The following essay was written by John Bechtold, a doctoral student in American Studies and HPG Humanities Professional Pathway Fellow (Summer 2020) during a course on public writing taught by Kelly Alexander. Endeavors , the UNC Research online magazine, did a feature on John last year, which you can read here

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The line worried me. It was long and snaked around the walled perimeter of the Governor’s office in Baqubah, Iraq. People were gathered in the line to ask for help, some wanted money, some wanted a job, others wanted to ask the Governor to intervene in land disputes. It was 2004, a time of possibility in Iraq when lives could be reclaimed and property could be restored, yet before the relentless violence that would enflame sectarianism and birth the Islamic state.

The line worried me because it was both an easy target for a suicide bomber or else a convenient place to hide a suicide bomber. Both possibilities would produce the same result: more dead bodies. It was my job to protect the Governor’s office, and I didn’t want one of those dead bodies to be someone I knew. And for this reason, I began sending soldiers outside of the compound every morning to shoo people away before the line could form. One morning I was called to the front gate because an old man needed help.

I’m not sure what I expected when I arrived at the gate. But when I did arrive, I found an old man with a frost-white beard cradling a small boy in his arms. Two gauze patches were taped over the boy’s eyes. I learned through an interpreter that this boy, the man’s grandson, was hit in the face with dirt and debris scattered by an explosion. As the old man explained, the boy was playing by the roadside near his home when an IED exploded. It had been four days since his world went dark, and the old man wanted ten dollars for taxi fare to see an eye surgeon in Baghdad. We offered to replace the bandages covering the boy’s damaged eyes. His cheeks were flecked with dried blood, and when our medic tried to pull the bandages off, the gauze stuck to his face. We couldn’t help him without hurting him. So, we sent them away with cab fare.

That was more than fifteen years ago, and I never found out what happened to that boy. I can only imagine how one day playing by the roadside, interrupted by a bang, blast, and flying debris, shaped his life in Iraq since then. What I do know is that his life and others like it – and there are many, many more like it, both past and present, that span the continuum of America’s wars from the Philippines in 1900 to Vietnam to Iraq and Afghanistan – are not visible in the way war is remembered in America on Veterans Day. Public memory is centered on our own soldiers. In other words, the boy is competing with me in this commemorative frame, and he doesn’t have a chance.

The boy competes with me as I sneak up to my children after time away for a surprise homecoming with the cameras rolling for a television audience. The boy competes with me in shows like SEAL Team as I heroically defend America from its fictional foes in Asia yet remain misunderstood at home. He competes with me as my image is paraded across television screens to sell everything from Jeeps to American football. He competes with me as my virtual body is guided over the pixelated terrain of battles past by teenagers playing online military simulation games like Squad. He competes with me in films like American Sniper, where somewhere in the Al-Anbar province of Iraq my sniper self in the form of Bradley Cooper is forced to navigate the rehashed shoot-or-don’t-shoot quandary to protect an American patrol. In that film, the boy appears with a grenade. He steps into the street to attack the patrol and in so doing into the public domain as an agent of violence. He’s literally in the crosshairs now, and he’s outgunned. I’m the hero in this configuration – the one who kills the boy to preserve American lives.

And when the conversation shifts to my sacrifice on Veterans Day, trauma enters the conversation as a sacrificial wound. This move pushes the boy out of the story all together. To compete with me, he must compete with my wounds, the trauma of killing, the shoot-or-don’t-shoot injury, however real or imagined. The cultural representation of war is a narrow space. There’s only room for one sacrificial victim, and it’s always me. As for the boy, he’s not only outgunned, he’s outmaneuvered by a community conditioned to watch the parade with star-spangled eyes from lines formed along city streets.

About the Author

John Bechtold is a retired combat veteran and recent graduate of Duke University. He has begun to cultivate a growing passion in documentary storytelling and has just completed a multi-media documentary project that tells the stories of how our wounded veterans are reclaiming their lives after their experience in war. John is particularly interested in the lived experience of people affected by political violence. When he isn’t taking pictures on a street somewhere in the world, John can be found at home cooking tasty food or trying to stand on his head in yoga class (it’s not working).