First-Class Guilt

By

On a recent flight home from a veteran friend’s wedding in Honolulu, I sat in an aisle seat in coach. Two college-aged boys sat beside me. They had long, muscular legs and necks wider than their heads. Maybe they were football players, wrestlers. Why they were large doesn’t matter—what matters is I knew the flight would be more uncomfortable and cramped sitting next to them. As we taxied, a male attendant walked the aisle asking repeatedly, “Do we have any military families on board?” No one replied.

Although I thought I knew what he meant—veterans, or spouses or children of veterans—I didn’t say “yes” or raise my hand. The question was vague, and I didn’t know why he was asking. (Also, being a former soldier, I am always hesitant to volunteer. You see, in June of 2001, when I was seventeen, I volunteered for six years of service in the Army National Guard. I ended up spending eleven months in modern-day Mesopotamia. I’ve been more careful since.) The attendant walked to the back of the plane and then returned and stood near the security exit a few rows up. I overheard a conversation he was having with a passenger about how some of the first-class seats were open and they were offering them to veterans or their families. After a few minutes, he walked down the entire aisle of the plane asking the exact question again. I didn’t say a thing.

It’s not that I didn’t want the seat. Maybe it’s my personality coupled with the burden of the identity each person takes on when they become a “veteran,” but I didn’t want to announce that I was a veteran to a bunch of strangers on a plane. In situations with friends or family, it can be awkward when someone announces, “Yes, Hugh here is a veteran” or, “He was in Iraq.” In almost all instances, either no one knows what to say or they thank me. Obviously it differs from veteran to veteran, but my preference has always been that if someone wants to sincerely discuss Iraq, soldiering, the war, I’d just like to talk one on one, not spontaneously in a group setting where I usually have a few minutes to sum up my experience and explain my version of the war. In the presence of strangers however, the brief looks of attention are too overwhelming and although I truly like discussing the war, soldiering, and so on, I prefer not to have to do it with a stranger on a plane as an audience overhears everything. (I will admit that this “issue” of when and where I discuss my service is incredibly minor. Just ask a Vietnam veteran how they were treated after returning to the States.)

Sitting in that seat, I imagined what to do. I could be the loud, motivated type and raise my hand: “Sir, I am a veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom Two reporting for a first-class seat.” Or the more direct “Yes, I am a veteran.” Or maybe the proud “I served honorably in combat in the war in Iraq.” A logical person might ask, “Why not just relax and ask for the seat?” It seems simple in retrospect, but there’s not much related to the Iraq War that’s been simple for me.

***

The plane took off. After twenty minutes or so, as the same attendant began distributing drinks, I leaned out and held up my hand to stop him. He bent down, attentive.

“I have a question.”

“Yeah?”

“Did you say there’s seats up there? I’m an Iraq veteran—”

He cut me off. “Oh yes. You should’ve said so earlier. Come on up.”

He waved for me to follow and led me toward the front of the plane. When the curtains separating coach from first class parted over my shoulders, I was relieved to make the transition so subtly. The attendant pointed to a back row of first-class seats, and I sat in the one by the window.

“Fish or roast beef?”

“No, I don’t want to buy anything.”

“It just comes with these seats. You should get something.”

“Okay.”

“The fish or the roast beef?”

“Roast beef.”

firstclassroastbeefAfter a few minutes, the attendant set a tray with a blue placemat in front of me. A fluffy roll rested on a white doily beside the plate. Steam rose from the roast beef wedged against a mound of mashed potatoes drenched with mud-colored gravy. I thanked the attendant.

Because I was briefly involved for just under a year in the Diyala Province in northeastern Iraq, this warm plate of roast beef awaited me. That was why the seat was so wide and why I had all this space to myself. But I had deployed only once to Iraq. When so many others, including friends of mine, had suffered two, three, four, five, or more deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan, why should I be the one enjoying this seat’s comfort? Given that less than 1 percent of Americans have served in these wars, it seems laughable to feel guilt over this fact, but it’s there, always fluctuating with my mood. I can complain about the tight space back in coach because I still have a set of arms and legs; many others who’ve come back from these wars can’t say the same. Others haven’t come back at all.

***

I justified taking the seat not as an “award” or “perk” of being a veteran, but because of the practicality of it: I’d be giving more room to those larger men in my row. It was the polite thing to do. It’d make everyone’s ride more comfortable. This was not a way to pat myself on the back, but to create a concrete, legitimate reason why I should take the seat for reasons other than being a veteran, being in a war. Raising my hand to inform someone I fought in a war in exchange for a wider chair with more legroom feels, to say the least, strange.

During this war, we’ve had 4,804 coalition deaths and over 100,000 civilian deaths—there are so many different estimates and speculations on the number of Iraqis killed during this war that it’s hard to find an accurate count. We have tried to comprehend the number of dead in many ways. The Eyes Wide Open exhibit, which began in 2004, displays a pair of empty boots for each soldier who has been killed in Iraq; the Iraq Body Count Exhibit traveling memorial has placed over 100,000 white and red flags, representing Iraqi deaths and American deaths respectively.

