The place was cleared out. Half the unit had left Saturday, M-16s on their shoulders, for the first shift of a long-ago scheduled three-week mission to Egypt. The rest of us are set to join them in a week or so. None of us may be coming back for a while. I might be called up; I may be going off to war.
[an error occurred while processing this directive]Me? I'd love to go. But let's be clear about why.
It's not bravery. We're a unit of Army journalists to the extent that soldiers ever deserve that label and our mission in Egypt is to put a good-news weekly paper for the troops of "Operation Bright Star," an annual U.S.-led international training exercise in the muggy desert somewhere near Alexandria. But we're also an "escort" unit, which means our real job is to make sure that the civilian press doesn't write any more bad news about the Army than can be helped.
So in wartime we're flacks. And now that the hard-cores in the sand are obviously training for something very real, "Operation Bright Star" suddenly looks like a pretty big media event. We may be babysitting the press full time, and we may be asked to stick around for a while. We may get shipped somewhere else Cairo. Uzbekistan. Possibly Tampa.
I won't be on the front lines, just in a press office that may or may not be anywhere near them, and I don't expect to have to use that M-16 for anything besides looking tough. If it's Cairo, could we get gassed, anthraxed, blown up? Sure. But so could you folks back home. Besides, I'll be with the civilian press, and it's never in terrorists' interest to kill their publicists.
For me, it's not about patriotism. As a journalist I don't believe in flag pins, and as a soldier I'm not overly zealous. I signed a part-time employment contract to help the U.S. Army manage and restrict the flow information for its own benefit, and suffice it to say I've had no regrets about the arrangement it's fun. For me, it's not morality we're at war and each combatant is using the means available to it, and I happen to work weekends for the heavy favorite.
I joined the Army Reserves on a lark two years ago for what it could offer money and adventure and going off to war offers a whole lot of both. Six months (or more) of free housing, free food, foreign pay and hazard pay, and if that doesn't cut it, AOL Time Warner, corporate parent of this writer, has even promised to make up any difference in my income, profit targets be damned.
While Americans are huddling at home, wondering if they should buy a new car and Cisco stock for the war effort or gas masks and bonds for the home front, dependent-less me would be off in foreign lands, paying down high-interest-rate consumer debt. Like many Americans I've been too good a credit-card patriot for too long, and a profitable, adventurous, honorable-type break would position me well for the upturn that should hit in oh, about six months (or more).
As for hanging up my reportorial keyboard and donning the velvet gag of the public-relations man, well, I'm sure the news will be ably reported while I'm gone and still around when I get back. I'd get to participate in something instead of just writing about it from the outside. Maybe I hear a few things that you folks don't. And if the Army thinks I can help us win, well I am rooting for our side. Happy to help.
I just hope they don't need any more floors scrubbed.