|Roger Blum, 1966|
Only take heed,and keep your soul diligently,lest you forget the thingswhich your eyes have seen,and lest they depart from your heartall the days of your life;make them known to your childrenand your children’s children.
Glancing out of my window, I saw the color detail assembling. This was my last day. My inbox was empty, my outbox was full. There was a cardboard box of with memorabilia on a chair. I stood, picked up my hat, and walked out my office door.
“I’m going to step out for a minute,” I said to my team.
I went outside and stood on the steps of the building, yet another wooden structure built for World War II and scheduled for demolition soon. The uniform of the day was BDUs. I had the sleeves rolled up and was wearing polished black boots. Above the right pocket my name was embroidered. Above the left pocket U.S. Army was embroidered and above that were cloth black jump wings and a black Combat Infantryman’s Badge. My rank, a black oak leaf, was on my right collar and my branch, the crossed rifles on the Infantry, was on the left collar. I put my soft hat on.
I stood looking out over Monterey Bay. The flag pole was at the top of a parade ground that swept down towards the waterfront. A softball game was about to begin on one edge of the field. The setting sun was to my left and shards of light glinted on the water’s surface far below me. In the distance I could hear the barking of sea lions. I heard the electronic click of the public address system being switched on up in the Headquarters building behind me and the soft static as someone, probably the duty NCO, waited for it to be exactly 1700 hours. The color detail was positioned by the flag pole across the street from my office. At the first note of the bugle I heard a sergeant on the street bark, “Colors!” at other soldiers walking by. They, and the softball players, and I, faced the flagpole and stood at parade rest.
At the end of Retreat there was a pause of perhaps five seconds, then the bugle began to play To the Colors. I snapped to attention, my body erect and still, and brought my right hand up to the brim of my hat in a salute. The color detail began to lower the flag.
By staying in the Army so long, twenty-five years, I had become more of the infantry than in the infantry. Eventually all I did was write plans and orders, make analyses, and wait in places very far away listening to radios as other men and women were put at risk. I worked in offices most of the time and had to use my imagination to visualize the men that might be out there on point somewhere else in the world.
No one knew better than I that the operations in the Crow’s Foot, over the Wagon Wheel, and others like it, were, in the end, not very important. Nevertheless, over the years I invested significance into them if only because I was there and I was a witness to them. What we, all of us, did was simply what infantrymen do, what they have always done. We went for a walk, heavily armed, and tried to kill other men while keeping from being killed, and owned, for however brief a moment, a piece of dirt.
If I traced back all my life the only morally significant choice I could find on the path that led me to those places, and from there to other bloody places, was the choice to put myself at risk. But I had done it so many times before that it didn’t seem particularly important that I had done it again. More than that, I found it very hard to tease out along the braided chain of causality just why I had made that choice in the first place.
Of course, I had not been alone out on my walk. On this day, as I watched the flag whip in the wind as it was drawn down the pole, all of my fellow infantrymen were volunteers. But it had not always been so. For much of my service most infantrymen were conscripts with ideas of their own about life and the military. In fact, many of my generation had subscribed to the idea that war, all war, did not make sense, and because war did not make sense, wars should not be fought. We were the first, and possibly the last, generation to think so. Nevertheless, once I, and those few of my generation who fought, began to dig foxholes, sweat pouring off our bodies, fear dilating the pupils of our eyes, we would agree that, for the moment, that particular idea was irrelevant.
Of this much I could be sure. We went where we went because we had been told to go. We were ensnared in a web of mutual obligations. This was both our curse and our comfort. By virtue of what I had become, I made choices not only for myself, but choices that brought death to those who were my enemy and to my own men. Just as I was being put at risk by those above me, I risked the lives of the men below me and with me. All I could do to resolve this paradox was to — not resolve it. The best I could do was simply know the paradox was there — accomplish the mission, take care of the troops.
So what would I, or they, have at the end of the day? Well, if nothing else, if we lived, we would have our stories. And that would have to be enough.
A member of the color detail stepped forward and grasped the flag at the exact moment that the last note of the bugle sounded. I dropped my salute and watched him unsnap the flag from its halyard. The rest of the detail dropped their salutes and stepped forward to fold the flag. And then they marched away.