As our story continues, we find Sen. McCain resting in his tent, plotting his fall campaign, as the Democrats continue the longest primary in human history, which has left the pundit club and the blogoswamp with nothing new to say whatsoever. You might as well write about your sock drawer. Hillary Clinton is a great woman and a leaden campaigner who makes even loyal supporters want to crawl behind the couch, and Barack Obama has lost his charisma -- it wore off him like tread off a tire. I love him like a brother and my brothers have no charisma either.
Nor do I. What I have is self-consciousness, far from the same thing. I sometimes (realizing that someone is looking at me, say, in the library or at a cafe or even on the train) purse my lips and furrow my brow to make myself appear to be thinking about something important such as Canada rather than trying to remember the first verse of "Ghost Riders in the Sky."
When I go in a store, I almost never look at price tags, for fear the sales clerks will consider me cheap, and so I have once or twice paid phenomenal sums for a T-shirt or pair of socks. Like 30 bucks. When I pose for a snapshot, I never smile because what I had thought was a smile turned out, on film, to look like a pained grimace, as if I'd just taken a shot to the kidneys.
The cure for self-consciousness, as we all know, is to get engrossed in something of consequence, which is why so many people work so hard: They like it and they like not thinking so much about their hair.
A couple weeks ago I was feeling trapped at a party of perfectly nice people and their self-conscious blither-blather and fake concern and gushiness of the sort that drove poor Holden Caulfield out of town, and I snuck into the kitchen and there stood a man and a woman in their early 30s gazing out the window and comparing the backyard to one they'd had in Utah. They were friendly, straight-talking, no-nonsense people, nothing whimsical or sardonic or attitudinous about them. Unlike everyone else, they weren't working to make a big impression. And it didn't surprise me at all when they turned out to be professional military, husband and wife, full-time National Guard. Good people.
So we talked about Iraq, where they'd done two tours of duty, which they considered a big mess. But they talked about it in more measured terms than those of us would who managed to not be there. It was a mess but it was their job. They were loyal to the mission, though honest about its failure.
What is mysterious to us civilians about the military is the Semper Fidelis part, the discipline to march into extreme danger to carry out wholeheartedly a mission about which you yourself are deeply skeptical. "Theirs not to reason why, theirs but to do and die," as Tennyson wrote of the Light Brigade that rode into the valley of death on the orders of an arrogant idiot, and men have been riding off to death on behalf of many arrogant idiots ever since, including the ones who are in the White House at the moment. This is a heroism that is not expected of you or me and it's the expectation of heroism that gives the two in the kitchen the gravity that was so appealing to me.
Many men have been carried to the cemetery with honor guards and rifle salutes who, if the truth be known, knew their missions were not worth the price but went anyway. Many, many of our honored dead were dissenters.
What makes no sense at all is when the arrogant idiot expects us civilians to support his unprincipled policy as a way of "supporting our troops." The troops are not mercenaries, they are American soldiers in a long proud tradition going back to Gen. Washington's Continental Army at Valley Forge, and what gives their mission dignity and meaning is that it comes from a constitutional government in which war is not a point of personal privilege but a matter to be openly debated, opposed, protested, reported. For the troops to fall into line is a noble thing; for civilians to fall into line is shameful.
There's a lot of human nature in us all.
(Garrison Keillor's "A Prairie Home Companion" can be heard Saturday nights on public radio stations across the country.)
© 2008 by Garrison Keillor. All rights reserved. Distributed by Tribune Media Services, Inc.