After serving with a U.S. Army Task Force in Katrina in 2005, I’ve been the keeper of a strange, secret, and elevated fear. I felt like I’d been tricked. I had believed that our lives in the United States were above the brutal truth told by the devastated and filthy streets of New Orleans.
It was a hard coming down, and had many of the nuances of finding out for sure that there is no Santa Clause. After I found out about Santa Clause, for a moment I felt like I knew something important and adult, and took pride in thinking that I could lord it over those young enough, or naïve enough, to still believe. But after that moment, after the neighbor kid broke it to me, and I’m sitting on my front step for awhile in the winter sunshine, drawing designs in the snow with a stick, I realized that it all makes sense now. Past puzzle clues slide together and make a picture. I’d been led to believe something, something very important about my special little life, something that was not true. It’s a lie. The Flying Saucer sled next to me is just something that Mom bought. There will be no Santa Clause anymore, and the weight of it crushes the original sin of pride.
I’m writing about this now because I’ve just finished reading Anderson Cooper’s book called Dispatches From The Edge. In it, he reports upon all of the fantastic journalistic adventures he’s had reporting for CNN while chasing war, disaster, chaos and conflict across the globe for decades. And despite the tsunami, famines, wars and hurricanes, he ends up being the most powerfully affected by Katrina. As I read it, I realized he is affected by that experience in the same way that I am. Cooper has the appropriate abhorrence to the looting and violence, the untended bodies, the general horror. And he ponders the valid questions about governmental unpreparedness, a lack of accountability for its failure, and racism coloring the response. But I can read between the lines that he feels mostly a sense of betrayal—a deep one.
The betrayal is that what he saw over ‘there’ can happen ‘here’.
One of my earliest memories is seeing a Superman movie that had a United Nations scene in it (all nations facing some global enemy I’ve long since forgotten) and I remember feeling the assurance that smart concerned adults were in charge of the world. I never questioned as a child that we were all in the hands of educated, morally centered adults who ran the world properly and competently. The good guys would always win. As I grew up, I began to learn about the instability of other countries, and some of the ugly events there were splashed across the television news occasionally in obscene gaud. But it never seemed to happen here, and so I carefully closed the circle of my safety expectations around the perimeter of the United States instead of the entire whole world.
And when I joined the Army, I began to travel around the world and see for myself what the television showed. What we take for granted here is not always present there:
- A young man approached me in Afghanistan accompanied by his wailing mother and presented me with his immensely swollen, purple, and obviously broken arm. In this primitive village, he had received all the treatment he was going to get, there was no money to be had to get him to real medical facilities and I understood through my interpreters, and surmised, that he was therefore going to die. I gave him the Afghani equivalent of $128 for a taxi ride to Kabul and to pay for the treatment at a hospital to live. Note: it was illegal for me to give him that money.
- In Honduras, my whole platoon was filling in our foxholes and we had each incidentally thrown our trash into the holes before we began shoveling. A squad of elite Honduran Soldiers was standing near and got excited about this, though they were always quiet and composed even while they worked with the Contras to lure Sandinista forces across the Honduran border for ambush. After inquiry, we were told to stop with the burying. The Hondurans would handle it; they wanted the food remnants in our trash. When we realized what was going on, we quickly rifled through our backpacks to give them any additional food that we’d packed since we were just hours away from a plane ride to the United States. Note: They needed that food despite standing there with brand new U.S. made rifles, grenade launchers and machine guns—better weapons than we were holding, an active-duty U.S. Army Ranger Battalion!
- I once took a tour of the capital city of Kyrgyzstan, Bishkek, with a very nice and professional Kyrgyz interpreter, and she was explaining about life there and reading signs for me and taking me to interesting places. I saw the Kyrgyz police stopped in the street and talking to some people and asked my guide offhandedly if the police were pretty good in this country. Her demeanor changed immediately and she glanced across the street and said with a derisive and certain little laugh: “No. Of course not. They’re probably shaking them down for money.” Note: this explained why we were all required to carry special instructions with us; besides contact phone numbers and addresses for the U.S. Embassy, the State Department, and our own contracted ‘Reaction Force’, the other side of that card said in the Kyrgyz language something that roughly translates as “Don’t do a goddamned thing to this United States Soldier or you will be in heap big trouble.” We were to present the card to any official encounter with their police.
And so forth. All over the world we’d run into inadequate medical and police services, corruption, etc. I’d come home and feel safe again.
I recognize that some delightful little European countries, perhaps a few others elsewhere in the world, might meet an original definition of “First World” countries: any country with little political risk and a well functioning democracy, rule of law, capitalist economy, economic stability, and high standard of living. This is a neat little 6-point test. But I daresay that there are not many countries in the world that will pass this test.
In New Orleans (and elsewhere), police, medical and fire services stopped. Food, water, and electricity stopped. Ordinary life stopped. Thousands of homes and lives were wrecked. People gazed out into the lawlessness and silence of response and were flooded with despair. The silence. Everyone remembers the silence, and Cooper comments on it pointedly. I’d always imagined that it would take months of chaos to induce such an holistic devolution, but I saw that it took mere days. Base instincts wriggled free and collective safety rose into the sky like a balloon released for someone that was suddenly killed in the street.
It doesn’t happen all the time here, of course. But it’s not that it happens all the time here, it’s that it can happen. It’s that it did happen—and could happen again. That’s why Anderson Cooper felt a new kind of dread leak into his gut at Katrina, and that’s why I also cannot discount those images or ever truly release that strange, secret fear.
Even scarier, take a second look at that 6-point test in the context of the United States today. It’s like being lost in a place that ought to feel like home.
New Orleans September 2005
Dirty half-blown-over trees try to right themselves
in the heat, the heat busies itself with every thick stink.
Signs, buildings, wreckage, and cars tumble
into the blasted streets, and the streets fall dumb
under the flood. Blood slicks the stormed
supermarket aisles and the people have stopped
clawing at their attics. Only
the dogs remain—lost
as people ought never be lost; standing gaunt
in the haunted streets, they don’t understand why
the bad dream won’t end, where
their families are, and what,
what has happened to their land.
New Orleans September 2005. I think
I’ll never find the word
for the loudest sound I never heard.