Nov 29, 2008

Using a false name

Lester, he used to say, when he was in a confessing mood, he would say, “The only thing I ever did was fight with the cops.”

Lester was a grunt. He was proud of that. If you asked him, and sometimes even if you didn’t, he would tell you, he was just a grunt. He would tell you, no one listened to him and he had nothing to do with how fucked up everything was.

He used to smoke with the cigarette cupped in his hand, so if the boss rolled by where we were standing, he wouldn’t see Lester's smoke. Lester wasn’t supposed to smoke during jobs. But he did, because he was a grunt and he prized his little acts of defiance. He was actually the foreman, but still, that's what he'd do. He had this stringy hair, greasy down around his ears. He was missing teeth, from fights, and he had a long list of criminal conviction, all of which he characterized as misunderstandings. All except the one he admitted to.

"I did fight with the cops," Lester would say.

I’d ask him, “What about the other stuff? Driving drunk? Disturbing the peace? Using a false name?”

And he’d say, “Fucking authorities man.”

One of the characters invading Iraq in Generation Kill, suggests shooting an officer. It’s meant literally, a little bit, but pitched as an unfunny joke about how impossibly fucked up everything is. It’s meant as an expression of an anger and impotence. It's perfect “grunt.” It reminded me of Lester, that helpless frustration at incompetent bosses.

Generation Kill tells the Iraq war experience of grunts. Which is how we always tell our war stories. This Iraq war movie is like the last one from the last war, Jarhead. It's like almost all the Vietnam war movies and all the “Greatest Generation” kitsch, the WWII movies and mini series specials and documentaries. It’s democratic. It’s populist. This is how we always see ourselves: We are grunts.

Sometimes, we will act like this is very visionary and brave, to tell the war through the people who fought it. But we always do that, and it allows us to avoid all the really problematic questions, like responsibility. We don't know how this all got started, because we're just the grunts. The world was this FUBAR before we got here and we’re doing what we can, but we’re not the bosses, we’re not the authorities and nothing is really our fault.

I don't know why we persist with this idea of ourselves, now that we're the world’s lone superpower. We keep telling that story, with us as the grunts, even though it's really ridiculous. We keep telling it, maybe because it allows us to deny responsibility. We’re like the burnt-out hippie who owns the Fotohut in That ’70s Show, somehow incapable of realizing we’re the boss. Ownership is sort of incomprehensible. We’d rather think of ourselves as stupid, than in charge, and we take offense at the implication we’re not grunts.

Tracy, he used to do that -- get mad at me for implying he was an authority. He would be reprimanding me, getting angrier and angrier as he thought about how I was an impertinent punk, and I would try to calm him down with a respectful, “Yes sir. Yes sir.” Then he's get so mad his chest would squeeze and he’d squeak, “Don’t ‘sir’ me, Daniel. I work for a living.”

Of course, he didn’t work for a living. He sat in his musky office sneaking cognac, letching after students, and thinking of new ways to casually mention he had once spent an afternoon with William F. Buckley.

But if you asked him, and sometimes even if you didn’t, Tracy would tell you he was a grunt.

What about the other stuff? The Latin and Greek, the opera-singing wife, the position at a private school? “Fucking so-called authorities, I would say.”

Even those of us who aren’t close to being grunts insist we are. It’s almost like a mass delusion, some sort of confusion that’s come to define us and now, if we lost it, we would lose our minds. Call it democracy as self-deception. It’s populism as perpetuated amnesia: I don’t know who I am, but I don’t remember having anything to do with fucking up the world. I’m just a grunt.

That was the genius of the Bourne trilogy, I think. It’s the only really successful depiction of this post-Cold War consciousness. Rather than repeating the pathology, Bourne captures it. He, like us, doesn’t remember how he got here, has blocked out the memory of what he has to do with it, and is increasingly angry to have been put in this situation. He, like us, only admits to fighting with the cops, fighting back. But even as he says it, he knows and we know it’s ridiculous. Then, of course, in the last scene he’s told that actually he asked for this. He volunteered. He’s a willing participant, and can’t hide behind these petulant antics.

No one’s fooled by our stupid self-descriptions, eventually not even us – We know this innocence is really pretty damn faux. We've been using a false name. We're not grunts. We're not innocent. Maybe we need more movies about generals, but we should figure out how to take responsibility.