(University of Kansas, Lawrence, Kansas, September 2009)
The US Marines’ Officers’ Program is trawling for candidates in the campus lobby. Two of them have perfectly-shaved heads, wear the same black t-shirts, combats and boots. One is half the size of the other, almost like a comedy duo. A third wears full desert camouflage and desert boots, has a buzz-cut top and shaved back-and-sides, almost Mohican-like. They have installed a bar for pull-ups. So far, it’s only been women who’ve taken up the challenge. While tattooed slackers sneer into their laptops, a young, tanned blonde woman in shorts and flip flops hangs from the bar, doing pull ups. The Marines stand by with their arms at a muscle-bound distance from their sides, saying, in the porno-speak of exercise: “Nice! Yeah! Work it!”
Just as the American girl does indeed work it, works it good, a young Somali woman passes, wearing a black hijab and a kind of shirt overcoat. The all-encompassing / covering shirt has desert tones, ochres with shades of black in it, like arbitrary borders, or the black stitching of jagged, bad wounds.
Ten minutes after the blonde girl has gone, as a way of keeping busy and to avoid having to stand around like the member of some recruiting sect, the big, six foot six marine begins doing gung ho-esque pull ups, his size 14 boots lunging madly into space. His shirt says, Pain is Weakness Leaving the Body, and his eyes have the look of non-secular certainty.
Every time I pass through Kansas City airport, I see young, white soldiers who are neither officers, nor elite, nor Marines. Once their bags are checked, they sit in desert uniform, looking into space. Among the business men on their laptops, the women talking on their smart phones, the civilians compulsively checking their Blackberries for the last time before boarding, neither ignored nor fully acknowledged, the soldiers occupy a different space. Once, I saw the youngest US soldier I have ever seen: white, small, thin, acned, saying goodbye to a young woman with a baby, who was either girlfriend or young bride. They couldn’t have been more than eighteen. He seemed both proud and embarrassed of his uniform – and of himself, his family – why he has to wear it.