In the middle of the so-called Iraq war, I remember encountering a group of soldiers headed to the battlefield from the Atlanta airport. I was heading back to my cushy, comfy apartment in New Delhi, to continue my doctoral fieldwork. I had visited my family in Alabama and Georgia for as long as I wanted, and so was comfortably heading back to my normal life. Lines of soldiers in uniform snaked all around the airport.
They were everywhere. From check-in, through security, to the lounges, especially where they pacify our waiting times with crowds of sofas. No matter where we went, no matter what we did – waiting, wandering, shaving or brushing our teeth in the bathroom, loitering, or just tax-free window shopping – we were surrounded by America’s finest, cleanest, most highly trained youth. What’s more, one easily noticed that they were far more black and brown people amongst the soldiers than the civilians hovering around. More still, it was clear from the news that these soldiers were only there – armed and ready – because ‘we’ were sending them directly to the battlefield. The same shield on their uniforms was the very same shield on the passport I was using to effortlessly cross all these borders; supposedly they were defending me, too.
“Baby come back! Any kind of fool can see…” -Player, 1977.
I love landing in the Atlanta airport when coming home from abroad. Atlanta is a chocolate city, and one sees that right from the opening of the airplane doors. There are all sorts of regular Black people doing every sort of job, and so I get the Black-head-nod at least twenty times before I reach my luggage. I’m always feeling myself in the ATL.
Of course, like any day at any airport around the world, there are tons of screens floating from the ceilings, muted with subtitles, positioned conveniently around the masses of sofas meant to pacify the masses of passengers’ long waits. The screens show every news channel, and every news channel steadily feeds us a minute-by-minute update of the war. So of course, as a passenger headed east from America to India, I would inevitably have a layover either in Europe or the Middle East, again comfortably cruising past the battlefield.
Only a few years earlier, I had visited my cousins in Germany who were military medics receiving soldiers from the battlefield, making their way home. I knew that everywhere I was going, every nation over which we flew, was entangled in the battle these young people standing before me were about to face.
“Kein Blut für Öl” (no blood for oil!)
In true Southern charm, I had to say something. You just don’t spend that much time physically near other people and not acknowledge their presence. It’s rude to ignore people, which I only point out because I realize this is not the case everywhere, even in our own country. Acknowledging strangers may therefore seem strange to you, dear reader. Besides, how rude would it be to avert one’s eyes from this reality. Bon voyage!
There were soldiers in long lines snaking around the whole airport. So, by the time you’ve reached your gate, you’ve had a long time to ponder the youths’ circumstances, one by one. Waiting there, they see you. You see them, too, and you want them to know that they are seen, not averted or ignored simply because this was all very uncomfortable.
What could I say to any of them, that would not reveal my heartbreak, which is certainly something these people did not need to see. Nor did I need to share my complete dissent from the dominant WMD narrative being spun by the very government sending them into battle. As many marches and protests as I had taken part of in the buildup to this war, I may have even had an anti-war sticker plastered across my backpack. It’s a shame, and THAT war is filled with war crimes.
So: “Y’all take care,” and, “Y’all come back,” were all I could mutter behind my grin-n-tears, what Fela called suff’rin’ and smilin’. War is not the answer.