At first they seemed like just three ordinary young guys when they ambled into the Twin Smoke Shoppe in South Philadelphia the other night. Then again most people seem run-of-the-mill at first.
Their haircuts were cropped neat and tidy — in the fashion. And their jeans and khaki shorts, beneath faded, unfussy T-shirts, were of the casual attire of grown-up boys who no longer care to be strikingly handsome in manhood. As if they no don’t feel the need to impress anymore. Or perhaps never did.
They had brought with them an expensive bottle of that particularly desirous Stetson Kentucky bourbon. And after they bought some cigars and were about to drift into the back lounge to drink, smoke and play cards they let drop that they were a band of brothers.
That is, they had met while serving in the U.S. Army a few years back in Afghanistan and Iraq. And they had come to Philadelphia to celebrate with the ‘jittery-fellow’ among these three Musketeers. He was about to partake in the very sober ceremony of puffing on an exploding cigar.
In other words he was getting married in the morning.
And they were here to get him to the church on time – no matter how far it was out in suburban Philadelphia’s bucolic Chester County where drunken men in plaid pants have been known to confuse their wives and the sheep.
“Ah-hah!” I chimed in. “So you are embarking on another field of battle… Speaking for all the ex and future-ex-husbands of the world, I can assure you, it ain’t no bed of roses. For love is that temporary insanity cured by marriage — which is the only war where you sleep with the enemy.”
“Yep,” agreed his sturdy comrade from Boston. “I told him that now he’s going to have to start buying two of everything – in preparation.”
Hmm… I already liked these guys.
“We’ve been warning him that marriage is the scud missile of relationships,” joked another smiling former fellow foot-soldier. He is now a fireman in Philadelphia’s tattered Germantown section.
“But of course,” I sniffed and concurred, “Marriage isn’t a word, it’s a sentence.”
At that, paint-ball Bill, a Twin Shoppe regular, tossed in with: “They say marriages are made in heaven, but so are lightning and thunder.” Of course, Bill is married for the second time. This one is a woman who is half-Italian and half-Jewish. “She’s a great cook,” hefty Bill laughs. “But she charges me for my meals.”
Obviously a casual stroll through the lunatic asylum — or a cigar shop — shows that faith does not prove anything. In other words marriage is a wonderful invention; but then again, so is a bicycle repair kit.
Anyway in the back room over a poker game of Texas Hold ‘em we fell into all sorts of bon vivant desultory conversation. You know, the usual gruff and rough stuff about life and death and how we damn well intend to serve our time in between. That is until the wife grows balls and becomes king. And the bourbon runs dry.
But over my years of chronicling I have noticed that men who battle a year in war do indeed have a lifetime of stories. You know, judgment comes from experience. And experience usually comes from bad judgment. Which, I have often joked, is no doubt why so many married men regularly confess their tales of woe to complete strangers in the sanctuary of bars – and cigar emporiums.
Yet the simple, forthcoming anecdotal experience of the soldier-turned-Philly-fireman was not only daunting, it has pestered me since. It was offered so casually it made you realize that evil often is so evil because it arrives so unceremoniously.
And with all marital kidding aside, the gist of his tale came down to the simple reproach that America has always found it easier waging war than in keeping peace. That we failed, once more, to comprehend the indigenous culture — particularly of Afghanistan, where for thousands of years empires have gone to die. No country, including us, has ever profited from a protracted war.
What he related was that in their time over there officers and officials would periodically venture out to talk to villagers and various bearded tribal chiefs. And when asked what it is they desired, the Afghanis repetitiously and redundantly requested the same three things: running water, electricity and schools.
However there was constant comings and goings of U.S. personnel and soldiers with continual rotations of squads, platoons, companies, commanders and officials. And then another group of Army officers and officials would again venture forth. And they would ask – sometimes the same — villagers and various tribal chiefs the same question: What is it you desire? And repetitiously and redundantly, again and again, they requested the same three things: electricity, water and schools.
Over and over. On and on. But meanwhile the villagers got bupkis. While at the same time billion$ were squandered on more than just the world’s most expensive, never-completed, now crumbling highway over the mountains. Bribes were paid. Battles were waged. Poppy fields were destroyed. And men, who were sons and loved, killed other men who were sons and loved.
“We shot and killed people,” sadly related the former soldier. “We killed with guns that were big enough to kill most anything.”
But electricity, water, schools?
It seems like such a simple price of peace. Winning the hearts and minds of people who simply want the simple basics. Giving them something to live for. Giving them something simple to love you for.
But of course… yet alas, alack. One of the principles of war is that its first casualty is always – the truth. And Afghanistan was all madness. And mendacity.
After 12 years. Billions and billions of dollars. Hundreds and thousands of American soldiers sacrificed… or worse, among the walking dead, still awaiting for their backlogged treatment at the shoddy Veterans Administration Hospitals.
And what was it for? This war, the Iraqi war, Vietnam, and all the wars and battles since WWII?
As the Sunday New York Times screamed: Taliban making military gains in Afghanistan. Running amok in Iraq. Israelis and Hamas in the drop-dead zone… And even that Argentina is defaulting on yet another loan.
The repetition, the redundancy goes on and on.
So we must scream: What do these wars accomplish? And in particular, what does our intervention achieve? Certainly there is a time for war, just as there is a time for peace. A time to love, and a time to hate. However, the villagers tell us what they want, and yet we want to send them advisers and armaments. All they want is what we all want — to live in peace under blue skies and white clouds, surrounded by family.
Nevertheless we want them to die for our ideas. And in case you haven’t noticed, even in a war of ideas, it is still people who get killed.
It never seems to stop, does it? And when the last helicopter lifts off from the roof of the American embassy, or we just declare victory and go home, or a peace is agreed… it still doesn’t end. It isn’t over for the veterans, or the families. It is just starting… again…
At long last the backroom filled with less talk and more cigar smoke – wafting our illusion. The band of brothers counted up their poker chips. And we finished off that grand bottle of bourbon with a few last tips.
I said to the young man that I hope he had been already sleeping together with his future (ex) wife. Because I found that I never knew what it was like to sleep alone… until I got married.
And that’s yDrewIS on dis penal colony…