Said Sayrafiezadeh: “A Brief Encounter with the Enemy”
01/19/2012 § 2 Comments
Originally published in The New Yorker, January 16, 2012.
“To get to the hill you have to first take the path,” begins Sayrafiezadeh’s story, with the plodding pace of logic laid out before it. “The path is narrow and steep and lined with trees that are so dark they could be purple,” he continues, “and so dense it feels as though you’re walking alongside a brick wall.” These descriptions are so ordinary — bricks are form-fitting, no? — that they’re immediately in conflict with the ominous title, and indeed, the next few lines are tinged with unseen worry: “You can’t see in and you hope that no one can see out. The first time I went up the path it was terrifying.” And yet, at the same time, they remain at odds with themselves: the “in” and “out” seem to be reversed, and the implication from “the first time” is clearly that the path is no longer frightening. As one who has never served, this nonetheless seems like an adequate description of what it must be like to be on high alert and yet ultimately without incident. (Consider Average Joe’s reactions to Homeland’s color-coded threat levels: fear of flying turns to frustration with TSA “frisks.”) Here’s the author’s hypothesis, then: “Fear can’t persist unless you have at least a little evidence to sustain it. Fascination can’t persist either. What can persist, however, is boredom.”
Boredom, as we’ll come to understand, is the very thing that Luke was hoping to avoid when he enlisted. Twenty-seven, slightly out of shape, working a drag-and-drop data-entry job, and casually rejected by the women he’s interested in, he unidealistically joins the military for all the “wrong” reasons (although I suspect self-improvement is in fact the only right reason), and then finds himself far removed from the “action.” He finds himself to be afraid of combat, too, flashing back to the first time he ever shot a gun with his father and decided he “didn’t want anything more to do with it,” and along with the majority of his troop, works “slowly and incompetently” on building the bridge that will lead them to the path that will lead them to the hill that will supposedly take them to the enemy. (“We had colluded in our own demise…. [The hill] looked like a place where you could easily bury fifty bodies and no one would know.”) So it comes to pass that, five months into his one-year tour, his unit is left with nothing to do, save to patrol the hill. He starts to get fatter, improves his bowling skills (there’s an alley at their camp), and stops returning his potential girlfriend Becky’s often redacted e-mails, as he’d rather use his allotted fifteen minutes of Internet to look at porn. Development, arrested: war.
But there’s a third act to this story, the one the title’s been long-hinting at. It’s the day before Luke ships home courtesy of American Airlines, and he finally notices someone — “A tall, bald, fat man, maybe fifty, maybe younger: the enemy.” Never mind that this man is 1.1 miles away (according to his toy-like gun, which “could have been a squirt gun, except for the fact that it told you things like the time and the temperature. Plus it could kill a man from a mile away”), and that he’s walking with a goat. If anything, “his nonchalance irritated me. It flew in the face of my boredom.” Luke’s entire year is so invalidated that he feels he has no choice but to shoot the man: “Poof,” goes the gun, down goes the man, only now he’s described as “the boy . . . he fell straight down as if he were melting into the ground in a puddle of blood.” And with the act so “accomplished,” he considers what he’ll tell his father, to show what he’s made for himself in the last year. “Nothing. I’ve done nothing,” he says, backpedaling in shame from his own actions, and straight to this final, dispassionate line: “The next day we flew back home in style,just like we’d been promised.”
What Sayrafiezadeh’s telling us is that war is just as human as any of us: as irritable, irrational, and ultimately flawed as any one of us. We ourselves do not know what we want, and yet we march into battle against others who are just as lost, and accomplish . . . what? Perhaps in the past, we could be proud of liberating people who wished to be free, or of preventing horrific, genocidal crimes, but stripped of those “right” reasons, we’re left with something worse than brutal: we’re left with something banal. To die for a cause is one thing, but to kill without one? Of course, much of this is me interpreting Sayrafiezadeh’s words through my own liberal filters — what’s missing from this story is a stronger sense of purpose, although I suspect that’s in many ways a reflection of Luke’s aimlessness. Then again, as with many stories whose style reflects the point, this is what I’d call Pyrrhic prose, and I wish the story were a little more active in espousing some sort of philosophy . . . or is it that in Sayrafiezadeh’s world, there’s nothing left to take a stand for?