Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Servant or Sovereign?

I was once caught speeding in England. Near Portsmouth, actually. Being an American, I tried to talk my way out of the ticket. I explained to the constable that I was late for work. He didn’t blink an eye. He did fill out a nice form though, taking a good 20 minutes, which he explained would “satisfy your superior.”

I’m sure that my blank stare confirmed the young man’s suspicion that I was yet another incomprehensible yank.

What was incomprehensible to me was the notion that I might have a “superior.”  In America, we’re all sovereign citizens. None better, none worse. Created equal, equal in the eyes of the law, equal in the eyes of our fellow man. We fought more than a few wars over that notion, and I fought in some of them.

I went and voted this morning, before returning to my smoking keyboard to try to clean up this wretched piece. I’d written most of it, you see, over the last few days.

It’s been a very hard column to write. It very nearly went wrong several times and may still have turned out badly. I’m sure someone will let me know.

I don’t care what your politics are or who you vote for. None of my business and I’d be unprincipled and wrong for asking. I do care, though, whether you’re a servant or a sovereign. I’ll never ask that, either, but I’ll always care.

Frank Callihan Elkins
May 25, 1939-Oct.12, 1966
Panel 11E, Line 68

I started ‘pre-writing’ this piece a few weeks ago.

I found myself in a hospital bed, whole blood running through plastic tubes into my arms. I was a few quarts low.

There were reasons, but as usual in medicine, there were no simple reasons. The causes depended more on how my body responded to the blood than to anything else. So did the prognosis. I didn’t care very much. “Don’t mean nothin’,” I kept telling myself. I was very tired.

The next morning they filled the other bed in the room with a young fellow who sported a pair of blood tubes, too. We nodded, exchanged meaningless greetings. I was too far gone in my fatigue and ennui to work up any curiosity.

The lab techs came and took more blood. How would they ever top me off if they kept draining it out, I wondered?

Visitors came. For the other fellow. His parents, I think. The nurse pulled the privacy curtain  and I zonked out. When I woke up it was night. The hushed, agonizingly long night of hospitals everywhere. The soft evening lights were switched on, a tray of congealed nutrition lay on my bedside table. Surprisingly, I felt a little bit hungry. But not that hungry. I was still very tired and very weak.

I couldn’t find my watch, struggled to find my glasses. Then I couldn’t find a clock. I finally realized that the blood pressure machine had a digital clock. 2235. 10:35 p.m.

“You still alive?” I asked my low blood volume brother.


“I almost ran out,” I added helpfully.


“What about you?” I asked.

“Me too.”

“Want me to shut up?”


Time passed. The blood pressure machine said 0355. I think.

“I got hit in Afghanistan,” he said. I was sure he’d been asleep.

“Where at?”

“Khandahar, 2006.”

I’d meant ‘where’ as in what part of the body, but no matter.

“Special Forces?” I asked.

“Marine. MEU-SOC.”

“What happened?”


Long pause. The blood pressure machine said 0430. The vampires would arrive soon.

“I got out and went back to school. Got sick a couple weeks ago.”

Like me, the Marine wasn’t making enough red blood cells. His problem was a missing spleen; mine was bone marrow.

“You gonna be all right?”

“I guess. You?”

“I guess.”

I sensed he wanted to ask a question. I didn’t think he knew how to phrase it, and I knew I didn’t know how to answer it. Some questions are best left unasked.

The lab techs visited, and later came breakfast. I had an appetite and ate; the Marine ate a bit, too.

Around 10:30 a.m., when the blood bags finished running into my arms, the nurses removed the tubes and confirmed that I’d be released after lunch. I cleaned up, talked to the doctors, and changed into my ranch clothes.

I shook the Marine’s hand, gave him my card. He was nearly 30 years my junior. “You’ll feel better once your blood level gets right,” I said. “Call me if you need anything. Or e-mail. Whatever.”

“I’ll do that, Chief, thanks.”

“Thank you for your service, Corporal,” I said. We nodded. More a salute, really. I turned and left the miserable hospital room behind.

As I waited for the elevator to show up I had a terrible thought. Just before I’d entered the hospital a Canadian girl had killed herself after being cyber-bullied. In her on-line suicide note, she’d held up a card for the camera on which she’d written: “I have nobody, I need someone.” There was a “frowny” scrawled at the bottom of the card.

What if… what if that young hero of a Marine ever thought, “I have no country. I need a country.” God, that gave me a shudder.

The Vietnam-era officers and NCO’s who stayed and served after the war fixed a shattered U.S. Military. They had a lot of help from the American Citizen, the American Taxpayer, and the American Government. I proudly served in that post-Vietnam military in places like Beirut, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait.

But since 1992 the post-Vietnam fixes have been dismantled one by one. As a sign of the esteem in which we hold the one percent of Americans who do our fighting, tens of thousands of military men and women will not be allowed to vote in this election. Despite explicit federal law, it’s proven to be too difficult to deliver ballots to many troops on time. Troops from ‘important swing states’. The Justice Department calls this a ‘bureaucratic oversight.’ The same thing happened in 2010.

We’ve always been the few. Are my military brothers and sisters about to become the invisible? Do these men and women still have a country? Do you think they might need one?

By the time you read this the election will be over. But this isn’t about an election, or even about voting. It’s about sovereignty.

When this paper hits the streets on Friday, it’ll be – or almost be – Veterans Day. The Marine Corps Birthday is Saturday, 10 November; Veterans Day is the next day, 11 November. It’ll be celebrated as a federal holiday on Monday the 12th.

I usually remind people in this space, sometime in early November, to thank a Vet for his or her service.

Keep in mind that no member of the U.S. Military has ever served for a thank-you.

When they take the oath to defend the Constitution of the United States, our warriors sign over a blank check to the citizens of this nation. Those checks are payable up to the full price of the soldier’s life. We’ve cashed a lot of those checks over the years. Since 1775, and through October 20 of this year, we’ve cashed 1,320,043 of them.

I’m not going to suggest a thank-you this year.

No, you need to do more. You need to do a lot more. More than fading yellow ribbons and tattered radio antenna flags and mumbled proclamations about ‘supporting the troops.’ What more can you do? Maybe the most important thing you can do is decide whether you’re a passenger or a driver. Whether you’re a servant or a sovereign. If you work at it, and really think it through, you’ll be able to figure something out. Particularly if you believe in what President Kennedy asked you to do three weeks before I was born. (Don’t give me that eye-roll, he asked me to do it too.)

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