by Keith Johnson
Somewhere in America, a seventeen-year-old boy is living the last year of his life.
He is in the first semester of his senior year. His grades have been good, and he expects to have enough credits to finish school early. He feels like he’s been in school his entire life. But he has no regrets. Along the way, he has made many friends. He took up an interest in baseball and found that he had a talent for playing the drums. He is in his prime. He’s lean, fit and healthy. His mind is sharp and he has an insatiable appetite for life.
He has also fallen in love—for the first time. She is the most beautiful thing he has ever seen. He thinks about her all the time, and pines when she is not near. When they are together, they share wild fantasies about how they’d like to start a family and go into business for themselves selling sporting goods. He also wants to start a band—just for fun—and perform on the weekends at local venues.
Today, an Army recruitment officer gave an inspirational speech at his high school. The guy looked sharp in his clean, well-pressed uniform. He had a shaved head and two full sleeves of colorful tattoos on his bulging, tanned biceps and forearms. The boy had never considered a career in the military, but he did find a certain romance in it. Apparently, so did his girlfriend. As they left the gymnasium, she made a comment that unnerved him.
GIRL: He was kind of cute.
GIRL: Well, there’s something about a man in uniform.
GIRL: Yeah…don’t get mad.
It was the first time he felt angry with her, and the first time they’d ever crossed words. He was overcome with feelings of jealousy, which caused him to say a few things he would later regret.
The drive on the way to her home was uncomfortable. When they got there, she leaned over to kiss him. But he did not reciprocate. Instead, he clenched tightly to the steering wheel and stared straight ahead. She stepped out of the car and slammed the door behind her as he screeched away from the curb. It was their first fight.
When he gets home, he steps through the front door and sees his father—glaring at the television—watching another one of his boring news programs.
BOY: What’s up, Dad?
DAD: Same sh*t. Goddamn Moozlims want to build a Mosque at Ground Zero. Can you believe that sh*t?
BOY: What’s a Mosque?
DAD: A place where they train terrorists.
BOY: Well…that’s no good.
DAD: No…it ain’t. I’m telling you, Son, if we don’t kill every last one of those Moozlims, they’re gonna take over the world. They breed like rabbits. Killing them all is the only way to stop them. If we don’t, they’re gonna institute Sharia law right here in the good old USA. And that’s no kind of world you want your kids growing up in.
BOY: What’s Sharia law?
DAD: The law of the jungle. These savages like to cut people’s heads off…especially Christians.
The boy retires to his room and clicks on the television. “Inglourious Basterds” is on HBO. He’s seen it before—many times—it’s one of his favorite movies. Quentin Tarantino is his favorite director. Brad Pitt is his favorite actor. And this is his favorite scene: where the “Bear Jew” is about to bash in the brains of a Nazi with a baseball bat.
The boy reaches under his bed and grabs the baseball bat that he’s used to hit many home runs. He looks it over as he works his hand across the wood. He isn’t thinking about baseball. He’s thinking about how he’d like to take that bat to the head of that military recruiter. But he quickly dismisses the idea. That would be foolish. But, damn, he sure would like to bash someone’s head in right now. How about one of them Moozlims? Dad wouldn’t have a problem with that.
BOY: Yeah, now that’s a good idea.
After the movie, the boy puts “Call of Duty” into his X-Box. He hasn’t played video games since he started dating. It was a good distraction. It kept him from obsessing over his girlfriend. To his surprise, he found that he was still a pretty good shot. In fact, it was as if he’d never stopped shooting. Over the past few months, he’d been regretting all of the hours he wasted playing games. But today, he wondered if it really was a waste of time? What if he could put these skills to work in the real world?
The next day, he pays a visit to the Army recruitment office. The same man who gave the speech at his high school gives him a warm welcome as he walks through the door. He has a strong handshake. The guy calls him “Brother.” The boy likes that. He never had a brother of his own.
