Lots of people want to talk to Ryan Björklund about his service in Iraq, but few actually want to listen to what he has to say.
I sometimes find myself caught in awkward social interactions where, in order to maintain composure, I must find an imperfection on the other person’s forehead at which to stare. The aforementioned forehead is often sternly compacted to indicate a sense of empathy for me and my perceived selflessness in helping to wage the War on Terror. Whether it is sincere or just a bullshit gesture for the sake of appearances matters little to me. During this exchange, I must constantly remind myself not to get caught up in the misplaced sincerity of today’s American patriot.
This is an adaptation of a skill that’s essential to any military career: While standing at the position of attention or parade rest, one learns to stare intensely at something in front of him in order to showcase his discipline and military bearing. My new version of that stare is less intense, more ambiguous–akin to the gaze of an aloof , aging guard dog. Having settled into this stare, I’m now ready to receive the fulsome gratitude of my fellow patriotic civilians.
I had been deployed to Iraq from 2008-2009, with the 555th Engineer Brigade out of Ft. Lewis, Washington, but served with the “Fightin’” 5th Engineer Battalion out of Ft. Leonard Wood, Missouri. Most of my time was spent behind a machine gun in the turret of an MRAP vehicle (what most people who play video games would refer to as an APC, or “Armored Personnel Carrier”). The heavy fighting had ended long ago, and a sense of boredom and restlessness characterized the sort of work we were doing. Most of my unit’s missions consisted of driving down long stretches of road to ensure that there were no newly placed IEDs, rebuilding structures that had been destroyed during past military actions, and meeting with representatives of USACE and Iraqi army commanders who formerly been under the supervision of Saddam Hussein. Sure, there were very brief moments of “action”–all of which ended almost as quickly as they began. Nothing worth writing about, creatively or otherwise, and certainly nothing I feel obligated to share with the type of person who would ask a total stranger about his military service.
In the course of these encounters, I’ve found people to be clearly divided into two groups: the smug “pro-soldier, anti-war” intellectual, and the crusading war hawk who enthusiastically voted Bush into his second term. Both types of individual normally ask questions that presuppose answers that serve only to reinforce their preexisting biases. The liberal typically asks something like this: “What was it like being so young, risking your life for Exxon-Mobil? Did wounded civilians get medical treatment, too? Iraqi prisoners get abused a lot, huh? You seem intelligent, why didn’t you just go to college?” It is possible these individuals were once American Apparel corduroy capri-wearing protestors who spent their undergrad years picketing outside ROTC buildings, but are now highbrow grad students who have simply found sexier causes to advocate. Gay marriage, the disparity of wealth in the US, illegal diamond mines in Africa, illegal sex trafficking in Latin America, etc. Hotter topics, and things that actually matter today.
On the other side, you’ve got the armchair generals. From them, one can expect fervent double-handed handshakes, red-state political commentary (“Don’t you think we’d all be safer with a defense of marriage bill?”), non sequiturs relating to the Second Amendment, and obnoxious jabbering to passersby to take note of what “real heroes” look like. One distinct advantage to dealing with this sort of character is that that they are likely to buy you multiple drinks at the bar. “How many people did you kill? Do the women really wear ninja suits? What the hell is a Sunni? Is that different from a Shi’ite? Shi’ite, huh? Who gives a Shi’ite?” While they typically haven’t served in any branch of the armed forces, they always seem to know someone who has. They invariably manage to find a way to share a story heralding their (brother-in-law’s, father’s, somebody’s) military accomplishments before I can find a way to politely excuse myself from the table.
Such conversations mean more to these people than they do to me. It’s as if the person with whom I’m talking wants to use my experience as a means of reinforcing his or her own views. They’re not so much genuinely interested in my experience as on a quest to authenticate their worldliness through my firsthand testimony. They want to talk about the actions of characters in “The Hurt Locker” while reaffirming their view of soldiers as angsty teenagers with a license to kill in a foreign land and relishing–in a way I’ll never understand–how sexy I must’ve looked while saving the day.
What few people want to hear, however, are candid accounts of soldiers returning home only to endure nightmare-induced outbursts of rage. They do not want to listen to tales of the bitter, frustrated desperation associated with falling out of love with unfaithful wives or girlfriends. They have no desire to learn about babies that have grown into toddlerhood and are now afraid of the stranger living in their house. Alcoholism, drug abuse, suicide: such subjects are huge downers. Yet absent lived experience of the situation overseas, how could my eager listeners ever understand that teenage angst can become adult despair in less than a year’s time?
Photo–Ryan Björklund Note: the author wants readers to understand that the picture with the aviators that appears at the beginning of this column was intended as a joke, on account of the fact that these sunglasses are unapproved eyewear in the combat theater. For a more appropriate (and more personal) photo, scroll down to his author bio at the bottom of the page.