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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

The Look By Chris Brecheen (Part 4)

The Look (Part 4)
By Chris Brecheen

Continued from Part 3

Part 1

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.

“Mr. Easton,” he said.  “Let me articulate this as succinctly and precisely as I possibly can without using overly complex vernacular: get the fuck over yourself.”

That’s all I got out of him that day.  

That night, I saw him reading Jane Austen.  I couldn’t believe it—a hardboiled marine sitting down to read Emma after dinner.   He had this tattered old paperback—the kind they stopped even making twenty years ago, all dog eared and falling to bits.  He turned the pages lovingly and made sure not to open the book too far.

“You like Austen?” I asked him.


“It’s a little hard to follow at first because the writing,” I said.  “All that British crap.  I used to read a lot of Mark Twain myself.”

“Twain was fifty years later and American, Mr. Easton,” Erik said.  “ weren’t exactly contemporaries, and they don’t compare particularly well.”

“What’s your favorite book of hers?” I asked, changing the subject.

“Pride and Prejudice,” he said without pausing or looking up.

“That’s a good one,” I said even though I’d never read it.  “Why do you like it?”

Without looking.  “I’m quite familiar with it.  It feels like....home.

“Home?” I asked. 

He nodded, still not looking up.  “I have this blanket on my bed that I took from my parents when I moved out.  It still kind of smells like my dad’s cooking and North Carolina after a spring rain.  Whenever I’m on leave, the first thing I do is I get under that blanket, take a few deep breaths, and I know I’m home--even if I'm in my apartment in Phoenix.  That’s what Pride and Prejudice is like.  It’s like home.”

“Did you read it in high school?” I asked.

He set down Emma and turned toward me.  “No.  I did not read it in high school.  I did my master’s thesis on how Austen preconceives a number of Derrida and Foucault’s ideas of gender and patriarchy long before either of them articulated those ideas.”

He wouldn’t have surprised me any more if he’d pulled a fish out of his satchel and just slapped me with it.  I would have to look up Derrida and Foucault later that night on the interlink, but at the moment I nodded and pretended to follow what he was saying.

“Why aren’t you an officer?” I asked.  “You are clearly well educated. You’re exactly the kind of person they want leading.  They love talking about their master's degree officers.”

“Actually I have a PhD in Literature too.  “I just did my master's thesis on Austen.”

“You have a doctorate?” I asked, incredulously.  “Why the hell are you here?”

“That’s my issue with you, Mr. Easton.  Right there.  This is why I just let you blather the miles away earlier today, and I don’t particularly want to converse or tell you my story or treat you with deference or whatever you seem to think you are entitled to.  I stun your sensibilities because you already have a notion of how the world works.  The fact that you’re flabbergasted to such a degree that I’m educated or that I’m not an officer demonstrates not only that you didn’t consider the possibility, but you presumed the opposite.   You have a bias and you run everything through that filter.  Sure, you can technically call what comes out the other end “true”, but only after you’ve done your best to filter out the facts you don’t like, and added your interpretation to what’s left before you serve it up.  What you end up with is technically accurate, but it is not truth.”

“Personally,” he said holding up his paperback.  “I’d rather read someone who’s brilliant at telling the truth with fiction than someone who creates fiction using facts.”

That pissed me off.  “I just ask the questions,” I snapped.  “I ask the questions and get the story.  That is truth.  Just because you don’t want it to be true doesn’t mean it isn’t.”

He laughed at that.  But those steely blue eyes never left me while he laughed, and that tripped me up.  “You think Socratic method precludes bias?  You think you can’t be biased with who you ask.  With what you ask?  With what kind of answer you’re pretty sure you’re going to get before you ask?  You think asking some enlisted marine if they’re career when they tell you they’re on their second tour or asking why they aren’t an officer when you find out they have a PhD doesn’t demonstrate that you have yet to even consider the idea--that it hasn’t even occurred to you--that I might actually want to be here.  That’s not truth, Mr. Easton.  Accurate perhaps, maybe even true, but not truth.”

Then he went off on me for what was probably less than a minute or two but felt like a half an hour.  “I hate you, Mr. Easton.  I hate everything you represent.  I hate your prejudice.  I hate your articles.  I hate your bias.   I hate the way you leave out stories about the hell we go through because you’re too busy pointing the camera at everything we shoot at.  I hate that you never mention the cost of doing nothing—to our allies or to us or the stability of Eastern Europe or even central Europe.  I hate that you ask the questions only of the people you know will give you a particular kind of answer...”  I lost track of all the things Erik hated, but I remember the last thing he said.  “Mostly though, I just hate your smug little sense that you’ve got the world figured out, and all you need to do is show people how wrong they are to get them to fall in line.” 

I’ve got two Pulitzers for my work in China during the peak oil wars.  I toppled a corrupt regime in Latin America.  I don’t--that is to say I didn’t--really buy into the whole biased media thing.  I figured it’s like that old adage.  If you live in Barbados or you live in The Ukraine, England seems very cold or very hot respectively and you are technically correct in your assessment based on the world as you know and understand it.  I figured Erik was just some neocon warhawk, and that to him, I looked like a moonbat.  You know the right still pulls that “liberal media bias” stuff from that study back in the 20th century.

But we were done for the night.  I just left him to Emma and went to bed.

“I should get another liaison, ” I said, early the next day after we were on the road.  “I might feel better about being protected by someone who can't expound for a half an hour on the reasons they hate me.”

“Good luck with that,” he said.

