At Peace with War (A short story)

Benjamin Able awakes before dawn to the nostalgic aroma of bread baking in his mother's kitchen.   His uniform hangs on the closet door, neatly pressed and waiting for him, just as he knew it would be.  He smiles.  Homemade bread.  Pressed uniform.  Ah, the comforts of home. 

Indulging himself a few more minutes in the luxury of being spoiled, he lies in his boyhood bed and surveys his room, still unchanged from the day he left six years ago.  His wrestling medals, numbering in the hundreds, are displayed in shadowbox frames and fill nearly all the wall space.  Newspaper stories, neatly clipped and mounted by his Mom take up what little space that remains.  Every match, videotaped and catalogued by his Dad, fill four book shelves over the TV.  From the looks of it, he had little else in his life but the sport that helped him earn his appointment to West Point. 

How proud and excited his parents were then.  Even his pacifist mother seemed to, at least temporarily, put aside her passionate disdain for the military.  Oh, they were both proud then.   Their son - their only child - receiving such an honor.  It made everything worthwhile they said then.  But that was 1998.  Before 9/11.  Before the United States was at war again.  Before he himself finished his training and got his orders to the Middle East.  Now that she considers me a weapon of mass destruction, she doesn't even want to look at me.

Benjamin sighs heavily and adjusts himself in his boyhood bed, raising his head to get up, then thinking of the parting that lies just ahead, he lets himself fall abruptly back into his pillow, listening to the familiar squeak in the bedsprings.  He feels as though a wall somewhere above him is crumbling into rubble and that he lies beneath it, unable to breathe or move.  Of course he will go -- with or without her blessing.  He knows that he will.  He is brave.  He is smart.  He is good.  And he even believes in this war, knows it is necessary, and in his own way, is proud to be a part of it.  But he knows just as surely that he is about to pass through an abyss so deep that it will forever separate him from the life he has lived until this moment, and he has a deep, intuitive sense that to leave his home on this day without her firmly behind him may indeed be the kiss of death that will seal his own fate on the battlefield in some Godforsaken desert halfway around the world.  He cannot bear to give this thought even an instant of validity, as if to do so might make it come true.  

He yearns for the power to hurl himself back in time, to childhood, when life was safe and decisions were easy, when war was a wrestling mat and his opponent was out in the open and someone his own size, a war with absolute rules, a set time limit, and always with a clear-cut victor.  He lies utterly still, as though by remaining immobile he can keep the present from intruding upon his reverie. 

He breathes deeply.  He consciously relaxes his tense muscles, allowing himself to imagine that the aura of safety in this room can be absorbed through his skin, that he can take it with him, that it will remain a part of him, and can protect him in battle.  His mother, the hippie, taught him this.  He reinforces the aura by letting his thoughts free-fall through time.  A collage of memories takes shape.  The present fades and he releases his mind to wander aimlessly the labyrinth of his childhood.

He is 8 years old, sitting at his desk in school.  He is done with his work.  Bored beyond constraint.  Watching the clock, but it seems stuck.  He looks around.  Everyone else is still working.  With his fingertips he casually pushes a pencil from his desktop to the floor, but no one looks up.  Seems safe.  With his foot he slides the pencil slowly, quietly into position.  Another look around, but still no one is watching.  Cautiously, he leans over to retrieve the pencil with his left hand while his right hand deftly, gently pulls loose both laces on his neighbor's Nikes.  Smooth.  Cool.  He straightens, pencil in hand, and makes eye contact with Lauren.  Did she see?  Her mouth curves slightly at the corners.  Then she purses her lips, squelching a giggle.  And her eyes sparkle with mischief - just like his.  The bell rings suddenly.  He and Lauren wait, watching their prey, Billy Bowen.  They are locked in a tantalizing spell of conspiracy.  Billy is hurrying.  He moves his left foot atop a right lace.  Action.  Right foot caught.  He is off-balance, and YES,  he falls, tumbling over himself into fat Janice, who breaks his fall.  Janice screams and bangs Billy in the shoulder with her history book.  Lauren seems immensely pleased as her lips part in a wide grin.  Cool.  And he is immensely pleased with himself.

He is content now, ambling slowly through his memory maze.  The safety of his childhood envelopes him like a soft, warm blanket, momentarily lifting the collapsed wall from his chest --  Mom is right.  I feel the aura. 

