Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Lost in Translation

“But to do this he [the mute, invalid M. Nortier] must have spoken?”
“He has done better than that – he has made himself understood.”

-Exchange between M. deVillefort and the Count of Monte Cristo

One of the most difficult things I’ve found as a member of the military is translating what we do, and what we experience, into a form that our civilian peers and supporters can understand. In many ways, we live in a world completely detached and separate from anyone not in the know, and inadvertently further isolate ourselves because of our cultural language and codes of behavior. This does not seem to outwardly bother many of my brethren, but for me, as someone who clings to the concept of the “citizen soldier” (perhaps an anachronism at this point in history) it provides endless contemplation.

The element I now appreciate most about my college experience was my continuous interaction with an incredibly diverse group of individuals. This was most manifest in my fraternity, where aspiring doctors, lawyers, investment bankers, journalists, actors and musicians gathered on a nightly basis to break bread, get into heated arguments, then head upstairs for a friendly game of beer pong or caps (don’t tell IFC!). From this I was exposed to a world of endless possibilities, and one that opened my eyes to the interests that held other people apart from my single-minded pursuit of the military. It gave me an appreciation for the breadth of talent this great nation of ours has on tap.

Yet even amidst this multitude of future professions, I, and eventually my brother, stood out. It was rare at Northwestern to see our type, and as with anything unique to the human experience, people were intrigued. We were the first ROTC guys within our house’s walls in nearly a decade. I remember my first long conversations during the initial rush stages being about why I chose this route, what the future held, what my obligations were. These inquiries continued for the next four years. For someone who had grown up with an inherent understanding of a military future, and obsessed with anything to do with military history, this seemed odd to me.

Slowly I came to realize that what I took to be normal interests were anything but. And the misconceptions surrounding the choice were vast. I was and continue to be intrigued by the gulf between the protectors and protected, figuring out ways to coherently communicate what this culture contains.

Yet for all my professed interest in the military arts, and the undoubted truth that all of my friends and acquaintances would upon asking say I am a military man in body and soul, my own personal view of what I do is much different. The best metaphor I can muster is to say I feel as if I am a deeply embedded journalist. Except that the reporting is not to tell a story to the wider world, but rather to make sense of my experiences to myself and provide a visible window for those not privy to what goes on behind it.

Remarkably, the depth of mistranslation extends well beyond citizens with no ties to the military. This separation of worlds extends even to those civilians, particularly spouses and significant others, who are privy to our daily goings on. This was made evident to me last weekend as I tried to explain a flight I had gone on that morning to the wife of a fellow aviator who I have known since my flight school days.

It went something like this: That morning, I had taken part in an Air Power Demo over the USS Nimitz for the friends and family day cruise that the carrier (also our all too frequent home) was hosting. We flew from Lemoore down to the waters off of San Diego, did our little airshow, and returned back to the Central Valley.
The twist was that instead of a beautiful day with which to wow the crowd of thousands, we had terrible weather with incredibly low ceilings, casting the entire program into virtual chaos. In the end this was for the most part transparent to the crowd below, as we made the required adjustments. But my intention was to relate this adventure to her.

I began by talking about IFR descents, to 2,000 foot overcasts. How our pattern required 3,000 of clear air. I was losing her. I tried to tell her how as soon as we streaked by the ship at 500 knots and my lead broke, he suddenly and unexpectedly disappeared into the clouds, leaving me gasping in shock (trying to do the whole hand thing to demonstrate). An uneasy smile, and simple nod. She was trying, really trying to empathize and understand. It just wasn’t happening. Needless to say, my inability to vocalize what happened effectively brought this line of conversation to an abrupt halt.

I was reflecting upon this on the drive home. Mere hours earlier, I had been hyped up on adrenaline trying to keep track of all the airplanes beneath the low undercast, zooming around a ship with more flashbulbs going off than I had ever seen in my entire life, trying not to let my nerves get to me as I simultaneously tried to push my refueling probe into a bouncing metal basket mere feet in front of me with a slow E-2 trundling less than a mile in front of us as a Hornet coming by at nearly the speed of sound for a “sneak pass” called his position just across the ship from us requiring an immediate spin by us so we wouldn’t collide. Whew. Then remembering the serenity of the transit over where all of southern California and a large portion of the visible Pacific was covered by a fluffy white blanket as my lead little more than a mile away was sending contrails off his jet in mesmerizing streams of vapor. I’m not even sure I would have truly understood this even as a flight school student a few years ago. How was I going to tell those that were curious how my day was?

And so the things we find exhilarating and marvelous and terrifying get stuck in our throats as meaningless mumbles when we try to express what we believe to be seminal events in our lives. Most of the time, a “good” or “fine” suffices when untranslatable moments occur. (that being said, I heard the best description of a night carrier landing the other day: “You want to know what a night trap is like? Walk outside with a friend on the darkest night you can, blindfold yourself, then have your buddy kick you repeatedly in the balls.” Nailed it!)

But there are also those elements that are beyond memorable moments.

One of the more senior officers in the squadron lives about a block North of me, and almost every day I come home from work, I see him outside with his kids. He was the former football player who married the high school cheerleader, then joined the Navy in a fit of occupational uncertainty. We wave as neighbors and colleagues do in cities across America.

Yet that scene of the father playing basketball and throwing balsa airplanes with his little son, shepherding his blond daughter around the driveway teetering on her bicycle, normal to most observers, is filled with something so much more. It is the father squeezing every last moment of time with his beloved offspring before he has to leave again. This time it was two weeks between month-long detachments. The next time it will be ten days. Then a few more weeks home, and then six months away, literally to the other side of the world. After two years of similar workups and back to back deployments. The mother and wife bravely sees her love off, knowing he will be back, understanding why he must go, but deeply pained nonetheless. She too grasps at the fleeting time that all too quickly disappears.

How does one capture that in an understandable way to a society that sees a weekend apart from someone as ruinous? How do you relate that you will have missed your two best friends wedding’s, those you’ve looked forward to since high school and college, because a war is going on? How do you communicate the sense of detached acceptance when the vacation with your whole extended family (many of whom you haven’t seen in six to eight years) you’ve planned for months becomes an impossibility due to a command requirement to be tethered near the base prior to embarking on a combat cruise?

This is not a call for sympathy. All of these individuals made choices they stand by. It is instead the exposition of the realities that encompass the cultural divide that is increasingly widening between our military and our civilian world. A gap, that if left to widen, will invariably lead to a mismatch in priorities between two symbiotic elements of our society.

My mom has a picture of some of our Air Wings airplanes flying over the Nimitz on her desktop at her desk in the front office of my old high school. She gets a lot of comments and questions from passerby’s, and at times has referred them to one story of mine in particular when they inquire what the photo is all about. She tells what one woman told her while reading it:
I was just sitting there, when all of a sudden I heard a shout from the woman who I had sent the story to.

‘Carrie! How could you ever let your son do that? I would NEVER let my son do that; its so dangerous!!!’

I stopped myself from rolling my eyes, and tried to explain, ‘Well, they get a lot of training, and they have lots of good people making sure they get down okay.’
She still couldn’t believe it.

Thus, even after seven years of near round the clock reporting, there remains a lack of understanding between those on the front lines and those in the embrace of Lady Liberty. Especially in a democratic society where volunteers fill our armed forces and are directed by civilian policymakers, it is essential our cultures are communicating, and perhaps even more important, understanding the experiences of the other. Easily said, but the “how” in finding that translation still remains.

1 comment:

allensgonavy said...

Thanks for this post Ben. It really helps put into perspective the Navy community's sacrifices.