was
anti. He laughed off my quips. Id even mentioned my newsletter, until Jonathan cut
me off with the postscript on the girl Id lost to a marine. Rupert really enjoyed
that part, slapping Matty with a high-five of victory. I grinned sheepishly, and Rupert
patted me on the back, too, joyfully sponging up the evening, red-faced and sputtering
drunk and, deep into the midnight, mischievously asking if anyone had a fucking video
camera. Apparently, hed traded his for several cartons of cigarettes and a Gameboy.
"You need to be on tape!" he explained to a
blushing, middle-aged server at the Waffle House. "Please, baby, please," he
asked, as she hustled to another table.
"Shell be back," Jonathan promised
loudly. "Cause she forgot my toast!"
"Hell, yeah," Rupert told us, winking at me.
Then Matty broke in with a snarling mumble. "Fuck
that cunt," he said, joy-killing things a bit. It seems big-and-goofy went dark and
misogynist whenever the alcohol level got high enough. He whispered something brutal about
her crotch, sobering me up enough to connect his words with his occupation. I bit my
tongue, though, woozy, and took a stab of eggs. Somehow Rupert got clear-headed enough to
save the moment with a sidesplitting recounting of the time Jonathan got a DUI in
"Your tags were expired, bitch!"
Then I laughed, too, promising myself never to use
Mattys words against him in a story. They were too easy, and they represented only
the nights damning possibilities, and nothing of the actual night, peaceful in its
drunken brilliance. When we finished our meal, we started work on that case of beer, which
had waited patiently for us back at Jonathans. We told stories as a streetlight
burned bright past Jonathans dirty blinds, bits of the fake illumination
highlighting the rooms hazy cigarette smoke. We ate from a large pot of Asian stew
Rupert managed to whip up with the stark and categorically non-Asian ingredients in the
kitchen. We popped in a few movies, never getting past our favorite early scenes, each of
us wanting to instruct the others as to the genius of our own particular view. "No,
no, no . . . this is the best part . . . watch this . . . you have to see . . ."
One of the movies was Clint Eastwoods
"Heartbreak Ridge," a well-intentioned film with a climax of "honor and
valor" staged during the US invasion of Grenada. I didnt have the spirit to
mention this fallacy, though, as my spirit was busy basking in the moment. Besides, we
never made it that far. I watched the movie for the opening credits, an ironic
juxtaposition of black-and-white army clips and harrowing shots of Japenese internment
camps, all set to Don Gibsons "Sea of Heartbreak," which Id played
again and again on many a lovesick night. Jonathan owned it for the scenes of a young
Mario Van Peeples, wisecracking, "You know whats 12 inches long and white?
Nothing!" And Rupert and Matty kept rewinding those gritty early scenes featuring
Eastwoods battalion leader dishing out some of the greatest smack Ive ever
heard in my life.
"Well," Eastwood growled. "I know
whats black and bleeding if it dont shut the fuck up."
There was a fight that weekend, but it happened the next morning, during our first
three-on-three match-up. Wed barely made the early starting time, and my new
girlfriend (a sports bar waitress with no seeming allegiance to marines, due mostly to
their Spartan tipping and messy tables) had driven us to the courts, as wed all been
too drunk to find any of our three sets of car keys. At the tourney, Id stumbled
into the first check ball, but a few nice shots lit my fires a bit. In my stomach, though,
sloshed the gasoline from the night before. When the guy I was guarding made eyes with my
girlfriend, who was standing on the sidelines with our fourth man and a woozy Rupert, I
set a high pick on him and let my elbow slide off his shoulder to his jaw. Matty, in his
only big play of the game, tackled the guard who pushed me from behind. Jonathan did the
smart thing and held back Rupert, whod gone lucid at the first sniff of trouble, but
Jonathans man nailed me with a basketball to the side of the face. When I was done
spitting up blood, I told the officials to stick their double-elimination up their asses.
Matty repeated something Eastwood had told a grunt,
In those weeks leading up to and beyond Operation
Iraqi Freedom, I took to the streets in protest in Fayetteville, Arkansas, where Im
now a graduate assistant. I pushed for my students to write reaction papers and position
papers on whatever aspect of the war they wanted to, so long as they were involved. I
fancied myself as having come a long way from my younger days of off-handed (and often,
misdirected) remarks in a Letter to the Editor, or cheap hilarities in an anonymous
newspaper. At protests, signs were carefully worded "Support Our Troops, Bring
Them Home" and in front of a room of 18-year-olds, I spent more time
footnoting my appreciation for our men in uniform than explaining why I was so infuriated
with the policies they were killing and dying for. In general, much of the anti-war
movement had adopted this pro-soldier/anti-war rhetoric, laying the burden on the
doorsteps of the White House, instead of the poor kids the politicians used to buff their
agenda. (These days its more PC to bitch-talk the Commander-in-Chief giving the
orders, seeing as hes a Republican whod hid out in Texas during Vietnam, while
his Democratic opposition in the upcoming election fought bravely against those Communist
dominoes.) This wasnt exactly my rationale, however. Between you and me, Im
starting to get the impression that both Republicans and Democrats have waged
plenty of immoral military actions at various stages over the last fifty years.
