Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

Publications

Interpretations

Res Publica

October 1991

by Nazalee Topalian

Once upon a time in a land called America, in a town called Washington D.C., there was a day of great celebration. America was welcoming her troops home from their honorable service in a recent war. As I woke that morning and reflected on my idea of the previous evening – to interview these troops asking only the most important questions – I failed to realize that these questions would be the most difficult for them to answer. I arranged my questions in my notebook: "What is your name?" "What did you do?" and, the clincher, "Tell me some stories." Thus prepared, I headed out for the celebration, not at all aware of what lay ahead.

The parade down Constitution Avenue was one of honor and pride and it shook the souls of every sensate American in the crowd. The American soldiers gallantly marching with their piercing eyes staring strait ahead, was indeed, a sight to behold. After the parade I began to walk, not really knowing in what direction, and was led to another part of the festivities. Here the soldiers were exhibiting their weaponry; everything from tanks and guns to airplanes were on display. As I looked upon this scene I saw Children seeking autographs from their new-found heroes, grandparents standing away from the crowd thinking to themselves, and parents with their video cameras filming children upon the tanks. It was then that I decided that my story was within this vicinity.

I began to interview some of the soldiers in view, and after 20 such interviews I discovered a pattern. When I asked, "What did you do?" They all turned the question around and said, "Well, what we did ma’am was…" Not one of them referred to their own glory. When I asked, "What did you learn?" they simply replied, "This is the greatest country in the world." There was not much to say in return. Yet, when I asked them to "tell me some stories," all eyes questioned mine, though their mouths told me the now famous stories of Iraqi soldiers surrendering in the middle of the night or simply replied, "I don’t know," and went on showing me their tank. The last soldier I questioned, however, took me by surprise. It was then that I began to learn the real lesson of the day. "Ma’am," he said, "my stories you have no right hearing." I was, of course, shocked by the frankness of his reply, and naturally, I wanted to know what he meant by it. I pressed him, but as the hour passed I heard nothing approaching a story (unless you count his description of the desert, which he called a "library").

I has not realized what I was asking these soldiers to tell me. I was right in thinking that I was asking the most important questions, but I didn’t see how difficult the important questions are to answer until this character I had been questioning began to question me. "Tell me some stories," he said, and I then came to see the difficulty. We all hold our defenses; we all have our inner sanctum. Later, after much discussion with this particular soldier, he told me that he could not tell the stories because they were "simply nothing you would want to write about." Whether or not that was true, or whether he just didn’t want it written about, I finally saw, was irrelevant. I realized how difficult it is for one to narrate stories—old the pages of one’s life and to let them be read by another. It was not that these men did not have stories to tell. I am sure they all did. The point is that these stories were their stories to tell or to keep inside. They were not in the public domain, and I did not have a right to demand their possession.

A war can guarantee the greatest of goods for a society, but it can also drag it through the worst of evils. When a victory is brought home however, we embrace the good and tip our hat at the evil, and rightly so. There are some things that deserve parades and others that demand an enlightened silence. No one has to tell the stories of what went through those soldier’s minds and hearts after the war, not even themselves. This is what needs to be understood; such things are already rightly understood. To quote once again, there are stories that, "Ma’am you have no right hearing." I did not have to hear them because I should have understood.

And yet, now, when I reflect on this page of my life I realize that I did hear them. I have once read that, fortunately, the soul has an unconscious, but still faithful interpreter in the eye. I read, well, all of their eyes as we conversed—except for one who frequently had to turn his eyes away from mine and, reader, you realize who he was. But even in his looking away his story was silently being told. In fact, I was told many stories that day, and even though vocally they were all the same, not one of them was in that telling silence. For how could they be? And so I did come across stories of…well, you already know.

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