Pushcart 2020 XLIV: Dan Pope, “Bon Voyage, Charlie” from Bellevue Literary Review #35

Charlie Company was shipping out. Blair arrived for the sendoff ceremony at the Community Center a few minutes before 11:00 PM and set up his gear – the soft-boxes and reflectors, the backdrop for portraits – in a corner of the gymnasium. The enlisted men were spread around the bleachers and banquet tables in their fatigues, chatting with wives and girlfriends, mothers and siblings. Along the opposite wall, VFW old timers were serving hot food out of trays, wearing their ceremonial caps.
Blair was on assignment for the Hartford current to get a pictorial for the Sunday magazine.

I’m always uncomfortable with stories about the military. First, it isn’t a world I’m familiar with. That brings its own problems, in that we as a country have a small subculture bearing the brunt of sacrifice for decisions made by people at high levels of government who may have never themselves served. It’s a lot easier to send someone else’s kids into war. And second, there’s an aura of sanctity around the military promoted by the phrase “thank you for your service” and profiles of wounded warriors on Veteran’s Day that makes arguing about the use of military intervention a touchy subject. Nobody wants to hear they lost their son, or their own body parts, in a war about the price of oil.

That’s exactly where this story goes.

Blair is a former soldier, now photographer, who’s pretty cynical about the send-off for Charlie Company that he’s been assigned to cover. Since he served in the first Gulf War, he knows something about what the kids are in for, and has some cover for his negative attitude towards the operation, which seems to be some phase of the Iraq war. The story uses photography as a structural element, beginning and ending with photo shoots that cover the beginning and end of one man’s military career.

In spite of my discomfort with military plots, I’ve read such stories that affected me greatly. This one seemed too obvious, and I was curiously unaffected by what should have been a devastating story about a newly married soldier’s fate. The parallel implication about Blair’s war wounds, less visible but still profound, also left me unmoved. I never felt like he made sense to me as a character; his choices reflected necessities of plot, rather than of character.

That’s why I’m uncomfortable with this particular military story: I feel like I should feel something, yet I don’t. Not only does that feel vaguely unpatriotic, but, worse, I’m blaming the story. I wonder what it is that I’m missing.

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