“I just ask the questions,” I said.  “That’s all I do.”

“Your questions are a filter.  Did you get the impression, when you read Socrates, that he lacked an agenda?”

“I guess not,” I said.  I hadn’t actually ever read Socrates, but I wasn’t used to having military liaisons spank me intellectually.  I’d done similar things to soldiers over the years, but it was a little different being on the receiving end.  Actually it was a lot different.

I sort of wished he would go fuck himself.

We drove a little ways along the western bank of The Danube in silence.  Periodically I spotted the riverbed, but it was late March, so the water was down a few more feet.  It was probably an hour or two later when I finally broke down and said to him, “You honestly think I’m biased.”

“Honestly,” he said.  

“Then why did you say you were happy about my articles?” he asked.

He shook his head and drove on in silence.

“Sergeant? I’m serious.  I want to know.”


“Erik,” I said.  “Please.  If this is really a thing, I actually do want to know.  You’re telling me that something I’ve prided myself on for years isn’t actually true.  I’d like to hear why you think that.”  I think it was probably the most emotionally honest thing I ever said to Erik Hoffman.

He glanced at me sidelong.  Understand, this was something he never did before or after that moment.  

“You really do, don’t you?”

“Please,” I said.  “I’m a lot of things, but I’ve never thought unfair was one of them.”

He drove for a while, and then he started telling me a story.  “Qasim, the only fight I’ve ever gotten in Stateside was at a flag burning.”

“I know that sort of thing can be hard to watch,” I said.  “You spend a life defending something and someone is destroying the symbol of what you hold dear—”

“I genuinely wish you’d desist in your presumption,” he said.  “I didn’t fight the people burning the flag.  I fought one of the marines I was on furlough with--a Corporal named Derrick Anderson who had a big nose and would go twenty-five miles out of his way to buy a proper New York style hot dog for lunch.  You know, with the pickle wedge instead of relish and ketchup.  We come up on these guys lighting up a flag to protest the occupation of Bolivia, and Derrick just loses it.  He wants to dive in swinging.  He’s talking about how he wasn’t going to let them desecrate it and between us we had the training to take them all out in one shot, and don’t they understand what the cost of their freedom was.  

“I tell him not to be so myopic.  Defending a piece of cloth rather than the very ideals it represents is the most blind patriotism I’ve ever heard of.  Isn’t it awesome that we live in a country where people don't get prosecuted because they have something nasty to say about the government?  In all of human history, only a few people can really say that.  But Anderson just won’t get that.  He tells me he’ll do it himself, and smashes his beer bottle into a shiv just like you see in bad movies.  (Erik paused here like it was uncomfortable to keep going.)  So, I just I slam my balled fist right into the bridge of his big ol' nose a couple of times times until he topples over like a stack of magazines.  His nose is fountaining blood.  I’d broken it.  My knuckles have the blood all over it of a guy I shared a foxhole with for three days in Szeged. 

“Do you even have the slightest conception of how that felt, Eastman?” he asked.

I shook my head.

“All the little malcontents who were burning the flag started cheering Anderson’s fall,” Erik continued.  

“One of them comes over with a beer and asks me to join them.  I grab him by the shirt and pull him close.  ‘Get away from me you fucking son of a bitch,’ I scream at him. ‘You come near me again, and I won’t stop just because you fall unconscious.’  I did take the little shit’s beer, though.  I crack it open, and I sit there.  I use my interlink to call for a cab so we can get Anderson to the I.C.U.  I wait for the ambulance, sip my beer, and I watch the fire burn up that flag.  And I feel...so proud.  For me, that moment was truth.”

He paused for a long time.  I thought maybe there was more, but after a moment he asked, “Do you understand?”

“I don’t,” I said.  

Erik sighed, shook his head, and eyes fixed back on the road. “It’s emblematic.”


“It embodies or symbolizes a situation,” he said.

“You know I actually do have a working vocabulary.  I meant I don't understand what it's emblematic of.”

“Why’d you become a reporter?” Erik asked, changing the subject.


“I became a soldier because I wanted to defend something more important to me than my personal opinion of what my country ought to be, who ought to be running it, and what they ought to say about it.  When I think of how people have the liberty to say whatever they want...I just....need to protect that.

I nodded.

“See, when I look at you, I see someone who wants to change the world.”

I smiled a little at that.

“Careful,” he said.  “It's not a compliment.  You can't change the world if you don't already have an idea of what you'd like to change it into,” he said.

“You don't think the truth changes people?”  I asked.

“Absolutely I do,” he said.  “Especially if you only show people half of it.”

“That's just not fair!”  I snapped.

“What made you want to be a reporter?”

“I dunno?” I said, shaking my head.  But at the back of my mind, I was thinking about kids.  I was thinking about the woman and her Psychic Ninja Squirrels kid, that day in the restaurant when I caught my reflection in the mirror, and how I went straight to the SF Chronicle the next day.

“Bullshit.  You don’t get into journalism today if you don’t fucking well want to be in journalism.  Print media is dead.  Low pay.  You’re up against interlink bloggers half the time that do it free for fame and kicks.  You land a gig like this one and you might scrape out a living sending war reports stateside, but it’s low pay, zero glamour, and dangerous as hell.  You must have had a reason.” 

I shrugged, and I thought of pulling that kid out of the way of the onrushing van.  

“Okay, let me ask you this: did you want to understand the world and report on it,” he asked, “or did you mean to change it?” 

“I don’t remember,” I lied.

Concluded in Part 5

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