We live on the southern flank of a mountain. Over the course of time, you lose track of that fact because you can’t actually see it from where we are. When I drive over to my neighbor’s place on the other side of Andrew’s Brook and look back towards the farm it is impossible to miss, rising like a dark animal from the forest of hardwoods that spread around its base. You can catch glimpses of it from various angles as you move around the valley but it always catches me be surprise, knowing that we live right up on it without ever being aware of just how close it is to our lives. The reality of our day to day life is tied so closely the place where our story unfolds that it is almost impossible to separate the two. And so we farm our side of the mountain in the way that fish swim through water, immersed completely in our place without having to consider it consciously. It takes perspective to understand where you’ve come from and to see where it is you are heading.
When I arrived at my permanent duty station at Fort Bragg I was assigned to a unit within a few days along with three other men my age. New soldiers coming in from a replacement detachment are the closest thing you will ever experience to being a human widget. No one cares about your dreams or aspirations, no one calls you by name. You are simply a cog in a machine, a head to fit a helmet, a body to fill the ranks. Until you have jumped with the battalion or participated in an exercise you were just another cherry waiting to get popped. Within days we were called out to suppress a riot at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania that had been used to house the Marielitos, Cuban refugees expelled by Castro in order to clean out his prisons and mental wards in the Spring of that year. We were marched down to Green Ramp for a briefing and issued aluminum shields and black painted wooden batons, our squad leaders were given shotguns and boxes of shells and we clambered aboard C-130’s headed north. It was mid-Summer and the story was that the men confined to the WWII style barracks had grown tired of the same chow and bunks that we had come to appreciate on post. They’d begun by attacking their guards and were in a full-blown revolt, threatening to escape the confines of that facility unless we were able to control the situation. When we disembarked we were driven to the camp in open bed deuce and half trucks, each of us alone in our thoughts, visors raised and our faces turned to the breeze. From a distance, you could see pillars of smoke rising from the camp and you could smell it on the wind. It was a hot day and we wore battle fatigues and jump boots, LBE’s and fanny packs. When we were formed into companies our platoon sergeant barked out a few orders, gave a quick demonstration of how to engage the crowd with our batons, expressly warned the NCO’s only to fire when ordered and then he fell back in with the rest of the company and we moved out. Our shields were lowered, visors turned down and we marched with a slow and steady cadence; left foot stamping down, right foot dragging at a 90-degree angle behind, a stomp, drag, stomp, drag that magnified by 120 other soldiers gave us the sound of something formidable, an organic machine filled with ominous intent. With each step we took, we would rap the back of our shields with the tip of the baton in unison, a sharp crack to emphasize each step forward. You could hear the crowd before you could see it, that rumbling babble of males in groups, like a crowd at a game, punctuated by higher pitched commands and yells in a language that was not our own. The MP’s from the base had set up a jeep with speakers mounted on top and a young officer in khakis was speaking in Spanish to the mob just out of sight. The only words I recognized were “paracaidista” and “ochenta y dos”. The 82nd Airborne had a reputation that set itself apart from the Army in general and the officer hoped it was universal. Called America’s Guard of Honor and referred to as “The All-Americans” they had distinguished themselves again and again in both combat actions and peacetime operations around the globe. Not everyone got in — it was strictly a volunteer unit that maintained a requirement that all members be on active status and jump periodically regardless of rank or job description. It was not unusual for a private be seated next to a Two Star General on a jump and both were treated with equal deference by other units in the military. Despite my status as a FNG I was still a part of a well-oiled machine with a specific purpose and the entire unit marched forward deliberately with a singular purpose. When the first elements of the mob spun around the far end of the barracks they were jumping and screaming, some of them holding weapons fashioned from broken bunk beds and ruined buildings. I can still remember how much fear I felt at that moment; these were not teenagers after the big game, they were angry, grown men, former inmates in communist prisons, mental patients with deep issues that had never been addressed and they were at a fever pitch under the hot Sun. But at the same time that we saw them, they saw us. In that instant, all the sounds, the acrid sting of burning mattresses, the steady vibration of 200 boot shod feet hitting the ground at precisely the same second, the heat, the sweat, the rolling clouds in the blue sky above us all came into such clear focus that the World simply stopped in its tracks. I was a part of something much larger than myself, we were our own animal a unified, terrible wall of men in a formation more than two thousand years old and we were formidable. You could actually feel it thrum between your shoulders, an electrical charge of energy that fed each one of us individually and fed all of us collectively. The sound of our boots on the street, the crack of maple against metal the unified chuff of each breath that you could hear as if it were your own suddenly became the only presence in my thoughts and in that instant, you could see it move like a lightwave out and away from us, traveling tsunami-like towards the Marielitos.
And that was it.
