By Chris Brecheen
Continued from Part 2
“Been in the military long?” I asked him.
Silence. I asked again in a louder voice, but he didn’t answer.
“Sergeant, do you have some sort of problem with me that I should know about?” I asked.
“Erik, we have two weeks of driving and no radio. Do you think maybe, if you want to think that I’m a monster, we could talk about sports or something. Just because I don’t automatically consider everything a soldier does above reproach or that taking an unwinnable war off of Germany’s hands maybe wasn’t such a bang up idea doesn’t mean we have nothing in common.”
“I need to know I can trust you, Sergeant,” I said. “If you hate me this much, what’s to say you don’t just dump me off with some Belgrade PMC unit or something—”
“Seven years,” he said flatly without taking his eyes off the road.
“What?” I asked.
“Seven years,” he repeated. “In the military.”
“So…then this is your second tour?” I asked.
“How’d they rope you into that?”
“I know a lot of guys who got scammed,” I said. “They go after poor people with uneducated parents and dangle a college education in front of them. Poor kids sign up thinking they’re going to get a good job when they get out, but they don’t know to read the fine print and they get forced to take as many tours as the military wants them to. Not only that, but can’t they get their money because it’s a bureaucratic nightmare. I hear it all the time. Is that what happened to you?”
“No,” he said.
“Oh?” I said.
Silence. I’d been in firefights that weren’t this frustrating.
“Career then?” I asked.
“Sergeant Hoffman...... I would love to know your story,” I said. “I’ve been writing a longer piece about people affected by this war. Who would be more affected than the soldiers in it?”
That always gets them, you know. Even if one minute they think you’re just a pinko tree hugger, everyone wants someone to tell their story. That’s why you get so many people telling you everything about them when they find out you’re any kind of writer.
“I’m fairly certain that you wouldn’t,” he said.
That threw me. Everyone thinks their story is going to be fascinating, and that I’m dying to hear it. Sometimes they didn’t want to tell me because they figured I’d just call them a baby killer, or sometimes I was pretty sure they were worried that maybe I wouldn’t. I’d never seen someone think I wouldn’t be interested though. “Why wouldn’t I be interested?”
He just shook his head a little.
“Oh come on,” I said. “You can’t say something like that and let it hang.”
“I’m actually reasonably comfortable with doing just that,” he said.
“Come on!” I yelled. “Is this some ‘you want us to lose’ crap? Because that’s just not true. My editorial about us getting into Germany’s war are about foreign policy not the boys in blue. Honestly I’m a little tired of that song. I don’t want us to lose; I want us to stop fighting...and dying, and I don’t find the idea of Serbians cheering our withdrawal so horrible that I’m willing to sacrifice a tens of thousand more young men and women and yet another generation of debt to avoid it.”
“Is this about the fact that I reported the dollar cost of maintaining hostilities? Because the taxpayers—you know those guys you’re supposed to be protecting half a world away--they were being lied to by the DOD and the Pentagon. We’re in debt to our ears for three generations at this point because we’re trying to police the world, and if pointing that out is giving ‘aid and comfort to the enemy,’ like those idiots on Face the Nation said it was, I’m sorry but that’s crap.”
At that point I knew I was railing, but it was more entertaining than watching the miles go by in silence. “Are you one of those ‘don’t tell me how to do my job’ types, Erik? I’ve met a few of them. I don’t usually get paired up with them, but I know they’re out there. They think that anything they do is okay as long as it kills some ‘bad guys.’ Yeah they got real pissed off last year when I did the collateral damage piece. All that crap about political will back home and ‘why’d you have to do a whole section on the preschool?’ ‘Those photos were so horrible.' Like it’s a bad thing if the country actually knows the crap it’s elbow deep into. But if you think those blowing up thirty-five kids should just get swept under the rug, then I’m not sorry. Those soldiers who think the modern media should back off so they can raze villages like the good ol’ Vietnam days are--”
“You presume,” he said.
“What?” Honestly, I was just shocked he’d said anything.
“I don’t think any of those things. I’ve let you go on and on saying about thirty miles of suggestions that are patently offensive and completely wrong, just because what...I don’t want to chat?”
“Yeah,” I said. “You’re just being a little cool. Four hours of the silent treatment isn’t at all unusual.”
“I’m pleased you ran those stories. If we can’t do our job with a camera watching, we probably shouldn’t be doing it.”
At that point I didn’t know what to say. We drove on for a while.
“If you liked those stories, then why…”
“I didn’t say I liked them,” he said.
“Yes you did.”
“No, I didn't.”
“You just did.”
“I said I am pleased that you ran them. I didn't say I liked them.”
“What’s the difference?” I asked.
He just drove quietly for a moment, and I thought we’d gone back to the silent treatment, but just before I was about to try another angle, he spoke: “Presumption, Mr. Easton. Your presumption is the difference. That’s why I’m pretty certain that you do not want to hear my story.”
This didn’t make any sense to me. “What does that even mean?”
“It’s a little like an assumption, but involves drawing a conclusion with only part of the information.”
“Oh for god’s sakes, Hoffman,” I yelled. “I know what the word means. I’ve been a professional writer for twenty-two years. I mean what the hell does it have to do with anything?”
Silence. I tried to just endure it because I’d had enough of his shit, but after another hour I finally caved.
“What’s your problem with the stories if it’s not some objection to their content? You didn’t like the prose? Maybe I use too many adverbs?”
And at that point I thought of something. I was pissed and trying to get a reaction, and I’m not sure exactly why I said it. He was so cold, and it occurred to me that it might not have anything to do with the thin red line crap, but maybe it had more to do with passive aggression about what I was rather than who. “Are you a neo-racist, Sergeant? Is this because I’m black?”
He slammed the brakes right there in the middle of the road. The jeep screeched to a halt out on the highway on some Austrian mountain road in the middle of god knows where, with god knows who around and watching, and he turned to face me completely.
Continued in Part 4
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