Sawyer was different from White in almost every possible way. He was shorter, possibly only five-six or so. Despite his anglo-surname he appeared to have latino heritage, with olive skin and short curly hair. He had a quite smile on his face,without showing his teeth, that appeared both smug and nonthreatening, as if he had invited Sack into a great joke that the two of them could share together.
"Do you know anyone?" Sawyer asked. "Other writers, I mean."
"A few. Norman Mailer. Hunter Thompson."
"You knew Hunter S. Thompson?"
"Course I knew Hunter. His drinking was horrendous- huuaakumph! Not to mention his drug use."
"I've seen Fear and Loathing about a hundred times."
"The Las Vegas movie?"
"That one, with Johnny Depp. If your drinking, it makes a lot more sense. I think that movie says a lot about how I feel, most of the time."
"Where are you from?" Sack asked.
"Ocala, Florida. Its near Tampa. What did you think about what White had to say?"
"I thought it was a good show."
"Thats what it was."
"So he was putting me on?"
"White has an idea of what all this means. I have another idea."
"What is yours?"
"Do you know about mass shootings?"
"In a general way."
"There are twenty in the United States every year. There was one right before we deployed, in an elementary school. Little children were killed."
"That's the pattern of those events, little children, women, helpless people. The killer goes out and sprays down an area like that with bullets. Usually he kills himself before he gets caught."
"A cowardly act."
"All shooters are cowardly. The act of getting behind a gun really isnt a brave one. The entire methodology of infantry combat is about exploiting the enemies weakness, and then crushing him with overwhelming firepower."
"But I dont want to compare mass shooters to Marines, anyway, although there have been a few times where the two parties have overlapped. That one guy in a clock tower."
"You could also say Lee Harvey Oswald."
"Thats right. But the point I'm trying to make, is that after one of these mass shootings, if the body count is high enough, and if it includes children, it makes the national news. People talk about it for weeks. What we can do to prevent it. The anti-gun people talk about gun control, and the anti-video game people talk about video games, and the anti-music people talk about music. But what I'm saying is that, all around, there is the recognition that there is a core problem, an intolerable problem that must be fixed."
"Now, when you have a country like Iraq. Many times that amount of women and children die. Men as well. Sometimes we kill them, sometimes the insurgents kill them. Suicide bombers, our bombs, our guns, their guns. But no one cares, at least in America. No one holds a vigil. The president doesnt say anything. There isnt any national discussion about what we have to do, to prevent THESE women and children dying, or these men. Overall, the hidden idea is that all is as it should be."
"And the idea- and this is Sergeant White's idea, not mine, is that this is because the citizens of Iraq are outside the barriers of society, while the victims of a mass shooting in the United States are firmly inside it. Like the same way the founding fathers could write a Constitution garuanteeing Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, while at the same time enslaving thousands of people. Its a sort of institutional dichotomy."
"And what White basically sees this as an excuse to let loose his darker nature. Killing, violence, etc. But he is missing another vital point."
"If an event happens in Iraq, and a large amount of Marines die....well, theres no national attention to that, either."
"But there is a, ah, certain amount of media attention to that sort of event."
"Correct. Do you know the name of the Presidents dog?"
"He has one?"
"Every President has a dog. Its one of the hidden requirements of the office, like having to believe in God, and go to church."
"I cant remember...the only one I can think of, Richard Nixon had a dog named Checkers."
"So, lets say Bush's dog gets hit by a car. And it dies."
"Right, and it makes the news. Not much of the news, but a little spot. They show a picture of the dog, probably a publicity still, and a TV personality says something like 'how sad'. Its on the news for one day exactly."
"Which is exactly the kind and scale given to coverage of Marines getting killed in Iraq."
"But its not a perfect metaphor. Because if you start killing, five, ten, fifteen of these dogs at a time, its a major problem. Or if you start blowing these dogs up, or shooting them. And if, the whole time, you train these dogs to kill, the humane society is going to have your ass. Its unfair to these dogs, to make them live that way. Its inhumane to kill them like that. Or put them in situations where they can be killed. People are protesting in front of the White House at this point. People are asking questions, like, if we love the Presidents dogs so much, how can we let this happen? It becomes a major scandal."
"What follows is this; every single member of the military in Iraq, is worth the exact same amount as one politicians dog. When they die, all their collective deaths are worth the grief of one car accident, and nothing more."
"And thats what White doesnt understand."
