Saturday, June 23 , 2018, 7:52 am | Fog/Mist 61º


Mark Shields: Words That Make Me Weep, and a World Without Birds

A story about a military nurse and her 'Boots' serves as a wake-up call

Commonweal is almost certainly the best American magazine you never heard about. Accurately presenting itself as “an independent journal of religion, politics and culture,” the “little” magazine (usually 32 pages) edited for 87 years by lay Catholics brims with ideas and arguments guaranteed to make you think and to make you uncomfortable.

In the March 25 issue of Commonweal, I read a short piece by Brian Doyle that made me cry and that will not let go of me. Doyle is the editor of Portland magazine of the University of Portland, and he told me he met the woman whom he writes about at a conference on nursing and war. What follows is an abbreviated version of his piece, “Boots,” and I hope you, too, are touched by it.

She was a nurse in Iraq. Now, she is out of the military. “My name is Jacqueline. You can call me Jackie. ... I will be 27 years old on Sunday, at 1400 hours. ... I am in good health, considering. I have a dog named Gus. I live near the beach.

“I drink tea. I learned to love tea in Kirkuk. Some days we had tea 10 times a day. We found a samovar and learned to use it. There was a man among us who could play that thing like a guitar. It got so we couldn’t drink anything other than the tea he summoned from that samovar. He vanished one day when his truck was hit by the bandits. Another man took his place. He vanished, too. I took his place.

“After awhile, I forgot everyone’s name. For awhile, I called people by their numbers, but after awhile I didn’t call them anything. That’s when I knew I had war sickness. I never got hit by fire, but pretty much everyone I knew did. For awhile there, I thought it was me, that as soon as I said hello to someone or shook hands or learned their names, they were doomed, so I stopped touching people and learning names.

“You would think wigging out in the middle of a war would be bad, but it’s just normal. No one talks about what happens to the people nothing happens to, but something happens to them, and no one talks about it. Probably because we don’t have any words for what happens. War kills words, but no one talks about that. War kills everything except more wars.

“Some of what war kills, you see getting killed off. But some of it you don’t, like the birds. The birds don’t nest in wars, so pretty soon there are no birds. What kind of world is that, with no birds in it? You notice things getting killed off little by little, and then after awhile you stop noticing things altogether. You don’t even notice yourself. You just get by.

“By the end, all I cared about was my shoes. You want really good shoes in a war. I had the best boots you could ever imagine, and I kept them clean and oiled and ready for anything. When I got out of the war, I kept wearing those boots for a long time. I wore them with pajamas and with a bathrobe and with shorts in summer. It’s only the last few weeks I go anywhere without those boots. When I am in those boots, nothing can happen to me. Trust me on this one. I keep them on a special shelf at home, just in case. You want to know something real and true and deep about wars? Boots. Boots are the secret.”

The next time you hear some swaggering think-tank commando or some talk-show tough guy bloviating about why the United States needs — in yet one more Middle Eastern country — “more boots on the ground,” please think of nurse Jackie and ask yourself what kind of a world it is with no birds.

Mark Shields is one of the most widely recognized political commentators in the United States. The former Washington Post editorial columnist appears regularly on CNN, on public television and on radio. Click here to contact him.

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