The Unknown Soldier

I had seen enough commercials to know I wanted to join the military. You know, the ones with the inspirational music and the strong, confident individuals in their camo suits saluting their officer and climbing cliff faces, and when they finally reach the top the music hits a climax and the grand scene finishes with the two word blurb: Army Strong. I had seen advertisements better than those like those hour-long infomercials that sell some 50 dollar toaster oven that was made in Taiwan for 50 cents. You ever wonder why commercials, or press conferences, or wars don’t have credits while things like movies, recipes, or politics do? History shows that advertisement and conflict are necessary, whereas things like arguments and scripts are merely byproducts of civility. But then who is to say that everything isn’t voluntary; it’s true that you don’t have to do anything, but I’m not about to quit everything just because I’m not getting credit for it. You see, that’s all part of the mystique. That’s why people donate vast quantities of money and represent themselves anonymously because to do so proves that you are better than all those flamboyant philanthropists and gaudy four stars and silver-tongued speech makers. I’m better because I don’t need a plaque on the wall that says I am. I’m going to be a soldier, the type that when journalists interview and ask the question “Would you give up your life for someone you don’t know?” I would say “Yes” so that the priest can mention me in his homily.

There’s nothing really special about anything you see on television. There will always be things I haven’t seen, and I guess that’s why I’m drawn to watch them. Repeats are my life; I’ve been watching the same shows night after night and some time in your life you have to step back and say I’m too old to be watching cartoons. So I put down the remote and picked up a gun. Nothing really special about such a thing. Life is a mixture of how it is lived and how it is remembered. A soldier’s life is much the same for though a soldier may find purpose in the heat of battle, youth and sanity only last so long, and the task of old age is to decide whether such a life was enjoyed or only necessary, to decide if this life was begotten for a purpose or made one lazy Tuesday afternoon.

Whether it is boredom or an overload of stimuli, it helps to relate the incomprehensible to the fantastic so that it may be thought well of rather than misunderstood. Signing up to join the army, I don’t think of the violence or horrors. When the time comes I’ll lower the rifle, match up the sights, and look through the little red dot in the scope as if I were looking through a telescope into another galaxy. The mixture of dirt, sand, and gunpowder form the clouds of the Eagle Nebula and each soldier is a pillar of creation for the great ideal. Some day we shall collapse upon ourselves and form the glistening star and beautiful expectations that we have always wanted. Every bullet is but a probe sent to investigate the inner workings of distant galaxies. Streaming pieces of communication whose only purpose is to connect, to make a compromise between two realms of familiarity, to make the universe a unified whole. The death of a star, the collision of galaxies is an infinitesimal occurrence in the grand scheme. We are but the soldiers of creation, destined to live a life that far exceeds ours’ and our ideal’s expectations. Missionaries on the greatest of scales, it is not my finger which pulls the trigger so do not let the horrors of creation’s actions fall upon the worker’s mind.

Sure I can trick my mind, but I can never convince myself of what is best for me; I am selfless to the world and selfish to myself. I was given thought, but I never thought long enough to consider anything but my primary action. My first words, first draft, first step into the army are always the most important. I can never ask myself to revise. Though I regret and doubt, I have total confidence in them. I can never ask a gun to take a bullet back. Countries go on, soldiers don’t, and it is the soldier’s job to make it so. That is the job description that I just signed up for.

In history class it’s always so easy studying war because there’s always a red and blue side and they both have lines representing the front and then they have nice clean cut arrows representing troop advances and it all cumulates to a very neat picture. You look at all those battles and all those photographs of war memorials and you say “That’s my ticket,” and then you look at the death count and to comfort yourself you compare it with the total amount of troops and you say “Well, it’s very unlikely.” You never realize that only the unlikely get memorials. Like that Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, it wouldn’t be nearly as symbolic if the soldier’s name were known. The president would never single out the tomb of Joe McGee and salute it. Only the unknown is revered and saluted and prayed too because none of us want to be forgotten so we do everything in our power to preemptively atone for what we might do. So what are we to do if we are to learn from the unknown yet everyone strives to be known; where are we going to get our ditch diggers? When do we cross the line from description to verbosity? I think that’s why a lot of people do things: out of some misplaced sense of duty that politicians and families always whine about, but where would we all be if we gave up on our dream of painting and went to join the German army? No, that’s why I joined the American Army because I wanted to serve my country and have men serve under me; I wanted the power and the respect that could never be achieved without a rank and an assault rifle.

Once you sign up, it’s a very short duration between signing and filing on to a bus racing to the training grounds. Life is lonely when you’re sitting in silence next to your brothers. No one is talking because you’re all fools: tricked by commercials, convinced by duty, attracted by honors, honored by glory, glorified by crossed staves. This is when the doubt sets in, when there’s no escape. Music, love, ideals, passion won’t stop a bullet. Duty, honor, country won’t make tomorrow easier than yesterday. Prayers won’t revive a comrade and tombs will reveal that the fallen have already been immortalized. No, there is no going back on this bus we’re on. The papers have been signed and notarized. Good Lord, I’m sorry for everything I’ve ever done and may you lead me to my end so that I may lie with you someday in your eternal home, but let me not let myself down or leave my brothers to die, and grant me the courage to face my destiny. Serenity be my guardian and let my sleep be clear and bless those that I may harm and let them forgive me in the end. Let me grow to know you and come to terms with what I may do and lead me unto purity in spirit and eternity in soul. Amen.

Matthew Dernbach lives in Naples, Florida and spends his summers in Fish Creek. He has recently begun his first term at Yale University.