In 2001, just after the terrorist attack on the World Trade Center, my boss' son Spiffer joined the Marines. It was a simple decision, an irreversible fork in the road for a happy-go-lucky kid in the throes of his first jolts of testosterone, who had recently graduated from high school with the lowest grade point average permissible in the State of Arizona.
Don't misunderstand me. He was not a dumb kid, just something of a rebellious wiseass like his father. He was on the small side, with his mother's good looks and a genetically assertive disposition from both sides. The second child of a double second marriage, he was preceded by two batches of children before him, and was therefore largely untroubled by excessive parental guidance or the onus of discipline.
Young Spiffer's choice was midwifed by a man named Steve Bomberger. Bomberger came to us at a time when our company, which sold liposuction equipment, was being purchased by a much larger California corporation specializing in breast and penile implants. It was rumored that he was sent "downstairs" to whip us into shape before the merger of our questionable corporate culture with theirs. He was a buff West Point engineer and one of a new breed of not-particularly-battle-scarred veterans, having served in the First Gulf War which we won by a body count of approximately 150,000 - 34. He looked a little like Buzz Galaxy.
My boss gave him a big office, which Bomberger tricked out like a command post. Several file cabinets were filled with carefully organized God-knows-what. An American flag hung right side up on the wall, and a poster depicting a Marine recruit sweating though an obstacle course with the caption "Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body." The thermostat was set at 57 degrees, a temperature he considered optimal for best mental and physical functioning. A device for improving upper body strength was installed in one corner.
Bomberger loved the military. In his mind, he towered among us like a mythical hero, like a knight who had chopped up his dragons and returned to the village to take charge with an iron hand. We weren't sure where he had come from, or what his position in the company was supposed to be. We didn't know what to make of him.
The first thing Bomberger did when he moved into the building was to have a one-on-one chat with everybody who worked there, except of course for the boss himself. He smilingly, intimately, informed each one of us that the company was subject to strict FDA regulations, and that if he caught you walking through the warehouse area with food or coffee he would terminate you on the spot without mercy or remorse. He wanted us to know that he was the kind of guy you could kid around with, but where the bottom line was concerned he was prepared to deal with us ruthlessly. It was his top dog moment.
By the second month he had organized a series of training sessions in which every employee was to learn the essential details of our product line and the function and procedures of everybody else in the plant. The logic was based on wartime preparedness. Trained in this way, if the Customer Service Department were, say, taken out by a torpedo, the guys back in Shipping could jump in and man the phones. We felt a lot safer after that.
How we subsequently broke his spirit is another story. Suffice to say that a year later Bomberger was a forlorn shell of his former self, hunched in his large, obsessively tidy, freezing office without a lot to do, a musclebound doofus alone with his gung ho desk tchotchkas. Many of us had become quite fond of him by that time. His jovial nature, as it turned out, was his true persona, as much as he desperately wished it otherwise. He invited us to have dinner at his perfect cul-de-sac home to meet his trophy wife and his son Jax who, at the age of three, was already in training to become a Special Forces sniper.
He reminisced about his West Point days and the culture of grab ass, the sado-sexual machismo that seizes the brains and peckers of young warriors. He spoke nostalgically of his unit in Iraq, of the importance of his role in the war, of the dead, burnt enemy bodies, of the likelihood of being recalled to utilize his critical skills in the new war on terror. "Butt fuck ya naked!" he hollered happily, recalling his weeks of basic training. "Butt fuck ya naked!"
Basically a non-goal-directed ambience just wasn't his thing, so when he was presented with an opportunity to move back East and whip a Rhode Island company into shape he followed his star. Human Resources bought him a nice card and everybody signed it. "Hey Bomster! We'll miss ya man!"
It was in those weeks before Bomberger left the company that Spiffer began hanging around the office. His high school chums were off to college or jobs, and Spiffer had given no more thought to his future than to his homework. The facts on the ground had shifted for him, career-wise. The things he had always done weren't there to do any more, so that he was more or less forced to think about the purpose of his life, to the extent of figuring out what to do with himself in the unexpectedly upcoming future. But what? How to decide? The experience of his teens offered no useful tips. No analytic skills. Just video games. Hundreds and hundreds of video games.