Soon afterwards Sawyer was called up to do more watch duty. An explosion rang out from an ajoining street, somewhere in the distance, and Sack watched to see if anything would happen, but nothing did. The pain was starting to hurt his insides again. He had Swinney escort him from the rooftop back into the wire, where he rested in the sort of foldout chair used for camping, in the connex boxes that made up the Chosin company office. There he found his bag where he had left it, and fumbled for the pain medication the doctors had given him.
He took his pills and counted backwards from ten. When he thought of the word Cancer he imagined a large red crab, scuttling back and forth, on the shore of a white sandy beach. The waves in front of the crab were very blue, and when they broke it was with great contrast to the white froth.
He was thinking about his books. The books would be all that survived him, with no children. It was more than his father had. That ceremony had been ugly, just Sack and his sister with the urn. He had lied to the Marines about who he worked for. He had worked for Esquire one time, in the sixties. He interviewed the American war criminal William Calley from the My Lai massacre. The lieutenant had been unrelenting in his convictions, to the bloody end. There was none of that in either of these new breed, White or Sawyer. They believed in nothing. They could see what things were for the reality of it. The ugliness of Vietnam had become something ironic now, or worse, part of the general experience of going to combat.
He thought about his other book, and Eye For an Eye. It was about the experiences of German prisoners of World War Two, and the revenge a few jews had took upon them. He had fabricated the whole thing, based on only a few sketchy testimonials from supposed witnesses. It was his best seller. When he died, if anyone managed to write anything, it would be as John Sack, writer of Eye for an Eye, a foolish bit of sop written late in life for money. He thought about Hunter Thompson, who Sack had once seen drink a bottle of embalming fluid at a party on a bet, straight and with no chacer. Hunter Thompson was going to outlive him, once the Cancer did its work. Once the crab finished scuttling. That Sawyer kid had felt personally touched by the movie based on his book. A book that seemed to Sack to be no more than the random gibberings of an alcoholic junkie, but the movie had starred an a-list celebrity. There was no movie for William Calley: in his own words, or An Eye for an Eye. Sack still wanted the big price, the big, recognized novel, and he was running out of time.
Two Marines came in and sat at chairs near a television, taking off their helmets and talking too each other in a happy tone. One of them opened up the DVD player, and inserted a disc with no description on its cover. It was aerial footage from some sort of reconnaisance plane, in black and white night vision. Sack moved closer so he could see. There was footage of tiny men, standing around and talking to each other. There were cars nearby. An unsees gun started, and clouds of dirt flew up in the ground. One of the little white men flew into pieces, and as the camera was capturing the essence of his heat, white splatters of blood and insides flew out as well. The Marines cheered, watching it, and Sack noticed from the patches on their body armor that they were officers. From the DVD he could make out the remains of the first man fading in color to black as the life-heat left him. Then another little white man ran for the truck, and the trail of dirt followed him, until the rounds walked up to the vehicle and there was the dramatic burst of an explosion. The officers paused this scene, and pointed out details in the carnage.
Dr. Robbie Robertsons office was covered in stuffed animals, or more precisely, teddy bears. Conner had had one himself as a child. It was brown but might possibly have been some other color at an earlier time. He called it bear bear. There was a mantra he repeated right before bedtime-
go to sleep
my bear, bear, bear!"
The toy had gotten a hole worn in its neck from all the vigorous hugging, like the sort a tracheotomy patient would recieve. But all the teddy bears in Dr. Robinsons office seemed healthy and intact. Moreover, most of them were dressed in colorful costumes, there was doctor bear, of course, and fireman bear, policeman bear. This being inside the Veterans Administration there was army bear, in old style camouflage fautigues, and sailor bear in his white suit and cap. A few bears in suits, and a few in dresses. And Conner felt most at ease by Marine bear, in dress blues, of course, minus the white gloves on his furry little paws.
The bears did not look out of place by the presence of Dr. Robinson. He was corpulent and round, with the kind of face that could only be described as jolly. Big fat cheeks that glistened when he smiled, most assuredly from high blood pressure, but maybe just a little from happiness. He was balding up top, and the rest of the hair he had was stark white and pulled back into an absurd little ponytail. He wore gold wire rim glasses that looked to be expensive.
"Hel-lo!" He beamed, at Conner. "Hel-lo, James. Are you James."
"Yes, sir." James answered.
"Call me Dr. Robinson." He said. "Or better yet, Robbie. I know how you military guys like to stand on that formal stuff."
"So- ah!" Robinson exhaled as he sat down. "What can I do for you?"
Conner considered how he should start. "I guess I've been having problems." He admitted. "My wife thinks I need some help."