Not that my peaceful support of the troops was any
purer. It was selfish, really, as I was concerned about Rupert Hogan, who, my grandmother
gravely informed me, had been sent to Baghdad sometime in the days before the first bombs
were dropped. I could only hope Rupert was simply guarding a library and whipping up a
gallon-drum of pasta that didnt taste of sand. I could only shake my head at the
brief period of freedom hed suffered through between his stints in the military.
In early 2001, Rupert was out of the service and
living in both Lebanon, where he worked several of his dads old jobs in order to
help his mother pay the bills, and Springfield, where he was trying, though failing, to
make the most out of the education the military had bought him. Briefly, when I was a
graduate assistant teaching freshman comp at the university in Springfield, I begged
Rupert to take my course, promising him an "A". Actually, I begged him through
Jonathan, who saw him more than I did, though still very little. Rupert told Jonathan to
tell me "Thanks," but one "A" wasnt going to save him. Classes
made him miss too much work, and work made him miss too much life. By the summer of 2001,
Rupert was speaking longingly of his time in the service, where hed never missed out
on pussy or parties in order to assure a steady paycheck to send his mom. And, as
hed told Jonathan, when those black bouncers had chased him out of Reginas
Showcase, Rupert had officially been shot at more times in Missouri (one a warning
shot to the sky) than hed ever been shot at in the marines (zero if
penicillin shots dont count.)
When another Lebanon factory went under, Rupert lost
his largest income, and his smaller jobs soon cannibalized one another. He took it
especially hard when he found out Matty, who was now driving a sewage truck in Ohio, had
lost his leg in a one-car accident. "Slick roads and liquor," Rupert had mumbled
to Jonathan, between drinks on one of their few nights out. "That stumpy motherfucker
has no options now," Rupert demanded. "Im lucky. Im luckier than
that poor bastard. I still have options." When the money finally ran out, Rupert took
the advice hed been conditioned to give himself for the past eight months, and he
re-enlisted in the service. This came a few months after the U.S. invasion of Afghanistan,
with chatters of terror and pre-emptive strikes all around, visions of crumbling towers
still in everyones mind.
Rupert re-enlisted not because of 9-11, however; he
re-enlisted despite it.
In the summer of 2003, during a particularly bloody
segment of the Iraq occupation, I got a phone call from Jonathan, telling me Rupert was
going to be in Springfield for a few weeks. It was good news, until I realized Rupert was
getting this break only so he could head back to Iraq for god knows how long. Still, I
told Jonathan, we should all get together on one of those nights hes back. I could
cancel a class or two, drive up from Fayetteville. Jonathan agreed, though warily. He knew
how active Id been in the peace movement, and he didnt want Rupert to get the
wrong idea if I brought any of that up. These were concerns not unlike my own when Rupert
had visited in 1999.
"Of course not," I explained to Jonathan,
taken aback at his suggestion. "Of course not, man."
Despite the care Id taken to differentiate
between my protest and my support of the troops, some people (and even a close friend)
still had a hard time separating the two. Then again, I myself often had trouble
separating the two. When Jonathan and I had drunk beers and tried watching the NCAA
basketball tournament in March, I got worked up at the constant updates of air raids and
tank maneuvers on Baghdad. When I imagined sports fans around the country cheering deadly
explosions with the same vigor they cheered on their teams, a naive virulence slipped back
into my own words, my temper taking cheap shots at easy military targets. During
commercials, I drunkenly rambled on about wicked policies and jarhead soldiers, as if they
were one in the same.
Even so, Id never planned on bringing up
politics with Rupert. In fact, I planned on going out of my way not to. Rupert deserved a
break from it. He deserved a more peaceful taste of youth, a little piece of the past.
"Well party like its 1999," I
"Hell, yeah," he replied, the memory of that
weekend with Rupert and Matty still fresh on his mind, too. Wed spoke gloriously of
it a number of times over the years. And, we figured, for Ruperts sake, we might as
well relive what we could of it. Jonathan was a manager at Price Cutter now, and hed
take a few days off. Wed get several cases of beer, and even fill Jonathans
cabinets with a better variety of ingredients. "Just in case that crazy fucker wants
to cook something for us again!"
