Did you kill anyone?
The dreaded question that lands with a wet thud—a dead fish hitting the floor in the midst of a dinner party, or a tailgate, or some similar event where the awkwardness of first meetings and the lubricity of alcohol intersect. That’s where it happens, invariably, because it is not a question a sober person poses. Picture a work tailgate, or a Christmas bash, or some other gathering where young dads wear their “cool” jeans and everyone feels compelled to meet-and-greet. This is my friend such-and-such and, he’s married to so-and-so. That’s the type of place it happens—at least that’s where it has happened to me.
Nobody asks the question with malice. Rather, it’s the simple and logical outcome of the educated American mind—a mind that both understands war in its mechanical qualities, yet generally has no sense of its tone or tenor. I think of it in same the way the average person could understand coffee’s existence without ever having tried it. Eventually, though, they’ll ask someone what it tastes like. Curiosity is dangerous that way.
Did. You. Kill. Anyone?
The pregnant pause that follows is usually punctuated by the odd tapping of a finger or two on a solo cup (the fancy, clear kind that lets everyone know that you prefer boxed white wine over beer). I doubt all but the most sloshed of people have ever asked that question without immediately wishing they could snatch swat the words out of the air and deflect them in the wastebasket alongside the nameless cheesy-dip-on-a-cracker hors d’oeuvres from Costco. The ugliness of the question is only apparent after it’s been posed. What seemed perfectly logical in the abstract space of the mind is suddenly gauche and invasive when made real.
The question isn’t anyone’s fault, and so can’t be held against anyone either. Curiosity is the natural effluent propelled by the ever-rushing tide of cable news and American Snipers and Mark Wahlberg effecting bad accents on mountaintops. We are taught to wonder and question, and so we do.
Did you ever… There’s always a hope that two different words might follow. Perhaps someone will wonder did you ever go kayaking? Or make popovers? Or did you ever see ‘Hitch’? They don’t, which is a shame because Hitch is easily one of the top three romantic comedies of the last decade. I could talk at length about ‘Hitch’ and why Will Smith should abandon dramatic roles altogether. I await that question, for it has never come.
What’s worst about this absurd moment is that everyone feels a little bit terrible regardless of the answer. The veteran is wondering if “yes” will make him (or her, as it goes) the object of some misplaced pity or, worse yet, the recipient of some back-slapping atta-boys. Conversely, does saying “no” make him seem like a coward? As though he wasn’t really there? Or that she didn’t do enough?
There’s no good answer, since you’re wondering. Best case is a small meteorite lands in the guacamole and defuses the whole situation. Barring that cosmic intervention, a nervous laugh and a “ehhhh…you know…it was something…you just sort of had to be there” is the best I’ve ever mustered.
Last Veterans’ Day, I reflected on the wonder of seeing my friends—many young veterans steeled in the crucible of human combat—raising children who would likely never know the full measure of what mom or dad did in the service of these United States. This time, I am marveling at the fact that I have become one of those parents. I’m now lucky to bask in the joy of parenthood. I’m also scared. I’m scared because I know that infernal question will be asked of me at least one more time in my life. But it will be worse.
Did you ever kill anyone, Daddy?
I won’t even begin to know how to answer that one, or all the questions that accompany it. I don’t know how I’ll describe what the most formative experience of my life felt like. How simultaneously purposeful and senseless it all felt. How crushingly long it seemed to last, but how dizzingly fast it all happened. How utterly and completely fun it was. How fucking scared I was—both of my own mortality and of the power in my own two hands. The power to maim. The power to kill. The power to be judge, jury, and executioner that was afforded to me as a guy who couldn’t reliably fold his own laundry.
Becoming a parent means I have learned the finer points of what it truly means to be worried. People say that parenthood changes your life, and like the average American’s concept of war I understood what other parents meant in the only most mechanical sense. Time. Money. Diapers. I had no concept of the nuance and the depth of the transformation. I didn’t think about having to explain why it’s sometimes okay to kill someone. Or why that someone was trying to kill me. Or what war is and why it happens. The sad reality is that I’m not sure I know how to explain those things to a kid or to an adult in a way that I find truly satisfactory.
This isn’t offered to you as some condemnation of war, or of how we employ the sons and daughters of America as instruments of national power. This is neither an attempt at catharsis, nor a swipe at the American public’s ability to relate to veterans. I don’t aim to tell you how to feel about Veteran’s Day, or how to celebrate it, or whom to think about and thank today. That is the provenance of other people—people I don’t really care to associate with, as it happens. Your November 11th—your Veterans Day or Armistice Day or average Friday—belongs to you and you alone. Keep it as you see fit.
Veterans Day so often ignites debate about what such a holiday is supposed to mean. In the wake of an election week that threatens to swallow the day altogether, I felt compelled to offer a few candid thoughts. This is not a mandate or an exhortation. It is simply a dispatch from one outpost among a great, great many—and an admission of the realization that we will always have to work to bridge the gaps of understanding with one another as a vast and varied people. Those who are not veterans will always wonder what it was like, and perhaps feel a touch of needless guilt because they don’t know. Veterans will always ponder the meaning of their own service, and what other lives they might have had. Children will always struggle to understand their parents as people. Parents will always struggle to make sense of the world to their kids and to themselves.
On this day—a day dedicated to the many good Americans who’ve spent a portion of their all-too-short human lives in uniform—this all seems worth mentioning. Perhaps that sort of reflection is the unspoken mandate of this day, as we are all just a bit inscrutable to someone else. Someday, my little girl will see a picture of a younger, thinner, stronger version of Dad. She will ask what I did. I’ll tell her we did our best, because I did. We all did.
Beyond that…well, you just sort of had to be there.
This has nothing to do with sports. But most of the important things in life do not.