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Courage: Getting on the Plane is Easy; It's the Before and After

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The fallen of our present conflicts, starting with Afghanistan in October 2001 and Iraq in March 2003, have received recognition and outpourings of gratitude of a constancy and scale America has never before seen. This has nothing to do with the rightness, wrongness, politics or official declaration of any war. It is a function of technology.

Twenty-four-hour, real-time, pre-Twitter coverage of war began with the Persian Gulf War of January 16 to April 6, 1991. It's widely acknowledged that the Gulf War launched CNN in earnest as a bona fide and, until the last year or two, the definitive news network. For me the advent of the wars of my lifetime was indelible, for on the evening of January 16, 1991, I was at an opening for a Fabergé exhibit at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art; war was in the air but not on the TV listings, and I returned home to continuing coverage of Peter Arnett reporting before a backdrop of night-goggle green tracer fire. I was wearing knee-high dress boots with uppers of brocaded tapestry with fine gold thread, an olive green suede miniskirt, and an ivory silk blouse under a lambskin jacket. You remember the bookmark days, you wore them.

I remember the start of the Afghanistan war on October 7, 2001, officially branded by the Bush Administration as Operation Enduring Freedom, which, as of today, has run 11 years, 7 months, and 20 days; I remember that bookmark because a military advisor in the Capitol sharply advised me not to follow through with a business trip to Beijing and the province adjoining North Korea. I understood: the spectral pure emptiness of the sky not a month before -- plaid with contrails September 10, a silent void on September 11.

How far we had traveled, by the night I thought nothing of going ahead with my scheduled return on the last flight home to California out of Salt Lake International, and found that I had the airport virtually to myself. The concourses were open and somber, an air of anonymous life in the balance, like the surgical wing of a great medical center. It took me a minute to get it: The commencement of military operations over Iraq had been openly broadcast well in advance and on this night -- March 19, 2003 -- millions of people had canceled their plane tickets, left work early, and nested safely at home in front of CNN for the screen-shielded redux. I was one of only three passengers who had kept our tickets on an otherwise perpetually overbooked regional jet; the psychology of terrorism, and our Norman Rockwell ideas of security, absorbed my thoughts from seat 1A the entire hour and twenty minutes under a serene moon, waning from full but, in the still clear air, bright enough for the barren earth to cast sharp shadows far beneath the belly of our plane. Media terrorism, meaning an inexplicable public countdown to the bombing of Baghdad, had effectively frightened Americans into their burrows -- when the safest times to fly are those immediately following a terrorism incident, or act of war. The skies are never safer, the checkpoints never more absolute, the pilots never more vigilant.

The dome of light pollution over Las Vegas, 200 miles away -- now, that was disturbing to contemplate.

It was the quietest, most beautiful and probably the safest flight I've ever boarded, and on this Memorial Day I finally understand the quality of courage of, for example, Easy Company, 2nd Battalion of the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division, the "Screaming Eagles" immortalized in the HBO miniseries, Band of Brothers. Every war has them, the aged veterans of Easy Company or of Korea, Vietnam and since -- those who find themselves serving the strange, ineffable life mission of spokesperson for every service member, witness and next of kin since the Battles of Lexington and Concord. Including the theatres of war of the World Trade Center, American Flight 77 and United Flight 93.

They refuse to call themselves heroes. To a person, they quietly and simply insist that the heroes are the ones who never made it home. Jumping out of flak-pocked planes under fire? You just did it. You lost sleep the night before over how you packed your parachute. You dug your foxhole frantically in frozen soil under enemy fire. Courage?

They stop there; we cannot possibly understand.

An Air Force veteran could only say to me today, finding it almost impossible: "You'd better be sure who you're voting for." His eyes were filled with tears. This, we can understand. This is the very reason I have always found voter apathy, meaning we the supposedly ever wiser, responsible survivors, hardest of all to reconcile -- even harder to take than widows, parents and little children kneeling to whisper, leave flowers and grieve at the white gravestones of Arlington. Climbing on a plane is easy. Courage of conscience, the lack of it every four years, is terrifying.


Photo of my father's grave, United States Navy, Memorial Day 2013 ©Jana Bailey Deucher.