Neither of us played as much basketball as we used to,
and we werent up to reliving our three-on-three fracas, so Jonathan and I agreed to
drag Rupert to a sports bar, where our competitive spirit now lived on, and where
theres always the prospect of a fracas. With a bloody nose and sore knuckles, maybe
we could slip on over to the Waffle House until it was movie time. While Jonathan had lost
several of his VHS tapes, including "Heartbreak Ridge", the last time hed
moved, this wasnt a problem, as Id recently picked up a copy on DVD (a format
allowing me to repeat the opening credits and Don Gibson sing-along ad nauseam.) The seeds
seemed well sown for our weekend of debauchery revisited.
As it turns out, Rupert himself was the only letdown.
Rupert looked the same for the most part, a little
pudgier around the jaws and his hair close-cropped but messy. He also wore a T-shirt he
seemed to have owned since high school, the collar stretched ragged in a teenage fight,
and occasionally he flashed a smile that made me believe the dull evening was soon to be
showered with humor and joy. But those smiles kept crawling back inside him. At the sports
bar, where Jonathan and I tried our damnedest to get fired up by a July baseball game on
the big screen, Rupert only watched the action, a bystander to most of our conversation
and occasional drunken bluster. He never seemed comfortable in his seat, but he never left
it, either downing six or seven rounds without ever heading to the bathroom. There
was both a dull simmer and an unrealized urgency to his actions; when Jonathan started
mouthing the group of high-school kids near our table, Rupert seemed intrigued by the
possibilities, but aware it was all talk, even after Id ordered the high schoolers a
round of milk and demanded that they were home by bedtime.
When we got back to Jonathans, Rupert broke out
of his rut a little, mentioning some of the things he was doing in Iraq. He was still a
guard, it seemed. "No more libraries," he told me, stopping short of telling us
what he was guarding, letting our minds wonder a little then (and wonder furiously now.)
He no longer helped in the mess hall, as Halliburton had taken over many food service
duties. I figured Rupert probably wouldnt be cooking anything for us tonight,
either, as he sunk deeper and deeper into Jonathans recliner. Rupert hadnt
bothered with those cases of beer, having brought along a few bottles of bourbon. Each
time Jonathan and I finished a bottle of beer, lining them up across the giant coffee
table, Rupert offered us a glass of the "better stuff."
Eventually, I accepted.
This was around the point when Rupert brought up Matty
(as it turned out, the only point in the night when he brought up Matty.) He spoke of
their grueling drive from Carolina, and how hard it had been to get to sleep once they
were at Jonathans. "Like," Rupert said, "you could get so fucking
tired that you ruin yourself for sleep."
I looked to Jonathan, barely able to keep his eyes
open, but still steadily lifting
his beer bottle to his lips. I laughed and said,
And we all did, from "Heartbreak Ridge" to
the finer points of our brawl.
Rupert added, "I think Matty wanted a piece off
that girlfriend of yours."
I grimaced at a sip of the bourbon, but I hoped Rupert
didnt think it was this minor revelation that had caused such a pained look.
"Well," I said. "He shouldve just
asked her. Im sure she wouldve obliged."
Rupert smiled. "End badly with the waitress, I
I shrugged. "A few weeks later, she started
fucking around with some guy from the kitchen."
Rupert considered this, smiling at his thought.
"I guess you started up a hateful newsletter on
Fry Cooks, huh?" he asked, sending me into a sudden fit of laughter. I laughed even
after it stopped feeling natural, having waited for the ice to break all evening; this
felt like the last opportunity.
"Fuck that cunt," I mumbled sarcastically.
Then Rupert laughed, too, until he strangled up a
vicious cough. Jonathan woke up at this, looked to both of us, one side of his face
flattened with sleep, and without a word, finished his beer, sat the bottle on the coffee
table, and stumbled off to his bedroom. Still smiling, I turned to Rupert, who seemed
shocked by the development. Then he did some shocking of his own, grabbing one of the
empty beer bottles and winging it at the wall separating us from Jonathans bedroom.
The thump was jarring though numbed, as Rupert had
flicked the bottle in such a way that it sailed through the smoky living room
bottom-first, catching and denting the wall with the lower edge, and falling to the carpet
without breaking. At this, Rupert gave an eerie nod of approval, then winged a few more
bottles, each of them taking chunks out of the plaster while never breaking, only clanking
after bouncing against each other on the carpet. Jonathan stayed in his room throughout
the display, probably sleeping through it. I, too, had grown tired, but I was starting to
wonder how I would ever get to sleep.