The recruiter puts the boy at ease with his quick wit and raunchy sense of humor. He talks to the boy like a man, and the boy starts to feel like one. The recruiter tells wild stories about his adventures overseas. Then he rolls up his sleeves and shows the boy his tattoos. There’s a wild story behind each one of them too.
Then they got down to business. The recruiter tells the boy he could make up to $100,000 in his first year.
RECRUITER: Free housing, free food, free travel, lots of vacation time, up to $70,000 in education bonuses and another $20,000 signing bonus. Plus, you get free health care for life!
The boy is impressed, and then asks what the odds were that he would see any combat? The recruiter assures him that he would never have to step foot on a battlefield if he didn’t want to.
BOY: But I want to be on a battlefield. What’s the point of being a soldier if you can’t fight?
The recruiter straightens up in his chair and then rises to his feet. He gives the boy a stern and solid look.
RECRUITER: Brother…you don’t know how rare it is to find men of your courage. Most guys who come in here are just looking to make some easy money. But you’re different. You’re a different breed altogether.
BOY: I just don’t want Sharia law to come to America.
RECRUITER: That ain’t gonna happen. Not on my watch. Not as long as I have brave men like you fighting alongside me.
The boy is hooked. He was now a man, and about to become a very rich man in a very handsome uniform. That was sure to impress his girlfriend.
Later that night, the boy drives over to see his girl. He apologizes to her and presents her with a bouquet of roses. Then he tells her his plans. She cries.
GIRL: Is this all because of that stupid thing I said about that Army guy?
BOY: Well, maybe in the beginning. But if it weren’t for what you said, I would have probably passed up an opportunity of a lifetime. Jobs are hard to find these days. A few years in the Army will be good for both of us. We’ll have plenty of money and all sorts of benefits. Plus, they’ll pay my college tuition. I can take business courses, accounting…everything. I’m going to need to know all that stuff if we ever expect to open a business of our own.
GIRL: But I’ll never get to see you.
BOY: Not true. The recruiter said I get lots of vacation time and free travel anywhere I want to go.
GIRL: I don’t know.
BOY: Please…I know what I’m doing. But I need your blessing.
GIRL: Well…I guess you would look cute in a uniform. Way cuter than that ugly bald guy.
They laugh, and then they embrace.
Months pass. He is now out of school and has just celebrated his 18th birthday. He has passed his physical with flying colors and is preparing to be sworn in at the local VFW.
Dad is proud, and has already placed a “Proud Parent of a US Soldier” sticker in the back window of his F-150. Mom is in tears, but she is proud of her son as well. His girlfriend is taking pictures with her iphone.
After the ceremony, the boy walks up to the recruiter. They shake hands. The boy calls the recruiter by his first name and thanks him for all he’s done. The recruiter seems different now, as if he’s turned into a whole new person.
RECRUITER: Yeah…don’t mention it. By the way, you should probably get used to calling me Sergeant. OK, private? Now, how’s about you start making yourself useful by helping to fold up these chairs.
The next day, he prepares to board a bus. He’s on his way to boot camp. He is no longer a free man. He is property of the United States Army. He embraces his parents for the last time. He gives his girlfriend her last kiss. Then he boards the bus, never to be seen alive again.
Several months pass. It’s Thanksgiving Day in Afghanistan. The boy has learned that real combat is not like the kind waged on an X-Box. The opponents are a lot harder to kill. In fact, they’re way better shots than he could ever hope to be. These guys have never had toys to play with. They’ve been playing with real guns that they’ve been building from scratch since they were five years old.
There’s no pause button either, and you have to work a lot more body parts than your index finger and thumbs.
It’s hot, and he hasn’t bathed in a week.
He’s never heard screams like the screams he’s heard here. He’s never heard women cry the way they do here. He’s never seen children’s body parts carried away in the mouths of skinny dogs before. None of these images, or sounds, were ever shown on any of his video games. Nor were the smells…
…the stench…that goddamn stench. He’ll never be able to shake terrible smell. War has a unique flavor. It’s like gasoline mixed with blood, urine and sh*t. It hangs in the air. You can see it. Sometimes your mind plays tricks on you. You can almost swear that the stench clouds are taking on a life of their own. You see faces in the smoke, like demons or ghosts.