They dropped whatever they were carrying, they broke and ran, hundreds of them turning from a raging mob into a scattering of individuals who no longer had any common purpose, only the singular desire to save themselves. The local MP’s were able to mop up the mess without further trouble, the worst of the offenders handcuffed and removed, the fires put out and order restored. Not one shot was fired, not one man was so much as tapped with a baton.
We were back in garrison before chow, everyone pumped so full of excess testosterone and adrenaline that you could have wired us to a lamp and blown out the bulb. There was an excitement and fraternity that hummed across the parade field and the four of us who had arrived as cherries just days before were now referred to by name and were smiled upon as if we had always been there. We were the Recon Platoon of the Combat Support Company, 2nd Battalion of the White Falcon Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division of the United States Army. We were All-Americans. I did not realize for many years what had happened that day, having witnessed the power of a unified narrative on the actions and psyches of much smaller number of men up against a mass of individuals without much by way of shared purpose. Boredom and restlessness are not sufficient alone to prompt men to conflict beyond the limits of simple mayhem. It is one thing to smash a few windows because you are angry or to set a fire in a trash can because everyone else is doing it and quite another to walk one step after another face first into a seething mob of violent men without missing a beat.
One of the most important lessons I have learned living up against the side of this mountain is that we are just another piece of the puzzle. Humans are no more unique or important than the stately oaks or the flocks of robins that populate our small holding. We are simply another species trying to make itself at home in the environment and while our lives are lived as individuals and families, the bigger part of everything we have ever achieved has been done on a level we barely understand. We behave like a herd even if we don’t perceive ourselves in that way because that’s just how our species survived. Most of our actions aren’t done on the personal level even if that is how we see it. What we’re doing at any given moment is connected to something much bigger than any of us and we follow along, the same paths, the same forms, the same beliefs and thoughts as everyone else around us, a part of an organism that lives its life on the sacrifices of the many. It has its own story, its own needs and its future and if we choose wisely we are allowed to stand in its ranks and share that destiny ourselves. Each of us needs their own particular story to make it through life and we repeat it daily; I am a hard worker, a good father, a loving husband. These simple descriptions and the actions that follow from believing in them help us to form the character that serves us throughout our lives. If we fail at these, over and over, again and again then we become something else and no amount of reassurance can ever repair the damage. What we tell ourselves we are we must be or else we fail. It is no different for our collective consciousness. You can scold Americans all day long that “that’s not who we are” but if that is how we behave, then that is who we are and our Narrative must reflect it or else we fail as a Nation.
America is in the midst of a great division. That there are two sides, irreconcilable and filled with hatred towards one another is no longer deniable, but a fact of life. The USA has come to an existential crisis that hasn’t been seen for over a hundred and fifty years and it will not heal itself, cannot be compromised nor abated and will only grow in the coming months and years. The problem is not so much with the character of the people, not even the politics or the ideologies, but in the deep and profound divorce between The Narrative and The Reality. Our history can only be written after its passing, but our future is shaped by the story we tell ourselves today. What we see in our day to day lives must align closely with The Narrative or things go bad and when they do The Narrative must change. Just like a child who discovers that Santa Claus is really Mom and Dad there is no reversion to that earlier time simply by repeating the tale when it is no longer believed. It is this passing from one reality to another that is at the root of our discontent and our societal implosion. On the one side, it is clear that The American Dream, that anyone can be whatever they want to be is simply not true, that the divisions between the ultra-wealthy and the impoverished are not surmountable simply by pluck and grit but are heritable conditions for all but a few. On the other side, the well-worn trope that “Diversity is our greatest strength” is a fabulist dream built from the same material that the Cargo Cult uses to construct its bird gods. We have moved down different paths and the old stories we have told ourselves about who we are have changed as completely as the demographic make-up of our nation. We are not united and this is no longer the home of the free and the brave. We cling to these well-worn tales because they used to be true, but they are fake news today. Just as the MSM will never again reclaim its reputation and integrity any more than a whore could once more be a virgin if only people would believe in it, our collective truths must be aligned with reality rather than wishful thinking and platitudes. We are past the point of trying to keep up the charade and it is past the time that we admit to ourselves, if for no other reason than for those who will follow, The Narrative has failed.
All human societies have a story that is unique to them. Each one tells not only of their history but their trajectory as well and it works until it no longer reflects the truth. Pax Romana was believed until such time as Tacitus quipped: “Where they make a wasteland, they call it peace.” This tale that we tell ourselves is The Narrative and the closer it lies to the reality of our lives, the more effective it is in the way we follow our destinies. America has had more than one Narrative and as its shape and composition has altered, so too has its story. Liberty! was followed by Manifest Destiny and in turn by Westward, Ho! At times our narratives diverged, Union Forever and its twin brother States Rights were as real to each portion of this country as anything that came before and in many ways as enduring as anything that has followed and perhaps lies ahead. The Melting Pot has become a seething cauldron that threatens to boil over. And while we cannot escape our time, we can prepare for a future that is inevitable and calls to us as a clarion bell through the cacophony.