I. Mosul, Iraq (2007)
When off duty at FOB Marez in 2006, I often went to a coffee shop across from the chow hall. A young Turk served coffee to another officer, two enlisted men, and me before sitting down with us at a green plastic table and smoking our American cigarettes. To the north, the city of Mosul blinked periodically, but otherwise appeared peaceful.
One night one of the enlisted men told us about the time he’d slept with a farmer’s wife. The farmer caught the soldier and wife, and chased the naked, freckled, soon-to-be U.S. Army sergeant through an alfalfa field. There was no gun. Thank God. Only a hatchet. The sergeant showed us a pink scar that ran along his freckled calf all the way up to the soft spot in the back of the knee.
“What happened to his wife?” I asked.
“Who knows?” the sergeant asked, unrolling his pant leg back over his boot.
Later that night, my company commander complained about my coffee-shop sessions. His arms were crossed against his chest, over his holstered chest pistol, in a relaxed way that said, Look, non-chest-pistol-havers, I have a chest pistol.
“What do you do there, Mike?” he asked.
“Talk philosophy,” I said.
“I knew a girl who talked philosophy once, Mike,” he said.
I thought he was going to say something else. But this seemed to be the entire story.
He adjusted his chest pistol significantly. I shouldered my M-4 significantly. Because why was I there, in Mosul, if I did not believe in the significance of my M-4? Unfortunately, the rifle slipped and clattered on the duckboards. I picked it up with dignity.
“Look, Mike,” the Captain said. He put his hand on my shoulder. Looked me in the eye. “At a certain point you have to stop talking and get to work.”
He nodded at Mosul. I looked at Mosul. I looked back at him. He took his hand off my shoulder. Wiped it on his chest pistol.
“You stink like cigarettes, Mike,” he said.
II. Houston, Texas (2018)
Now I teach high school English. Last year I attempted Socratic seminars. I imagined that I would gather the eager young learners around my desk, and that we would ask questions like we did at the Turk’s coffee shop. I pictured Dead Poets Society. But with more diversity and a less depressing ending. The smart girl asked for a rubric. It’s philosophical, I explained. There is no rubric.
The day of the first Socratic seminar:
We sit. Stare at each other for 30 seconds. A few students check their phones in case they’ve missed any texts since they sat down.
“Do you have any questions?” I ask.
I had seen them copying the smart girl’s questions before class. I know they have the smart girl’s questions right in front of them. Why don’t they ask the smart girl’s questions?
Finally someone speaks.
“When’s the last time a philosopher made a billion dollars?” he asks.
I say nothing. This is a rhetorical question.
“It’s important to ask questions,” I say. “Like Socrates.”
They do not ask who Socrates is. I tell them the Athenian democracy killed Socrates for asking too many questions. They look up from their phones.
“Killed him killed him?” they ask.
“Yes,” I say. “Killed him killed him.”
There’s a long pause during which they debate the appropriate amount of time they have to wait before checking their phones again. I take advantage of the pause. This, in the business, is what we call “a teaching moment.”
“Why do you think the Athenians were afraid of questions?” I ask. “Are we like the Athenians? Are we afraid of questions?”
We are in a building. But I swear I hear crickets.
“I just live my life and whatever happens happens,” a boy says.
“Maybe this is true,” I say, attempting Socratic irony. “Epicurus, a philosopher, said something similar. What do you think of what Epicurus said?”
“I think I don’t care,” a girl says.
“I think I don’t care?” a boy corrects.
I say the Socratic seminar is over. We are going to write an essay instead.
“About what?” they ask.
“Questions,” I say.
III. Mosul, Iraq (2007)
A week after our talk, the captain ordered me to evacuate a Mosul neighborhood. Someone, he explained, was making IEDs there. Therefore we were going to destroy every house in the area with bombs. This is what we call in the military business “a show of force.” Think of the broken-window theory for urban crime deterrence. Then think of the exact opposite: Destruction will bring change.
“Why do we have to go?” asked an Iraqi civilian 30 minutes before the planes dropped bombs.
“What a stupid question,” I said to the interpreter. “Because you sit around and do nothing when bad people do bad things.”
“Because you sit around and do nothing when bad people do bad things,” the interpreter told him in Arabic.
Reconstruction projects flourish in Mosul, June 28, 2017. The Government of Iraq continues to restore the infrastructure of Mosul so that businesses can re-open and economic life can prosper. Photograph by Sgt. Dennis Glass/U.S. Army
The Iraqi man said he preferred to risk it. I tried again. “It’s not a risk thing,” I explained. “There will be nothing left,” I said, and moved my hands like a magician after a lame card trick. “Big bombs. Boom.” I looked at my interpreter. My interpreter blinked. I looked at my noncommissioned officer. My noncommissioned officer stared back at me through his sunglasses. Or not. His eyes could have been closed. “So. You want to move this guy or what?” I asked. It was a rhetorical question. My noncommissioned officer moved the Iraqi guy.
Later that night, at the coffee shop, I asked if Marx was right about history. If the first time is tragedy and the second farce, what about the third time? Does the third time become tragedy again? Or some kind of super-mutant farce? Or is it really tragedy the first, second, and third times? And if it’s always going to be a tragedy, why do anything? No one said anything. They knew it was a rhetorical question. I lit another cigarette. I was glad my noncommissioned officer had forced that Iraqi man to leave the neighborhood before we blew it up. I had saved one life. This was good. Not Mother Teresa-good. But kinda-good.
“You know what’s really tragic?” I asked.
“What?” they said.
“I never got a chest pistol,” I said.
“No,” the Turk said. “That’s not tragic.”
IV. Houston, Texas (2018)
A month later we are still writing about questions. A student asks if he’s written enough. I tell him no. The bell hasn’t rung. Keep writing.
Everyone’s phone lights up. Another school shooting. The attacked school is not far from my school. It’s in the same neighborhood. So to speak. So we’re famous. So to speak. The students stop writing. One student raises his hand. He starts to say something about the shooting.
“No,” I say. “No bathroom breaks.”
Their phones ding. I read the headlines on my phone. The number of dead children is unknown. So is the cause. Reporters speculate about the shooter’s politics. They publish screenshots of posts from his Facebook feed. They say that this is the face of evil.
The smart girl raises her hand.
Politicians say enough is enough. They are sick and tired of violence. They want to defend America’s youth. Some want to arm teachers, to give us all pistols. Even English teachers.
“Did you see what happened?” the smart girl asks.
I decide I’m tired of pistols. Chest pistols and otherwise.
“Why did this have to happen?” the smart girl asks.
“Because it happens,” I say.
“What?” she asks.
I want to move my hands like a magician after a lame card trick.
“You don’t have to feel bad if it had to happen,” I want to say.
“Big bombs,” I want to say. “Boom.”
But I don’t say anything.
They all stare at me now. No one is writing. They look like baby birds.
“Why don’t you get back to work?” I ask.
The smart girl gives me a funny look. But she gets back to work. We all do.