He is 10.  It's his first wrestling tournament.  He eyes his opponent across the mat before the match.  He scans the bleachers in the gym, locates his Mom.  Dad is closer to the mat.  He is reassured, but is still more nervous than he can ever remember being before.  But when the ref's whistle blows, his senses are instantly on alert, his instincts are revved, and he feels his first real adrenaline rush - a sensational mixture of fear and do-or-die determination that will prove to be addictive.  He intuits that exact moment of weakness in his opponent and deftly drops slightly into striking position, then without hesitation shoots in for the kill, grabbing both of the guy's legs, throwing him off balance and landing him on his back.  Within 10 seconds he headlocks his opponent and has the guy's shoulder blades on the mat.  The enemy arches his back, flails his arms, twists his head, but it is too late.  The guy is pinned and the ref blows the whistle a final time.  Victory is the unequivocal high  -- Dad was right.  This is too cool.

He stirs beneath the covers now and can hear his Dad's voice, "Let him sleep a while, Sarah.  The boy needs his sleep."  Dad is always watching my back - especially with Mom.  He chuckles.  He drifts again. 

He is 15, a freshman at Atlanta's Parkview High School, and is receiving the gold medal for his first State Wrestling Championship.  The gym is packed.  The Rocky music is so loud that every cell in his body seems to be moving to its beat.  His adrenaline rush is so intense that he thinks it must rival the high that addicts people to crack.  Yeah, I'm high, but this high won't kill me.  He grins as his coach places the huge medallion around his neck and he turns to face the cheering crowd, spots Jenny McGowan wearing a conspicuous orange sweater - his favorite - and imagines taking it off later while they fulfill the plan to lose their virginity this victory night.  Can that high possibly match this one?  He hopes so.

He squirms uneasily under the covers now, thinking of Jenny, that night, their fumbling, so completely uncool coupling in the basement bedroom of her house.  Not a high at all.  Bummer.  The movies make it look way too easy. 

Now the thoughts of Jenny wash over him like a water flood that threatens to drown him.  He tries to squelch the oncoming tears, but can't.  The anger, the sorrow are still too intense.  Leukemia.  God, what a waste.  The girl I was going to marry.  Dead at 17.  War can't be any worse than what I saw her go through.  And if I do die in the war, won't it be for something good - and not for nothing - the way her life was taken - stolen without her consent? 

His anger is now sufficient to stop the tears.  His resolve is now mounted, and he willfully throws back the covers and bounds from the bed, eyeing his uniform on his way to the shower.  War is hell.  Everybody knows that.  But peace can be hell too.  Jenny taught me that one.  And I won't ever forget it.  Ever.

Sarah Able has been up all night.  Crying.  Pacing.  Remembering.  Her bones ache from the weight of her 56 years.  She bends to peek through the oven door at her cinnamon-raisin bread in its final minutes of baking - her son's favorite.  He thinks that she bakes it only for him, but she knows she does it mainly for herself.  Baking has always done for her what pills and therapy do for her more sophisticated friends.  Earth Mother, they call her.   The aroma alone is so comforting.

She smiles wanly now as she allows herself a break from the present horror she faces and remembers the older, wiser German lady who taught her how to bake bread to work through her anger after a newlywed fight with John.  1972.  How long ago was that?  Too long. 

She turns to look over at John Able, her husband of 34 years, and remembers fondly her strange attraction, as an Emory University hippie, to the stalwart Georgia Tech gridiron-jock.  They were married a month after graduation and four days later, he got his orders to Germany.  How they celebrated.  Nixon was bombing the hell out of North Vietnam.  There wasn't as much need for officers on the ground.  They were being spared.  If she had still believed in God, she would have thanked Him, sure enough.

War.  Oh, how she hates war.  Even now, in her sixth decade of life, she still remembers with painful clarity that horrible photograph of the naked, napalmed little girl taken somewhere in Vietnam.  The little girl was running, running, her mouth wide open in a scream, a silent scream so loud that it horrified an entire generation of American children so, so far away.