"Your wife thinks that, or you do?"
"I dont know. I have trouble sleeping."
"I dont sleep very much."
"Only for two or three hours. And when I wake up, its like, bam. I just sit bolt upright in my bed. I get nightmares."
"What kind of nightmares?"
"I dont remember them."
"Were you in the war?"
"Did you see any combat?"
"Yeah. And it didnt really bother me."
"So it wasnt that bad."
"No. I mean, parts of it were pretty bad. I had to shoot at people. Guys died. I mean, it was war, I knew what I was getting into."
"How old were you?"
"I was seventeen when I enlisted. Twenty-one when I got out."
"I mean, I was young, but we were all young. It evened out. But when a guy died, and he was young, that fucked you up. I mean, if you thought about it. We had a squad leader that died, and honestly? The guy was a dickhead. No one really liked him. But when he died, he was twenty-two. I was nineteen, so that was older than me, or whatever. And I didnt think about that until when I turned twenty-three, and then I thought: I'm one year older than Sergeant White. I'm one year older than he will ever get. And then I turned twenty-four, last year, and I thought, now I'm two years older than Sergeant White. And so I think about that all the time."
"Were you there when he died?"
"I was there. A lot of us were there. It was during a firefight, and he got shot in the leg. You dont think something like that can kill you. And we didnt think about that either. He was laughing about it, I think he said something like, fuck it, now I can get those Purple Heart liscence plates. I remember that specifically. Not that he would get a purple heart, but that he would get the liscence plates, so he could park in the handicap section and not get a ticket.
"And so he's laughing and joking or whatever, and gets put on the humvee back to Camp Fallujah, and we dont find out until we get back that he's fucking dead. That big artery, the one you have in your leg-"
"The femoral artery."
"Right, that one, the bullet punctured it and he bled out in the back of the humvee. He was laughing and joking with us and the whole time he was fucking dead. And I think about that a lot, and the fact that I didnt like the guy, and the fact that now I'm twenty-five and three years older than him."
"But at the same time, I miss it. I miss the Marines. Everything made sense in the Marines. You knew what your place was, how you fit into the big picture. Civilians dont have that. No one tells you when to get a haircut, or pay your bills, or eat. You either do it or you dont. People treat you like shit if your young. They do and dont notice it. Most guys my age, their complete fucking morons. Their right out of college or whatever, or maybe they didnt even go to college, they work, or they live at home. And what they think about is, I dont know, getting a job or getting a better job or getting drunk or high and getting some pussy. The thoughts of some kid. So when people look at me, they look at me like I'm this sort of punk kid, because that's what guys are in their twenties now. That's the bar my generation has raised. And all I'm thinking about is Iraq."
"Are you nervous a lot?"
"I'm wired. My wife says I'm edgy. I feel like I have an edge, like I've been sharpened over the years by the Marines and by Iraq so that I'm always alert and I notice everything. It helps where I work."
"Where do you work?"
"For Homeland Security, at the dentention center."
"Are you a guard?"
"I'm a Detentions Officer. I think it comes out to pretty much the same think."
"Sounds like a high stress occupation."
"Sometimes it is. Mostly nothing happens. But I'm always ready for something to happen, that's the point."
"I can tell you are."
"Your shaking in that seat. Twitching back and forth. Its a condition known as hyper-vigilance."
"I guess. In Iraq, mostly nothing happens. I mean, you spend days where you literally do nothing other than fight boredom. You stare down a street, or into a building, or over some razor wire, or out a humvee turret. You do nothing until, all at once, something happens. And it scares the shit out of you. And you react to your training, and do what your supposed to do, or you fuck up and do something stupid. And either way, its over in a few minutes. And nothing happens again. Except now you know something CAN happen, something fucking nasty can happen at any minute, in the middle of the night, or while your eating or taking a shit, and you are never, ever, safe. So you stay ready."
"I shot someone."
"It doesnt happen as often as you think. I mean, you shoot AT people all the time, but very infrequently do you actually get the chance to so for certainty; I shot someone. I killed someone. And that's the question you get all the time, from fucking moron civilians; did you kill anyone? You were in Iraq, did you kill anyone? Because all the see is the supposed free pass, you have, as a Marine, to fire your weapon and end someones life. And they secretly think, fuck it, a raghead doesnt matter anyway. By that I mean an arabic person, or someone thats non-american. And their an idiot, these civilians, they think that if you shoot a terrorist your a hero. Like thats what makes people heroes."