I had no idea who Kurt Cobain was until he died in 1994. I doubt many of my classmates did either, but they did exploit their grief to maximum theatric effect. The week was fantastic. Bullies couldn’t get excused from classes to “grieve” while still fucking with me quite so blatantly. I was ignored, and that was glorious. The first time I read a copy of Rolling Stone, I wanted to identify a lineup of rock stars most likely to ingest buckshot in the near future. A few weeks later, a classmate also died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound. His death was difficult to process, but for a somewhat unflattering reason: I found myself ecstatic. He had been a mean, committed bully and at 14 years old, I was glad he was dead.
All Americans have a personal relationship with violence, however distorted and indirect. I’ve built a strong resume of violence in my adult life, but my most formative experience occurred a decade before I was born. Having failed out of college, my father enlisted in the US Army in lieu of being drafted. He learned to fly helicopters. Above and within the jungles of Vietnam’s central highlands, he earned his place in a long, broken legacy of American men.
I wouldn’t let the distinction go unchallenged. During the first semester of my senior year, the Twin Towers fell and my generation had our very own war. After a few years of trying to out-maneuver my own insecurity, I attended the US Army Officer Candidate School at Fort Benning, Georgia and commissioned in December 2007. Eighteen months later I deployed to southern Afghanistan as an infantry platoon leader. I returned a year later having killed and failed more than enough to write myself into that same legacy.
My history of violence is predictable and un-extraordinary. I’ve suffered in acceptable ways at the hands of acceptable predators. I’ve used appropriate violence to injure appropriate victims. The only violent ambition I haven’t fulfilled – to destroy myself – follows the sympathetic narrative of a traumatized warrior. It’s convenient, but entirely dishonest. That impulse has nothing to do with Afghanistan. It has everything to do with my inability to define myself apart from what I’ve suffered and what I’ve inflicted on others. I’ve injured plenty, but the only person I’ll victimize is myself.