One year later, her older brother was drafted.  The lottery.  Was that someone's idiotic idea of a cruel joke?  Don't blame the people of the United States - your government.  Don't blame God.  Blame the lottery-bad-luck thing.  Jimmy didn't have the almighty 4-F deferment; he wanted to be a mechanic like their father and grandfather before him.  And they didn't teach that in college.  That whole 4-F thing was probably an elaborate scheme by the Congress and Selective Service people to protect their own sons - who were all in college...  Jimmy came back all in one piece.  He had some luck, at least.  He changed his mind about being a mechanic and went to college on the GI Bill.  Now he's a swanky banker in New York City.  And a Republican.  And Benjamin is his own, personal hero.  Jimmy couldn't get away to give Benjamin the great sendoff he deserves, so he sent a singing telegram instead - a gorgeous blonde in a mini-skirted military outfit, belting out The Star Spangled Banner on the Able's front porch in a most original rendition.  She ended her performance with a salute that looked more like an invitation to her boudoir than any sign of respect.  Sarah was not amused.            

Sarah Able takes one last whiff of the bread she has just removed from the oven before joining her husband at the breakfast table where there is as yet no breakfast -- only a newspaper, a cup of coffee -- and John.  He looks up from the newspaper.  Their eyes meet.  There is a deep dread of grief in them that perhaps only parents about to send their son to war can comprehend.  But John's eyes change suddenly.  Sarah knows well that look of steely determination that makes him such a formidable attorney.

"Have you made your peace with this, Sarah?"  he asks simply. 

For a moment, she is caught off guard by this idiotic question.  The sleepless night has taken a great toll on her senses and she is slow to react.  But then, all of the emotion that she has coddled for the past six years - the disgust, the anger, the futility of her own objections - rises to the surface just as a torrential rainstorm breaks with a single clap of terrifying thunder.

"Make my peace with what, John?"  she demands with forceful scorn.  "Make my peace with war?  Stop questioning whether the war is right or wrong?  Stop wondering if our government has betrayed us once again?  Stop reading the bad news of it?  Just put on a brave face and walk with all the other docile sheep to the slaughter?  Is that what you want me to do, John?"

"Damn it, Sarah."  His fist pounds the table with fury.  "He is our son.  Not your son - our son.  Don't you realize that if you send him off today with all of your doubts and condemnation filling the air with that god- damned aura you're always talking about --  if he has to carry the weight of that on his back into battle - that he's twice as likely to come home in a box."

Benjamin stands in full uniform in the kitchen doorway and feels every inch of his flesh flinch as he hears his father's last words.  Only his soldier's training prevents an emotional meltdown.  He needs to get away from here - and fast.  But first he's going to unload.

Sarah stands and extends her arms to embrace him, but he backs away and puts out his hands to stop her.

"Just a minute, Mom," he says with authority.  "We need to settle this before I go." 

Sarah is still unaccustomed to her son, the soldier, giving her orders.  Inwardly, she bristles at his tone, wants to object, but is way, way too tired.  So, she simply shrugs and sits back down.  Benjamin towers over her.

"Do you remember when I was in fourth grade and Alan Huff moved here?  He wasn't all that much bigger than any of us.  He certainly wasn't any smarter.  But he knew the tough ways of the street like the place he had come from.  He wasn't at our school more than 2 days before he began harassing and terrorizing - yes, terrorizing - the littler kids on the playground.  You remember?"

Sarah is frozen with fear at the coldness in her son's voice, and she suddenly has that sense of conviction that knows where this is going.

"Yes, I remember," she replies lamely.

"We had very strict rules against fighting at school, didn't we?  You said those rules were for our protection, to prevent playground anarchy and rule by bullies.  When I came home and told you about Alan, what were your instructions?"

Sarah is truly speechless.  Her soul is in pain.  The tears fall silently down her cheeks.

"You told me to take our complaints about Alan to the teachers, and if necessary, to the principal.  We did that, didn't we, Mom?  But that didn't work, did it?  Alan just became craftier, sneakier, bullying everyone more covertly.  Didn't he?  So, a couple of the other guys and I decided to stop it ourselves, didn't we?  We weren't even the ones getting beaten up on, were we?  No, it was the littler ones, the more vulnerable ones.  But we knew what he was doing was wrong, and we took him on ourselves to put a stop to it.  Two of us beat him up.  It took two of us because he knew a lot of dirty fighting that we didn't.  When Alan's parents complained, and we got into trouble, what was your response?  Dad was out of town when all this happened, remember?"

Sarah remembers all too well, but she cannot bring herself to validate her son's playground-to-war analogy.  So, she just nods as the tears continue to fall.

"You were like a mother lion in the principal's office, Mom.  You laid the blame for the fight - for everything that happened - right on Alan, and even the principal's shoulders for not taking care of the problem himself.  By the time you finished, even Alan's own parents were thanking us for taking matters into our own hands and stopping him."