Bomberger had taken an interest in him. Every few days, walking past the open (sometimes closed) door of Bomberger's office, we'd see them in there, Spiffer shivering in a chair in front of the desk, Bomberger telling him about soldiery.
Bomberger believed in soldiery. He thought of soldiers as protectors. They were the strongest and the most valiant of the populace, committed to the safety of the people, the implementation of the nation's ambitions and the annihilation of its enemies. You know. The good guys.
The Graphics Department, where I worked together with my techno-colleague Mykl Wells (who agreed to accept his mother's choice of surnames only if he got to spell it any way he wanted to), was a slough of liberalism, a belligerent island of blue in a red company. "How do you feel about killing people?" we asked Bomberger. "Blood makes the grass grow," he told us.
Spiffer, from a lifetime of electronic ultra violence, believed in smoking targets. Blasting some poor motherfucker into pink mist loomed large on Spiffer's cognitive horizon only because there wasn't much else there to compete with it. Nothing unhappy or malevolent had clouded his childhood to date. He was a nice kid, longing for a rite of passage and steeped in a vast comic book reality aimed specifically at his adolescent libido. The smoked dudes automatically had it coming by dint of being the enemy as the game was written.
(And indeed, it is the division of labor in a specialized society. People who are into ethics figure out who our enemies are and whether it is ok to waste them. People who are into wasting motherfuckers waste them straightaway. Soldiers are the hounds of righteousness, a Hegelian synthesis of cruelty and rectitude. Unlike philosophers and senators, they are off the leash. They're a wet dream.)
In West Africa, young men are conscripted by quickly putting a bag over their head and dragging them off into the bush where nobody ever hears from them again. Conscripts here in America are acquired using precisely this technique (the science of public relations providing the blindness for which black polyethylene is employed in Africa) without violating their human rights or freedom of choice.
From time to time slackers like Spiffer are left behind, in spite of the President's best intentions, for lack of access to a recruiter. But then: Suddenly Bomberger, there for him like Glenda the Good Witch of the East, just as you were beginning to doubt God's promise to George Bush to rally the people to fulfill his holy dream for America.
And so the conversation between this forgotten Marvel Comic protagonist and the boy who made him real proceeded like a waltz macabre. Bomberger had been to a war of sorts and was starved for an audience. Spiffer needed a reality he could step into pretty quick that didn't require schoolbook knowledge or a broad attention span. A magical convergence of minds took place. A door opened and Spiffer stepped through.
Bagging Spiffer took less than a month. It was in fact the last we saw of him, of Spiffer that is, the bright-eyed, wiseassed kid with his baseball cap screwed on backward. He disappeared about the same time as Bomberger.
His parents received letters from a recruit at Fort Hood claiming to be Spiffer. He was doing great. For his mom and dad it was a welcome end to a decade of bad report cards. He visited the office briefly after his basic training. He had beefed up and was glowing with physical fitness. His ditzy, careless attitude had been replaced with a disciplined, purposeful demeanor. You could talk to him, but his responses were the short, perfunctory things you get from people who know that their inner reality is outside your experience.
He wore a tie and called everybody sir, not the respectful kind of sir that English schoolboys are taught, but more the way highway patrolmen call you sir while they are making you stand on one foot with your eyes shut by the side of the road. The kind of sir you hear from people who have forgotten your name.
The physical transformation was understandable. We lose our baby fat when we are 19. A regimen of weight lifting produces the appearance that our arms and chest have been packed with kapok. The allover change, however, was more disturbing and harder to define, as if they had partially drained off Spiffer and replaced him with somebody else, a simulacrum with Spiffer's memories in a handy roladex file. Ironically, like the surgical makeovers that had made his father rich, it was more of an augmentation than a replacement. More like adding a Part B to Spiffer's preexisting but incomplete Part A. In any case the new Spiffer, USMC Corporal Spiffer, stood before us fresh off the assembly line, looking just as natural as if he had been born that way. These surgeons knew their craft, having had many hundreds of years to get it right.
