Kristen Carella, Professor of English
It’s just a few days before Veteran’s Day, and that has had me thinking about my friend Kayah. I met Kayah in basic training at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, in June 2001. Since her last name starts with “Bu” and mine with “Ca,” the felicity of alphabetical order meant that we almost always stood in formation next to one another and that she was frequently my training partner. We stayed in the same unit throughout basic training and then in advanced training in Fort Huachuca, Ariz. We got to know each other well and bonded in all the ways you might expect, given the austere environment of military training. I haven’t spoken to her in a long time, and remembering her now reminds me of how much I miss her.
Kayah was Hopi, from a First Nation tribe in Arizona. As I got to know her better, I became more and more curious about her life and her culture. So, one evening after a long day of training, heading back to the barracks, I asked her a million questions: What’s it like where you came from? What does it mean to be a Hopi? Was it a difficult decision for you to join the Army, given what the U.S. government had done to Native Americans over the course of our nation’s history? Etc., etc.
She stayed silent for a long time after I finished. Eventually, in response to my last question, she simply said “No.” I figured she was just being unassuming. So I, always curious and an academic through-and-through, pressed the matter. I asked all about the Reservation, all about her culture, her native language (did she speak Hopi?), what kind of food they ate, what kind of work her parents did; on and on. When I finally stopped, she asked me a pointed question, with a slight but unmistakable tone of irritation in her voice: “Why do you want to know this stuff?” Undeterred, I talked about my intellectual curiosity, my interest in other cultures and my belief that knowledge leads to understanding-the typical line of argumentation one would expect from a Western academic. I was both legitimately curious of and desirous to show my respect for her culture by trying to learn more about it. To my surprise, that sentiment got me nowhere. In the end, she told me almost nothing and suggested instead that I visit the Mesas (i.e., the Hopi Reservation) sometime if I really wanted to learn something.
For a long time thereafter, I was baffled about why she wouldn’t tell me anything about her life and culture. Much later, years after I left the military, I found out why Kayah acted the way she did. I learned that the Hopi don’t like to share stories about themselves with outsiders. They believe it’s best to know only what you need to know and that too much knowledge can be a bad thing; too much knowledge can sometimes even harm people. My long list of questions was, therefore, not merely intrusive and arrogant; they were, from her perspective, downright dangerous. Needless to say, that flew in the face of the fundamental pillars of my own belief. For me, as an academic, all knowledge was good. Ignorance is what caused the most harm in the world. In the end, I let it go, but I didn’t get it.
This is the reason I think of Kayah especially on Veteran’s Day. I don’t think I understood her perspective, her reasons for not wanting to answer my questions until I left the military and experienced Veteran’s Day as a civilian. My discomfort, even visceral aversion to the holiday, is hard to explain.
The first time I experienced the feeling was at Atlanta International Airport, getting off the plane for R&R leave. There were people cheering for us, I didn’t know what to say. Less than 48 hours earlier, I had been on the streets of Baghdad; to me, there didn’t seem to be anything to cheer about. It was disconcerting. I know the people cheering were trying to be respectful, and I appreciated that. But, I was confused and I wanted to get away from them. I wanted to be kind to them, to accept their well-intended gestures. Doing that, then and now, is easy enough on the surface, but I don’t ever want it to become a conversation. I don’t ever want to answer any questions about the war, about my service. None of it. When people ask, I don’t say it, but I think, “Why do you want to know this stuff?”
What happened in the war, what I did in Iraq and Kuwait between February 13, 2003 and February 17, 2004, is nothing anyone who wasn’t there needs to know, or even could know whether they wanted to or not. That knowledge wouldn’t help them anyway, and it might actually do them harm. For example, what good could possibly come from satisfying the curiosity that some folks always seem to have (and some even ask about outright) if I were to answer the question “Did you kill anyone?” Likewise, how could anyone describe the countless days and months of epic boredom punctuated by a few, short moments of explosive, near-death intensity; and how you sometimes find yourself missing the violence because at least it breaks the boredom, and then you feel guilty about missing the violence because that’s when people die, both people you love and people you’ve never met. It’s better for us both, I think, if you don’t know the answer to those questions.
Politely smiling at all the Veteran’s Day comments and thank-you’s, and brushing off questions with platitudes as I usually do, doesn’t seem right to me either. The flag, the sentimentality- all of this in a country that’s rapidly getting mean. Honestly, it’s hard deal with. Patriotism is complicated, as every thoughtful soldier knows. Patriotism means a lot of things nowadays to different people: ranging from the most noble and selfless ideals embodied by people I deeply admire, to the deplorable imprisonment of asylum seekers after separating them from their children “as a deterrent”, to denying Muslims entry to this country because of their faith, to the ongoing attempts to disenfranchise African American and Latin/x voters in the Southern states, to the repeal of basic civil rights protections for the LGBTQ+ community in the name of “religious freedom”. To the callous disregard of sexual assault victims’ testimonies; to the vile chants of Neo-Nazis and Klansmen in Charlottesville, horrifically proclaiming, “Jews will not replace us!” All these people call themselves patriots- a word they also apply to me whether I want it or not.
It’s one thing to risk your life for your country; It’s quite another to kill for your country in support of a cause, and as is true for me regarding the Iraq War, in support of a cause you believe is wrong. You do your duty and then, if you’re lucky, you come home and then you live with it. I don’t think anyone needs to know about all this stuff, and—to be sure—I don’t want to tell you much. I don’t mean to be disrespectful, so I’ll just smile and remain silent. Some things are good for people to know, and as I learned from Kayah, some things are not. Curiosity itself isn’t necessarily a good thing, and I feel no obligation to satisfy it. Here’s the truth: I went to war for all kinds of reasons, some of them noble, some of them not. I was scared a lot and I missed home all the time. I did a few things I am proud of, and plenty more that haunt my dreams- things that put distance between me and the person I see in the mirror, even now. I could tell you about all this stuff, but I don’t think that would be good for either of us. Truthfully, I think it’s best for us both if I just say nothing.
Kristen Carella is a Professor of English at Assumption College.