Benjamin pauses, waiting for his meaning to sink in.  Sarah's shoulders heave as she emits an anguished sob.

"Now, Mom, the world is a whole lot bigger and deadlier than our playground.  The grown-up bullies of the world fight with dirty bombs instead of fists and they actually murder lots of innocent people, but the principles are the same.  In going to war now, I'm really doing the same thing I was then.  Bullies can't be permitted to rule the world any more than they can be permitted to tyrannize the playground."

Benjamin pauses and waits for his mother to look him in the eye, but senses that she cannot.  And he cannot let go of this.  He accepts in his gut the wisdom of his father's words, and he knows just as surely that he must - must - have his mother's blessing.  He looks now to his father, who nods in recognition.  This gives him the courage to forge ahead in spite of his mother's obvious pain.

"I read the newspapers, Mom, just like you do.  I know how passionate the arguments over this war are.  And I know that for you and a lot of other Americans, this war seems a lot like Vietnam."

At the sound of that word - Vietnam - Sarah looks up and faces her soldier-son wearing the uniform for which she still feels such scorn.  For an instant, her mind flashes back to a college anti-war protest.  We were all so angry, so bitter.  The boys throwing their draft cards in a pile.  Us girls pouring on the kerosene.  Hell no, we won't go!  LBJ, LBJ, how many babies did you kill today?  A sickening sense of déjà vu suddenly overwhelms her, but for the first time, it is tangled, confused, out of focus.  Horrible questions bombard her consciousness - the kind of questions that only older, humbler people have the sense to ask.  Were we right in what we did?  Was it really courage or a despicable, power-in-numbers cowardice?  All those innocent people that the communists murdered after we left them, is their blood on our hands?  What if we were wrong?  Oh my God, what if we were wrong? 

Benjamin knows his mother well and it is obvious to him in the expression on her face and in her eyes, in her very silence, that his words have made a dent in her steely, intellectual armor.  He waits her out, but cannot keep the pleading out of his own eyes.  More than ever in his life, he now needs her to be on his side, her passion firmly with him and not against him.  But he knows just as surely that it must come from her own free will and not because he has demanded it or emotionally extorted it from her.  So he waits.

At last she stands and looks him in the eye, and the anguish of indecision is so intense that she can barely manage to even acknowledge it.  She finally speaks, but very tentatively.

"Benjamin, I have taught you to build your own principles with reason and respect for others, and I have taught you to stand by them.  Please don't ask me to sacrifice my own."

"Mom, I don't think I'm asking you to sacrifice your principles.  I think we share the principle.  You are the very person who taught me - in your words and with the example of your life - that peace without justice is nothing more than a hollow mockery.  And whether you know it or not, you and Dad also taught me that some things are indeed worth dying for.  Whether you can admit it or not, my generation has learned that lesson from yours.  It's all written down in our history books now.  The protests.  The angry demonstrations.  The draft dodgers.  And the bloodbath that ensued as soon as our troops came home.  Now, I'm not judging you.  We know that the war was ill-fought, that many, many mistakes were made.  That our own troops did some evil things themselves.  The draft made it different too.  You were being forced to fight that war.  We're not."

"But the hard-nosed truth is that my generation did learn from you.  We learned what happens when good people refuse to stand by the principles they so easily espouse from their elegant living rooms and university podiums.  A whole lot more innocent people do actually die at the hands of evil men - men who aren't all that different from the playground bully -- on a bigger, more deadly scale.  And a whole lot more is at stake in this war than there was in that one.  This enemy fully intends to take over the world - not just a single country.  This enemy has already struck on our own soil.  And don't be deceived.  It is one and the same enemy.  The same ideology.  The same evil.  If we don't fight to stop it, who will?"

"Oh, Benjamin, Benjamin," Sarah says, as she steps forward and embraces him, perhaps for the very last time, "You do realize, don't you, that if there were more men like you the world probably wouldn't be in such a damned mess.  You are a great man, Benjamin, you are indeed a great man."

Benjamin looks over his mother's shoulder at his Dad who nods knowingly at his son - the great man.

Benjamin takes his mother's shoulders in his strong hands, gives her the snow-job grin of his boyhood and says teasingly, "Anyway Mom, principles aside, I'm really doing this for you.  I just don't think your lofty feminism would look all that great in a burka."

Laughter fills the house now as doom takes its leave, and for the moment anyway, this family is at peace.