Rupert was laughing to himself, his drink spilling a
little until he steadied his hand and took a sip. I suggested we watch "Heartbreak
Ridge." He suggested something else, something homemade, though he surprised me by
whistling a few bars of "Sea of Heartbreak." He then staggered across the room,
and dug through his oversized duffle, pulling a small video camera out of a pair of rolled
up pants. "Digital," he told me proudly. With more purpose than Id seen in
him all night, he plugged the camera into Jonathans television, manually flipping
through the channels until he reached a black screen. The words Video Input One glowed in
yellow font. From the side of the camera, he detached a remote device and stumbled back to
the recliner. He picked up another beer bottle and zipped it at the wall, hoping to wake
Jonathan with another thump. Nothing though, even as the bottle shattered against one of
the bottles on the carpet.
Rupert sighed. "His loss, right?"
I shrugged, having no idea what Jonathan was missing
out on. Lord knows what Rupert was ready to show me. It had become clear that Rupert
wasnt the same guy hed been a few years ago, the same kid hed been in
high school this doesnt mean hed changed, though. Instead, he seemed
whittled into the worst possible version of himself. Had he brought visual evidence from
the other side? Were we ready to watch it on Jonathans television? The fact that
hed had the camera all night, not taking it along on our trip to the sports bar and
Waffle House, made me believe Ruperts films had long graduated from immature pranks
and bloody adolescent fights. Something dark lurked behind Rupert setting up the camera so
meticulously. Something horrific, even. Or, as it turned out, something perverse. What
finally appeared on the television stunned me a bit, but relieved me, too. Rupert was only
showing me a sex tape, and a fairly bland one at that, featuring the backside of some
blonde as she straddled a pair of hairy legs. Id never been so comforted by
"Is that you?" I asked.
"Yeah," he said, not taking his eyes off the
action. He wanted to point out the
best (and the funniest) parts. "Dont worry,
though. Ive got it angled so you cant see my dick."
"Super," I nodded.
"Watch this . . . wait," he said,
fast-forwarding a bit. "Heres where I come, and watch . . . I just throw her
Sure enough, he just threw her off. At a certain
point, Rupert grabs the blonde around the hips and tosses her to the side of the bed. Her
giggle is audible, as are the bedsprings. And, despite Ruperts promise, I did catch
a glimpse of his dick, but only for a second before the tape went fuzzy with black and
white lines. The lines melted into a new sequence on the screen, showing a black-haired
girl reverse straddling the same hairy legs.
"Oh, shit," Rupert assured me.
"Youve gotta see this. This bitch is fucking freaky."
I agreed in principle, laughing as much as I could,
and watched the video until I finally shut my eyes and passed out. Once my fears seemed
manageable, not as bad as they couldve been, I was finally able to sleep. In the
distance, just before drifting off, I could hear a soft voice barking orders on the
television. Then came a few laughs from the recliner. Maybe even a few bottles smashing
against Jonathans wall.
A week or so after the Abu Ghraib story broke, the
president gave a televised statement on the whole ordeal. The press said his speech was
geared towards the rest of the world, something that spoke for the country he represented.
Personally? I needed no one to speak for my own disgust, repulsion, and sad sense of
inevitability. To me, the real shock was that people seemed surprised by the photos. I
expected nothing less from war.
I watched the presidents speech from my own
living room, where Id been surfing channels during a half time of the NBA playoffs.
Earlier, Id talked to Jonathan on the phone, rambling on and on about the sloppy
play of the Lakers. Id finished off several beers. Now, as the president demonized
the "bad apples," condemning symptoms of a disease hed helped spread, I
thought about winging some beer bottles in anger. And when Rupert inevitably came to mind,
I considered throwing a few more bottles in worry.
In the end, I wasnt worried that Rupert might
soon be revealed as another of the conspiring torturers, because even if he wasnt,
amid such a backdrop, the potential seemed destined to exist. Nor was I worried about the
affect such a revelation might have on my hometown, as my hometown has already survived
plenty of home-grown degradation, and carried enough misplaced patriotism to turn any such
charges into a source of strange pride.
"We showed those fucking towelheads whos
boss," the jobless fools might rage.
Instead, I was worried about my own reaction if I ever
saw Ruperts heel against some Iraqis skull. I wondered what would become of my
separation of unjust cause and support for the troops, once those lines got so blurred,
once I had a familiar face to pin on such atrocities. A face just layers away from my own.