"So, you in the Army? You ever kill somebody?"
While I was walking across a college campus back in the late 1980s, a passerby casually tossed a Vietnam-era war-surplus epithet at me, and called me a "baby-killer." Granted, I was in my battle-dress uniform, but the incident was so completely out of context--historical and otherwise--that I was stunned into inaction.
Whether willful or accidental, such ignorance is thankfully rare. But today, in the dark early hours, it is driving me to the Des Moines International Airport. My taxi driver, a young Vietnamese immigrant, has just asked me whether I've ever killed someone. I'm wearing camouflage today, too, on my way to Fort Irwin, Calif.
If I were more awake, I'd try to judo-throw the conversation into a teaching moment. Instead, I give him both barrels of shotgun Sherpa.
"That's not an appropriate question," I bark, and am immediately sorry for it. Rather than recalculate the tip, I attempt to recalibrate the conversation. We mutually steer the topic quickly to the driver's recent vehicular brushes with urbanized deer, and the morning's prospects of dashboard venison.
Here's are two quick rules of thumb about talking to soldiers:
1. Anyone who wants to talk a lot about killing doesn't know what they're talking about.No, I have not killed. But I know people who have.
2. Anyone who should talk about it probably isn't, unless there's beer involved, or years of trust.
Sometimes, they tell me their stories. I do not repeat them. My place is to listen.
The stories are often offered up spontaneously. Sometimes it's late at night. Sometimes, it's over coffee. Sometimes, it's shucking and jiving in the barracks. We've all had our bad days. We just don't talk about them much. I understand that, whenever such a story is told, it is both a gift and a curse. It is a gift of trust, because the teller has somehow determined that I will listen and not pass judgment.
It is a curse, because the listener himself takes on some of the burden of the story. I was not there, at this place or that, when death came to a child. Or to a fellow soldier. Or to a nameless adversary. I was not there, but that doesn't always matter.
I have not killed. But I know people who have. I have only been given shards of their stories--fragments and echoes--but some are the kinds that stay with you, that wake you up at night.
It is way too early in the morning for this.