Mozer, Bethea and Me (for Veteran’s Day)

It’s been six months since I’ve been regularly attending poetry readings again, and after an initial flurry of new writing, the well dried up a bit as the day job got crazy and my attention drifted elsewhere. (Many elsewheres, actually, but that’s a different post.) I still scribble ideas down as they come to me and have an ever-growing document full of lines and stanzas that will eventually find their way into poems, but Ross Gay’s feature at louderARTS a couple of weeks ago inspired me to revisit some of my older work with fresh eyes.

One poem in particular jumped out for a couple of reasons, partly because I never really liked the ending, and partly because Call of Duty’s latest simple-minded, “There Is A Soldier In All Of Us” commercial pissed me off.

The original version of the poem, written back in 2003, was entitled Mozer, Bethea and I (as published in Handmade Memories), and it had a ranty, overly political ending that tried to be a little too clever and felt like a different poem from the opening. I tightened it all up, including a bit more nuance in Mozer’s section, while heavily revising the closing to end up with what I think is a far stronger, more personal, more relatable work.

Veteran’s Day isn’t a time for generic sentiments, positive or negative, but a time for personal reflection. I’m generally ambivalent about my time in the military because I met far too many people who defied easy stereotypes of what it means to be pro- or anti-war, and I’ve always had nothing but respect for anyone who has served, not to mention a fair bit of curiosity about why they did so.

Mozer, Bethea and Me

or, why my son can’t play Call of Duty

This is my weapon
This is my gun.
This is for fighting
This is for fun.

I know the weight of
a locked and loaded M16,
could take one apart
and put it back together again
in under 30 seconds,
put 36 out of 40 rounds
through faceless and nameless
paper and plastic enemies,
clear a jam in six simple steps:


Make the mistake of calling it a gun
you would be corrected in a playful rhyme.

This is my weapon
This is my gun.

At 21,
I was one of the oldest in Basic Training
an adult to the moist-eyed, teenaged boys
away from their farms and projects
for the first time.

Unable to keep the smirk off my face
when threats of “skull-fucking”
sprayed from the foaming lips of
drill sergeants with limited vocabularies
more Stripes than Full Metal Jacket,

I smirked often
did lots of pushups.

They were convinced I’d been a drug dealer on
the losing side of some Hollywood endgame
finding it hard to believe a socialist writer
from the Bronx leaves South Miami Beach
to join the Army at the height of war
because he was broke,
needed a place to stay,
and a little inspiration.

At 25,
Private Mozer was thought to be mildly retarded
told so often by drill sergeants and
fellow soldiers alike.
He couldn’t do enough pushups
or hit enough paper and plastic enemies
making him a perfect target.

One day while cleaning our rifles, I asked
if his mother had signed him up
because a 25-year old retard
had nowhere else to go and
he came at me, enraged, eyes brimming
fingers spread wide, going for my
guilt-filled throat.

At 31,
Private Bethea tried to hide
the sting of failure behind a calm demeanor
was made our platoon leader and replaced
three weeks later.

The pressure of leading younger men
made stubborn by their own variations
on a last chance at redemption was too much,
amplified his ex-wife’s voice in his head,
her bitter disdain in his mouth.

He led our pool for most likely
to receive friendly fire.

We all graduated together
deemed fit to carry M16s in defense
of the free world and each other
GI Joe come to life,
lack of knowledge
only half the battle.

This is my weapon
This is my gun.
This is for fighting…

I know the weight
of a locked and loaded M16
know the damage it can do
to those who fire one
in ignorance

can feel the recoil in my shoulder
as each round rifles through the barrel,
through the air, through its target,
feel it in my throat, imagining each
round penetrating exposed flesh,

ricocheting against bone,

shredding muscles and organs,

exiting where most convenient…

have seen the look in the eyes of those
who need not use their imagination…

This is my weapon
This is my gun.
This is for fighting
This is for fun.

Politicians declare death sentences
from secret boardrooms
speak in reverent tones of
collateral damage
acceptable loss

translation: someone else’s children.

Mozer, Bethea and I
were someone else’s children
looking for a last bit of hope
in a last resort…

This is my weapon
This is my gun…

In 1999,
my eight-year commitment was settled
with an honorable discharge
and a Good Conduct Medal.

I know the weight of
a locked and loaded M16, of
the world on 21-year old shoulders, of
determining the lesser of two evils, of
compromising for survival.

I know the weight of a life lived
without absolutes or easy definitions
where good and evil are a game of
semantics and a matter of
perspective where our children are
sacrificed in the name of
freedom, our principles in the name of
convenience, where the decisions we
don’t make are as important as
the ones
we do

where simple rhymes
are never enough

where the realization of all of this
is never enough.

We were not meant to be soldiers,
but sometimes war is all we are given
to eat.

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