In war, maybe everybody gets wounded.
When your brother comes home with moderate injuries, you have to thank God, as Mom says, because it could have been much worse.
“Moderate” is misleading, though, a neutral word like ordinary
. Except “moderate” isn’t ordinary, it’s serious, and when they say “serious,” it means you’ll never be the same again. “Moderate” will take a long time, you’ll live with scars in your mind and on your body, but eventually you’ll get yourself back, more or less.
So when Benjy came home labeled “moderate injuries,” Mom said, “Thank God,” though the burns were awful to see. He won’t recover his hearing in one ear at all, the doctors say, he’ll have steel pins and pain in his legs forever and he’ll need two years of surgeries – bone resetting, skin grafting, reconstruction – but I amened Mom’s “Thank God” because Benjy came home alive, injured only moderately.
This is no antiwar song, and Benjy’s not protesting, either. Other people say we have no business over there, but our family doesn’t believe it’s Vietnam all over again. Dad was in Vietnam – Mom says he came home fine except for nightmares, demanding to know what the hell we were doing half the world away, burning kids with chemical jelly, destroying villages and farms because of the dominoes. One domino falls, then the next – but it didn’t seem true, nobody ever demonstrated that the line of dominoes would clickety-click back here to New Jersey. Dad finished his tour of duty, came home and started a family, sired me and Benjy. “‘That’s the dominoes that count,’” Mom quotes him.
This time, though, the domino trail’s in front of our eyes. This time it was them
making war thousands of miles away against people who had nothing against them. Around our table, it was clear that if we didn’t stop the dominoes, they’d keep on tumbling – not just Twin Towers but bridges and universities, civilian airports here and military bases overseas. We had to fight them.
Maybe Dad could have stopped Benjy from enlisting, but Dad was dead, and Mom couldn’t out-argue him. Benjy said he didn’t want college or a job – he wanted the discipline and the chance to be part of something big and important. He said he loved America and wanted to give something back, not only deal out the cards for himself. His senior year in high school, when I was already a sophomore in college, he lifted weights to get in shape and wore a buzz cut, playing the part – quiet, serious, knowing his goal.
Mom says Benjy inherited being stubborn from Dad – same way Dad came home talking quiet and serious about Vietnam being wrong. Same way he would have said to the guy in the parking lot in West Orange six Christmases ago not to treat his daughter like that. We pieced it together later from witnesses. A guy acting rough with his little girl, maybe 8 years old, pulling her along by her arm faster than she could go, screaming at her for stumbling, stopping just long enough to slap her for something she said. Some frustration bubbles up and a parent takes it out on a kid, like hitting the dog when you’re angry at your wife.
Nobody heard what Dad said, but it would have been like Dad – quiet, serious, but steely, too, because Dad didn’t like kids being hit. “The girl’s not a horse – you can explain things to her, you know” – something along those lines. But the guy was way over the edge, too furious for reason, tearing a knife out of his pocket to answer Dad with it. They tried him and sent him to jail, but that didn’t change Dad being dead. That’s a domino trail we’ll never figure out.
When Benjy announced he wanted the army, people told him he was nuts, and some even got angry, like he was insulting their religion, but after senior year, he signed up. A year later, they sent him to Iraq.
Now he’s back, in the Burn Trauma Unit at the VA Hospital in New York, fighting off pain like a soldier. When I sit with him, I feel reality wavering in front of me, like one of those pictures where foreground and background switch back and forth, or like when you look through flames. There’s two ways to see it, and I don’t know which one is right.
I’m okay with the bare politics. Like Benjy says, we have to hunt down Saddam’s torturers and give the country back to the ordinary people who should be its keepers. I know we sometimes kill innocents, big contracts for rebuilding seem to go to friends of the president, there’s political deals cooking. I’m not naive – I know the good and bad are mixed up together.
But that’s the point. Corruption and high principles always go riding into battle together. If you’re waiting for the perfect, pure horseman, you’ll wait forever. And if you say a plague on both houses, then the corruption wins. It’s like mold coming through the walls – you have to block it. If you don’t fight, it wins.
But a man’s only got one life – that’s the other side. Benjy said that yesterday, second-guessing himself, considering what he might be doing now if he hadn’t gone to war – sitting in a college class or making his first million. It was one of his bad days, he admitted, very painful and every way he moved made it worse. He apologized to Mom and me, sitting beside him, and then he started to cry.
That was bad enough, but suddenly a monitor alarm went off. A white flock of nurses flew in, brushed us out of the way, clamped oxygen on Benjy, hustled him onto a gurney and whisked him off, leaving Mom and me standing there useless and afraid. Just an “episode,” they said later, his heart skipping beats, which to me means stopping in between beats. The internist labeled it “a singular incident,” but his eyes gave no guarantees. ICU kept Benjy overnight for “observation.” It was a bad night for all three of us.
A man’s got one life – one body, one personality, one time around. This morning, the nurses wheeled Benjy back. He looked sheepish but still scared. He made a choice, and his life’s in the balance still. Sometimes he looks at me like I’m from some alternate world, a twilight zone he doesn’t recognize, and I know he’s wondering why he didn’t choose, like me, to stay on the sidelines, let others stand up for History and Principle. He could have been a young guy in bluejeans or a suit, nobody throwing him the fisheye the way the women did in World War II, taunting, Hey, fella, the country’s at war, how come you’re safe at home?
That’s not how it is this time. He says he can’t remember the explosion, just opening a door and a flash of light that still shocks him awake at night.
Big puckered scars pull down one side of his mouth, then scramble onto his neck and chest like malignant roses and follow his right arm into the pressure bandages down to his wrist. He’s in pain most of the time and can’t get comfortable. They’ll take cartilage from somewhere and rebuild the melted stump of his ear so it looks almost normal and they’ll rebreak the bones in his right leg and set them again, so he won’t limp. They plan reconstructive surgery for his mouth and nose, but the map of hell will always show on his face.
One time when I was 10 and Benjy was 7, I played a trick, told him I’d catch him if he jumped off the front stoop, but when he jumped I stepped away and let him fall. He cried a long time, though he wasn’t hurt – only betrayed. That’s how I feel now, like he jumped and I didn’t – couldn’t – catch him. I was just doing my own one-and-only life, finishing college and looking to my future, and this time he got hurt.
After Dad was murdered, Mom changed, became quieter
. The same routines, the same recipes, but instead of “See you later, Alligator,” she started saying “God keep you” when Benjy or I went out. It wasn’t religion, exactly, more like a magic formula based on the world being darker and emptier than she’d known before. Now she says “Thank God” about Benjy – Thank God he didn’t lose his eyes, thank God it wasn’t worse, thank God he didn’t lose his life – .
So where’s my family? There’s the hole in the air where Dad should be, Mom’s half disappeared into her own worry and grief, Benjy is soldiering through pain, fighting to survive. And me, no hero and not wanting to be, but only needing us all back together like before, an American family, whole and unafraid. And I’m scared because I think “whole and unafraid” may not be possible right now – not for me, not for our family and maybe not even for our whole brave, frightened country anymore. I worry that it could be more than just Benjy – God bless him – that’s been “moderately injured.”