Sunday, May 27, 2012

Making the Noise

There's a reason why motorcycles are called "crotch rockets."

They exude power. They exude manhood. They are too loud to ignore. They are the perfect vehicle for making a man (or a woman) feel larger than himself.

They go faster than any car you are likely to see on an American road, and they go places no car can go. A man on a bike can beat you at your own game. He is better than you. He is a force to be reckoned with.

Because of their size, and the way they handle, a bike becomes an extension of an individual in a way no four-wheeled vehicle can. You ride a bike not with your arms but with your body. You fit into place in a way you don't with a car.

In a car, you can move around on your chair, play with the radio, sip your slurpee. On a motorcycle, at ninety miles an hour, you are locked in like Iron Man into his suit. You move, it moves. There is no sipping your slurpee. There is this moment, this union, this experience, and nothing else.

It's like being on patrol. Every step takes you somewhere you haven't been. Or if you had been there, it is different every time. Every sense is alert. You can see the trees, and the sky, and hear the birds. You are one hundred percent there. You have to be. Because a wrong step, or a sudden surprise, can end everything.

It's something you can only recognize if you've actually done it. Words like mine can describe can give you feel for it. But you don't know it unless you've done it. And the people who know it are related to you, because they can understand that moment in a way that others can't. They are your family. They are your unit.

I was thinking last night about Rolling Thunder, whose annual ride to Washington has been a Memorial Day tradition since 1988. And why, in the mind of a certain generation, motorcycles and Vietnam Veterans go together. In fact, I tried to Google it. And while there is a lot out there about the history of the group, and how Ray Manzo and and Artie Muller got it going, there was nothing out there about why the motorcycles strike a chord -  except of course for the noise.

The other day I wrote about cowboys and MMA fighters as an expression of manly might. They are very different things.

MMA fighters are all about shock and awe. They go in "BANG," determined to overwhelm their opponent, paralyze him with fear, overcome his will to fight before he even gets started.

A cowboy is all about understatement. The gun is there. You know it's there. You can see it. You mess with him, he'll kill you matter of fact, but he'd rather not have to do that. What makes him strong is merely that you know him, and that you know that he is there.

From 1965 to 1968, the US government conducted an aerial bombardment campaign called Operation Rolling Thunder, a steady, escalating campaign of assault against carefully selected North Vietnamese targets, intended to persuade North Vietnam to cease its support for the communist insurgency in South Vietnam, to destroy North Vietnam's transportation system, industrial base, and air defenses, and to stem the flow of men and material into South Vietnam.

It failed to win the war, but for many veterans, it was the war. It involved the largest use of American military resources and manpower until Iraq, and determined, in many ways, the placement and actions of ground troops as well.

The term resonated with Veterans better than any other. And the image, of a slowly growing noise you can't ignore, resonated too.

Men on motorcycles say: "we are here." And a few thousand men on motorcycles say that with a noise nobody can ignore. In 1988, there were 2500. In 2000, there were 250, 000. In 2008, half a million. And today, the number is closer to double that amount.

Their purpose, of course, is to call attention to the ones who aren't there. The colleagues missing in action, or still in North Vietnam. To say, with the noise of a million motors, "they exist."

They've been pretty good at doing that. Raising awareness. Sponsoring search and recovery trips. Lobbying for legislation to change the way Congress and the military deal with MIAs, and helping veterans of the current conflict deal with the issues surrounding their own return or injuries.

This Memorial Day, see them.

Better yet, write to your representative in Congress, and ask him or her to listen to them.

Friday, May 25, 2012

A pre-Memorial-Day Thought

The United States of America is a mighty nation.

Our heroes are cowboys and soldiers, boxers, MMA fighters, and policemen. Not inventors or writers, or explorers, or priests, or diplomats. We define freedom, in part, as the right to bear arms. We stand our ground. And we condemn as cowards those nations that choose to sit out any particular conflict.

And we are a competitive nation. Whether buying the latest-model i-phone, choosing our favorite pizza joint or rooting for our favorite football team, we are constantly arguing that ours, or mine, is better than yours.

The Foreign Service is not exempt. A recent Secretary of State's Sounding Board discussion, which began with a suggestion that Foreign Service members be included in a law that allows military personnel stationed overseas to be considered none-the-less resident in their home state (for purposes ranging from homestead taxes, to being able to get an HHA mortgage, to in-state tuition for kids) quickly degenerated into a discussion of whether a soldier stationed in Germany sacrifices more for our country than a consular officer stationed in Iraq.

For the record, taken as a percentage of the total rather than merely the numbers themselves, almost as many FS members are injured or killed in the line of duty as soldiers. Many Foreign Service members are also veterans of the armed forces, and some continue to serve as military reserve members.

As we prepare to celebrate Memorial Day, it might be useful to remember that this day commemorates all Americans who have fallen in war, whether they were soldiers or civilians.

The parents, wives and children of those whose names are carved into the walls of the State Department did not feel less pain than the survivors of those whose names are carved into the Vietnam memorial two blocks down the road.

And the Foreign Service families separated from a loved one serving in Iraq or Afghanistan do not miss them less, or worry about them less, than the families of the soldiers who, in some cases, live and work side by side with Foreign Service members.

The military has a proud tradition and a broad political base and a really great public relations machine. And, in all seriousness, soldiers deserve both praise and respect. But the idea that, because they do, we do not, does an enormous disservice to many brave, proud and patriotic Americans, who do, indeed, voluntarily put their lives in harms way in order to make America safe.