He was immediately deployed to Afghanistan to fight the Taliban. Taliban motherfuckers. More letters home. He wasn't allowed to say much about what he was doing, for security reasons. He had been at the head of his class in sniper training, so they made him a squad leader. All we could conclude was that Spiffer liked the Marines, and the Marines liked Spiffer.
He was gone a surprisingly short time, only a little over a year it seemed, though it must have been longer. Spiffer was back, and ready to return to civilian life. His proud mom and pop were glad to have him home, relieved that he was safe and sound. Taciturn, self-contained, battle-tempered, a breed apart, USMC (Ret) Spiffer did not speak of his military accomplishments. His dad did his bragging for him, which is how we learned of his thirty confirmed kills.
For a few weeks Spiffer pondered what to do with himself next. His portfolio of practical skills remained very sketchy, leaving him more or less as uncredentialed as before. He came to the office a few times, dressed now in civilian clothes. Even without the uniform, the one, final, magical, terrifying change in his appearance was evident. He had come back with snake eyes. Everything else was the same. He was fit, calm, pleasant, a sort of smile serving as his default facial expression. But his eyes held a predatory glitter, something you see in vipers, cats, eels and taloned birds, a kind of sparkly light that occurs when you have come to see the world in terms of a kill/no kill response.
The best we were going to get from Spiffer for the foreseeable future, the closest approximation to friendship or solicitude, would be his perception that he was not authorized to destroy us. The partial suppression of ones lethal vocation, the acceptance that one is allowed to kill people only in special circumstances, is what passes for love among soldiers and mating spiders. I don't know about most people, but hanging out around such characters is a little creepy for me, regardless of who they once were. So I was more than a little relieved when he moved to New Mexico to enroll in a police academy.
Not that there is really any reason to feel safe. Hundreds of soldiers come home every day, having been similarly reborn, their dark sides nurtured and tested, their eyes flickering with the knowledge of Cain, at a queasy truce with permanent memories of smoking cars and bullet riddled families. While Spiffer is stopping motorists along dark, empty highways in New Mexico, approaching their driver's side windows in the middle of the night with his holster unsnapped and his senses on red alert, other alumni of the War on Terror are doing the same thing here.
Which brings me, at last, to the point of my meandering tale. I don't want to bring the troops home. I favor leaving them where they are. I have come to think it would be a good idea to let President Bush pursue his prosecution of evil to the ends of the earth, and take his all-volunteer army and plastic turkeys with him.
Or let me say that another way. If they can't return to their mothers the children they have bagged, if they can't send back the same kids they took, if they send back instead ruined and corrupted and nightmare-haunted and irretrievably messed up little monsters to bleed mankind's eternal mistake into the social fabric, then they should keep them. If you break it you buy it.
Obviously I haven't entirely thought this through. It is something like an argument for the status quo. If all the greedy bastards our society produces were locked up in corporate boardrooms and penthouse suites, forced to wear black socks and spend their days masturbating to happy delusions of grandeur, if all the dumbassed politicians were perpetually reelected and ensconced in carpeted offices with a view of the capital dome and their fake dreams of power, if all the sadistic intriguers were sentenced to continue snatching bearded guys off the streets and beating the shit out of them in Transylvanian torture prisons, if all the New American Century lunatics and apocalyptic Christian soldiers were herded into prayer breakfasts and weekend sex frolics in Virginia, if the military were permanently deployed in revolving overseas tours, tasked with creating ever new enemies and then battling them to the death, their ranks continually replenished by the most gullible and dangerous of our schoolkids, wouldn't the rest of America then be free to forget about them and pursue authentic lives?
Aren't we headed in that direction right now? Does it make any sense to rock the boat?