One memorial that tries to communicate the effects of war, at least on the American side, is the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall, which lists the names of all U.S. service members who died or went missing in action in that war. The experience of seeing the names along with your own reflection in the black gabbro stone is one attempt to try to understand that many deaths.

In Larry Heinemann’s novel Paco’s Story, a minor character named Jesse has a different idea of what a memorial should do. A Vietnam veteran, Jesse imagines a “Vietnam War Monument” that would be located on “a couple acres of prime Washington, D.C., property…” and made “with Carrara marble…the whitest stone God makes.” He then explains the remaining details in a long-winded tirade over coffee and a bowl of chili:

In the middle of all that marble put a big granite bowl…about the size of a three-yard dump truck…Collect thousands of hundred-dollar bills, funded by an amply endowed trust-fund, say, to keep money a-coming. Then gather every sort of ‘egregious’ excrement that can be transported across state lines far and wide—chickenshit, bullshit, bloody fecal goop, radioactive dioxin sludge, kepone paste, tubercular spit, abortions murdered at every stage of development…shovel all that shit into that granite bowl and mix in the money by the tens of thousands of dollars…Then back way up and hose down the sod.

He suggests Americans could come and “take off their shoes, roll up their trousers” and wade through all of it, the reward being that they could keep any of the money they found. Although Jesse’s suggestion could obviously—I imagine, at least—never happen, the argument behind this “memorial” is clear: we sugarcoat war and rarely touch the blood, shit, and death it produces. We Febreze war like it’s the inside of a gym locker.

***

It would be melodramatic to say I stared at that impeccably presented first-class meal and thought of any of this. I didn’t at all. Somewhere though, in my subconscious, I felt a strangeness, a Beckettian absurdity. The row to myself, the absence of others, the curtain that separated me from coach—all of it reminded me too much of the gulf (no pun intended) between civilians and the realities of these past ten years of war.

firstclasssoldiercrowdOn a superficial level, I did enjoy the physical space to stretch out and relax, but it was also the comfort and quiet of first class that made me sense the guilt that might not have surfaced had I stayed in the claustrophobic coach section. Sometimes mild and sometimes extreme, it’s a guilt I confront each time someone thanks me or offers me a perk for my veteran status like a free seat, a complimentary meal, a parade, a round of applause at the airport. But I tell myself: We as veterans need these small, sometimes insincere and shallow acknowledgments, because otherwise when would we know the civilian population even considers our war(s)? Paradoxically, although I know this treatment makes many veterans feel respected and welcomed, it sometimes seems to me laughable and pathetic to participate in a war where hundreds of thousands (if not more) died and then be greeted with a wider seat and a warm meal.

Many times, just inside my head, I’ve argued that we need fewer of these gestures aimed at veterans—free meals, free upgrades, parades, applause, even thank yous (which are often sincere)—and more, at the very least, reflection on and acknowledgment of the horror and death soldiers and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan experience. I think most veterans would prefer to be “honored” and “respected” by having fewer issues with the VA. By having a civilian population that’s more informed about the nuances of these wars. By encountering fewer people who are, or just seem, indifferent. By being sent into other countries with more careful consideration and planning (books like Fiasco by Thomas Ricks and State of Denial by Bob Woodward, illustrate this better than I can). The treatment of veterans has improved since Vietnam, but there is ample room to do better.

In W.H. Auden’s poem “Musee des Beaux Arts,” the speaker discusses the story of Icarus, who he sees in a painting by Breughel. As Icarus flies too close to the sun, his wings melt, and he falls from the sky to his death while “the sun shone / as it had to…” and “the expensive delicate ship…had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.” The suffering happens, as all suffering happens, “while someone else is eating or opening a window or walking dully along.” Just as our wars go on, those who aren’t close to the threats or close to those going overseas will always have trouble feeling a sincere concern for the suffering that takes place. But many veterans and Iraqis can’t end things, like most American civilians, by turning off a screen.

firstclasshelmetsbootsThe longer I am away from my experience in Iraq, the more complicated it becomes. When people ask questions—“Should we have been there?” “Did you see progress?”—a “yes” or “no” always oversimplifies the situation. Maybe I avoid discussing it because many times I feel that whatever I can say, even the concrete stories I have to tell, just can’t ever come close to doing the war justice, to telling the truth about something so complex, as entangled with multiple perspectives as the enormous webs of telephone wires we drove by while on patrol.

A yellow ribbon, a parade of bright flags on Memorial Day, a wide seat, and a free meal—all of it seems too neat, too hollow and futile, in comparison with the suffering and death war brings, specifically these last ten years of war. Yet I didn’t move back into coach. I didn’t send back the food. Eight years after my time in Iraq, I hate that I myself am one of those people “eating or opening a window,” or in this case, flying “dully along…”

In Dostoyevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, Kolya says, “It’s funny, isn’t it, Karamazov, all this grief and pancakes afterwards.”

Or roast beef.

What could I do? I was hungry. I cleaned the plate.

***

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden.


Hugh Martin is a veteran of the Iraq war and the author of The Stick Soldiers (BOA Editions, Ltd. 2013). His work has appeared recently in The Kenyon Review, The New Republic, and the New York Times’ At War blog. Martin has an MFA from Arizona State and is currently a Stegner Fellow at Stanford University. More from this author →