LosingTheWar.doc

If my wife hadnt rescued the tiger it would have been

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If my wife hadn’t rescued the tiger it would have been cut loose to make its own way in the world — to languish in rummage-sale boxes and end up with new owners who’d never suspect how far it had wandered through the world to reach them. But I have the feeling my father wouldn’t have minded that; he never liked other people knowing his business.
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That’s the common fate of mementos. They’re never quite specific enough. No matter what their occasion was, they sooner or later slip free and are lost in a generic blur: a Day at the Carnival, a Triumph at the State Finals, a Summer Vacation, My First Love. It’s particularly true, I think, of the mementos of soldiers, because nobody other than a soldier remembers the details of any war once it’s safely over. What really happened in Korea? I don’t have the slightest idea; war just isn’t an experience I’m up on. I was barely young enough to miss the Vietnam draft, and I’m old enough now that the only way I could figure in a future war is as a victim. The tiger can’t preserve the memory of the bombing missions my father flew. Its odd rippling surface doesn’t correspond to the landscape of North Korea, terrain my father knew by heart — which had once saved his life: on one mission his plane malfunctioned, and he’d had to find his way back to his base with no instruments, no radio, and fuel fumes filling his cockpit. Nor does that frozen roar speak to the complex of murky policies that had sent my father into battle in the first place, thousands of miles from home. To me, the tiger is just a platitude — if it means anything, it’s a symbol for all the violence in life I’ve been spared. People my age and younger who’ve grown up in the American heartland can’t help but take for granted that war is unnatural. We think of the limitless peace around us as the baseline condition of life. War, any war, is for us a contemptible death trip, a relic of lizard- brain machismo, a toxic by-product of America’s capitalist military system — one more covert and dishonorable crime we commit in the third world. All my life I’ve heard people say “war is insanity” in tones of dramatic insight and final wisdom, and it took me a long time to realize that what they really meant was “war is an activity I don’t want to understand, done by people I fear and despise.” But there’ve been places and times where people have thought of war as the given and peace the perversion. The Greeks of Homer’s time, for instance, saw war as the one enduring constant underlying the petty affairs of humanity, as routine and all-consuming as the cycle of the seasons: grim and squalid in many ways, but still the essential time when the motives and powers of the gods are most manifest. To the Greeks, peace was nothing but a fluke, an irrelevance, an arbitrary delay brought on when bad weather forced the spring campaign to be canceled, or a back-room deal kept the troops at home until after harvest time. Any of Homer’s heroes would see the peaceful life of the average American as
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