He came here to kill Muslims. But now that he’s here, he doesn’t want to kill anybody. He just wants to stay alive…and go home as soon as he can.
He’s forgotten all about Sharia law. There is no law here at all. Right now, he’d welcome any kind of law that would bring order out of all this chaos.
Something just bounced off his chest. Was it a bug? It stings. He feels like he just wet his pants, but her knows he didn’t pee. Is it sweat? He feels down around his waist. He looks at his fingers. There’s blood. He refuses to believe that he’s been shot. There must be another explanation. Then he feels a shooting pain, as if he’s been run through with a sword. He feels around his back for evidence of some kind of metal shank. But there is none.
BOY: Mommy, I need to come home. Can you come and get me? What the f#ck am I saying?
He’s tired. He feels like a million insects are crawling around in his body. Maybe they’re there to help. Maybe they’re putting things back together.
BOY: Thanks, guys. Wake me up when…
He feels detached from his body. It is moving on its own. He is cold. He lies on his back and reaches for a blanket that isn’t there. He stares into the stench and breathes deeply. Now he’s urinating…and he’s deficating as well.
As he lays there dying, he isn’t thinking about patriotism, causes, America or any of that sh*t. This was a big mistake…and he wasn’t prepared to make this sacrifice…ever.
Before the light goes out in his eyes, the last image that flashes through his mind is a crisp vision of the beautiful girl he left behind, and the last word that passes from his lips is…”Why?”
The following week, a 68-year-old Senator in Washington D.C. has just finished his breakfast. He scolds his maid for putting sugar in his coffee. He’s on his way to the floor of the Senate to introduce legislation that would increase the troop strength in Afghanistan. He climbs in to the back of a Lincoln Towncar. He’s making one stop on the way to the Capitol. He has an appointment at the spa for a rub down and a manicure.
Across town, a 61-year-old Republican Congressman ducks out the back door of his mistress’s townhouse. He’s in a hurry to meet with a lobbyist from AIPAC.
In Texas, a 64-year-old former US President, who lied his nation into a war with Iraq, tees up a golf ball at an exclusive country club.
In New York City, an arrogant, 61-year-old political commentator for FOX News prepares to do a demonization piece on Islam. In the meantime, he lurches over a young female intern at the water cooler and creeps her out with his unsolicited flirtations.
None of these old men have seen a day of combat, but that hasn’t stopped them from causing many deaths.
They all had a nice Thanksgiving. All the kids were there. It was a nice break from all that hard work getting these wars in order.
Back home, the parents of the young boy have just learned of his death. Their lives are over.
Two months later, the parents fly to a special ceremony in honor of fallen soldiers. At the same time the parents are being seated, the President of the United States is in a back room, watching a game on ESPN as he jokes with Secret Service agents. An attaché comes in to tell the President that it’s time he made his entrance.
PRESIDENT: Sh*t! Oh, well…let’s get this thing over with. Put this game on pause. I’ll be right back.
The President puts on his “game face” and goes through the motions, offering his condolences to each parent as they take turns shaking the hand of the man who killed their sons.
When it’s over, the President returns to the back room.
PRESIDENT: Turn the game back on.
Before he takes his seat, he uses anti-bacterial soap to wash his hands. He hates touching strangers. As he washes his hands, he also washes his mind of the parent’s faces and the names of their dead children.
A year has passed since the boy died. His girlfriend has moved on. She’s no longer into guys with uniforms, and she’ll never date a soldier again. She’s met a much older man. He’s divorced. He owns a sporting goods store and plays in a band on weekends. She lost her virginity on the second date.
Nine months later…another soldier is born.
Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, Senator Lieberman!
Merry Christmas, Congressman Boehner!
Happy New Year, Mr. President!