On the day of the ceremony our company watched as The President honored the dead. He staggered across the cobblestone path, shielding his eyes from the afternoon sun as a clumsy brass band played the traditional tune. The man who slept next to me in the barracks hummed a few bars before sighing and shoving his hands deep into his pockets. A few days earlier we’d talked about forgetting what war we were honoring. We’d forgotten the name of the enemy and lost track of which of the endless conflicts that day was set aside for. There were more days dedicated to them than not and over time it got too confusing to parse.
The ceremony lasted over two hours and in the heat a half dozen of us passed out. The President, flitting and nervous, flinched with every body that hit the concrete. We were fed poorly. Water was limited. It became a sport to watch one another wither away and predict who might die next from malnutrition. Lying in my bunk in the dark, I traced the hard bone of my ribs, recalling stories the old timers had told us about the past where they could get in their cars and drive anywhere they wanted and for as long as they had roads to follow and gas to burn.
These words snaked their way through our briefings every now and then to explain the fight. But even those in charge had lost the thread. They seemed bored, like middle-managers doomed to send their men to die with little to nothing in return. The orders came and sometimes just disappeared with no explanation. I couldn’t tell you anymore where I’m supposed to go. I’m not sure if I’m supposed to go anywhere.
That night, before lights out, our commanding officer rolled a television into the barracks and replayed the ceremony. The men who fell, the surviving ones anyway, were made to sit up in their beds. The rest of us removed our hats. The President looked amazing, striding triumphantly to the boom of the band and crowned by the day’s glow. The hand that shielded the sun was now a salute. And somehow, in his noble shadow, we were a pristine company, broad-shouldered, fit and hearty. No one fell. No one collapsed. My neighbor in the barracks received a close-up as a patriotic tear slipped from his steely, determined eyes.
I caught a glimpse of myself before the laying of the wreath and the flight of the war eagle. My uniform hugged my chiseled chest. I was the picture of health. And as I admired myself on the screen, my hand wormed through the gap between the buttons of my threadbare shirt and lightly fell upon my ribs.
It was a surreal moment, but a familiar one.
To be lied to by your fingertips like that.
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