This is the kind of shape we’re in regarding Iraq: we’re pulling speechwriters out of the Pentagon to go to war.
Three weeks ago, I was a speechwriter for one of the Navy’s top admirals. Technically, I still am his speechwriter, because my trip to Iraq is considered temporary duty. Previously, my idea of temporary was a couple weeks, tops. Now temporary equals one full year. When I’m done in Iraq, I could go back to speechwriting. At least, that’s what the fine print in my orders says. However, by that time the admiral will have either retired or moved on, and the admiral who takes his place will probably have a speechwriter of his own. So chances are I’ll be sent to work in a much less desirable place within the Pentagon, one without a private office and a panoramic view of downtown D.C., and one that generates a lot more stress than changing some happys to glads an hour or two before a speech. I mention the posh office and the easy work only to give some idea of my ridiculous luck. Once, I lost my wallet in Philadelphia and someone mailed it back to me with cash intact. Another time, I wrote an article for a Navy safety magazine that an admiral liked well enough to offer me a job as his speechwriter. I’m so lucky that it pisses people off, so I try to keep quiet about it.
People used to ask me when my luck would run out. But not anymore.
What I’ll be doing in Iraq has to do with convoys, currently the deadliest line of work in the deadliest country on earth, at least for Americans. I got the news right before Thanksgiving and started telling family and friends. Their reactions spooked me. Either I got an eerie preview of my funeral, or I got a dose of patriotism I wasn’t prepared for. “I really admire what you’re doing,” said a cousin with whom I once spray-painted the anarchy symbol on every stop sign in town. When I told my kids, they asked more questions than an estate planner. What happens if both you and Mommy die? Where will the red truck go? Who will feed the cat? Et cetera. I laid it out as best I could, while assuring them I’d come home alive, which they considered for a minute before asking, “But what if you don’t?”
One of the last people I told was Chip, my neighbor and one-time ping-pong nemesis. A year ago, Chip suffered a stroke that left him paralyzed from the neck down. The stroke was caused by a brain tumor. Chip was in intensive care for a long time after his stroke while they destroyed the tumor with lasers and chemotherapy. They’d occasionally move him into a halfway house across the street from the hospital, only to move him back into intensive care a few days later. Eventually, the tumor stopped growing and Chip came home. I went to visit. The last time I’d seen him we were standing outside in the sun, two men disparaging one another’s ping-pong skills. Though he held his paddle like a girl, Chip could curve impossible shots to the far corner. The next morning, he had the seizure that landed him in the hospital.
The staples in Chip’s head resembled those that hold a refrigerator box together. A combination of trauma and steroids had caused his head and eyes to swell. Chemotherapy had dissolved his hair, and his feet were borderline gangrenous. I walked into his refurnished living room. The ping-pong table was gone. A giant orthopedic chair took its place. Chip reclined in the chair as if for a moon shot. He’d already gotten wind of the news.
“So …,” he said, “you’re … going … to … Iraq.”
“Yeah,” I said.
And that was it. Once I realized that was it, I shook Chip’s rag-doll hand, the one that used to boomerang ping-pong balls to the very tip of my weak-side corner, and set it back in his lap.
During my time at the Pentagon, I wrote lots of speeches for the admiral, but I wrote very little about the war. Most of it was fluff for retirements, changes of command, promotions, and meetings of the ladies’ auxiliary. The war didn’t seem to fit. One exception was the 63rd commemoration of the Battle of Midway, for which I dragged out Shakespeare. “Glory is like a circle in the water,” I quoted, which I thought tied the sunken ships to the men who died. To tie the current war to the old war, I made reference to “our fathers and their fathers’ fathers,” an awkward phrase that has since become Pentagon stock. The admiral read it, and as he turned from the lectern an old man from the audience stood in protest.
“You got it all wrong!” he hollered. He was in tears.
“I was there,” he continued, “and we sunk the Yorktown! Not the Japs! We sunk our own goddamn ship and shot our men in the water. I saw it …”
Security was on him before he could finish. They folded him to the floor as he fought back. The admiral retook the podium and told security to stop. When security backed off, the 84-year-old man, named Ernie, stood again and dusted himself off.
Ernie was invited to the executive lounge, where a medic put a wool blanket around his shoulders and gave him a hot cup of coffee. The admirals and generals in attendance went out of their way to apologize to Ernie, and Ernie graciously accepted their apologies for sinking the Yorktown and for shooting his friends in the water. He even smiled. When the receiving line ended, I approached Ernie and introduced myself.
“What’s your role in this outfit?” Ernie asked me. I explained I was a speechwriter. “That was a helluva good speech,” he said. “And, you know, I wasn’t gonna say a goddamn thing about the truth until I heard it.”