Paul Crenshaw’s stories and essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Best American Essays, anthologies by W.W. Norton and Houghton Mifflin, Glimmer Train, Ecotone, North American Review, and Brevity, among others. He teaches writing and literature at Elon University.
What We Say
It’s the 4th of July and we’re sitting in our uniforms, hot and sweating and half-drunk in the last sunlight, when the reporter asks to interview us about the war.
This is 1991 and the troops have just returned home. There are parades in every city, the entire country rejoicing over the victory in the Gulf, which is, we have been told, a victory for democracy and the forces of good in the world.
Now the fireworks have started, unfurling overhead, concussions echoing off the sides of the buildings, fire mirrored in the glass towers of downtown Columbia, South Carolina, not far from Fort Jackson, where we are in the second half of our military training. A few hours earlier we had assembled near the mirrored buildings, then marched through streets packed with thousands of people waving little flags, the air so hot it was sucked from our lungs, the asphalt burning beneath our boots while a military band played “Off We Go Into the Wild Blue Yonder” and “The Army Goes Rolling Along” and “The Star-Spangled Banner.” People cheered from every street corner. They hung from the windows of the buildings as fighter jets flew overhead and helicopters landed in parking lots so people could crawl inside them and imagine engaging the enemy.
After the parade there was a huge celebration in the city, streets blocked off by policemen with mirrored eyes. Loudspeakers played music and food trucks sold hot dogs and hamburgers and a general sense of revelry hung in the hot air. Freed from parade duty, my friends and I wandered the vendor stalls, all of us eighteen or nineteen years old, just out of high school or just starting college. Several times we were stopped by civilians who thanked us for our service, but when we explained that we had been stateside for the war and had not fought, we received strange looks, some of them angry, as if we had set out to deliberately deceive the entire gathering and perhaps the entire United States, so we began to accept the thanks, nodding our heads and taking on pensive looks, saying, “Well, it was about what you’d imagine,” and “Of course you got scared at times,” when asked what the war had been like.
As the afternoon lengthened into evening the beer trucks rolled in, and the celebration continued. The loudspeakers played “God Bless the USA” a dozen times, then two dozen. They played “Born in the USA” and “The Times They Are A-Changin” and everywhere we went men shook our hands and women hugged us. People stood in groups, arms around each other, swaying back and forth to the music, loudly proclaiming how proud they were to be Americans.
A year earlier, in August of 1990, we’d been in Basic Training when Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait, and every morning we received updates on the battle groups slipping through the Suez Canal, the Airborne divisions activated, the numbers of troops massing in the Middle East. We heard about Hussein’s chemical weapons, his Republican Guard, his SCUD Missiles, and we practiced every day for chemical and biological and nuclear attacks.
By the time the war started, I was in college. I spent most nights in my dorm room, reading newspapers I stole from the library or watching live coverage on CNN. My step-father and step-brother were fighting in the war, and my roommate and I got swimming drunk every night in our room watching the bombs fall on Baghdad, ghostly images of explosions lighting the city, anti-aircraft fire streaking skyward. When my step-father returned he told me of the artillery battles, of the jets thundering past, of night turned the color of hell. The oil wells always burning on the horizon, the black haze of hovering smoke, the air shimmering from the heat. The way the light bends in the shockwaves of bombs. The constant rumbling of engines, the ground shaking beneath his feet, a pit of fear always forming in his gut that they would be gassed.
Now, as night falls, we lie back on the grass as fireworks begin to light up the city and a chant rises from the gathered crowd. We drink until the world spins around us. Sweat tracks like tears down our faces. We are hot and tired from marching, from standing in the sun all day, from the constant noise. All around us people watch the fireworks hitting high above the buildings, their faces lit in the brief white flashes, the reports echoing sharply from the glass and steel.
When the reporter comes we look at one another, smiling a little, drunk with heat and alcohol and what passes for pride. We stand and wipe the sweat from our eyes, then give answers just as stupid as the ones we gave before, saying, “We only did what we had to do,” and “We’re just happy it’s all over with.”
By the time the interview ends and the cameraman snaps our picture a crowd has gathered behind us. In the picture there is no war. No visions of destruction like we had seen on TV or heard about from those who experienced it firsthand. No bombs exploding overhead. No vehicles bullet-riddled along the sides of the road, no empty streets where people huddle in fear. Just fireworks lighting the night sky, a drunk crowd chanting "USA USA," as if the war had been a football game and the outcome only as important, and when I try to remember that moment now, I see faces red from the day’s lingering heat, eyes squinted in the light of what looks like exploding bombs, none of us with any idea what we are saying.
“ This essay came to me, almost fully formed, at the North Carolina State Fair last year. As my wife and daughters and I were walking back to the car, fireworks went off, the concussion so close as to be almost physical. There was a glass building near the fairgrounds, and we could see the explosions reflected in the glass, and suddenly I was back in South Carolina twenty years ago watching fireworks on the Fourth, which made me think of the reporter, and the chanting crowd. It was an hour drive home from the fairgrounds, and I asked my family for quiet while I worked out the essay in my head. Luckily, my family is used to this kind of behavior from me, and forgave me. ”