In the morning, I tell Zelda her hair looks nice. It does – it falls in beautiful copper waves that shine with a thousand strands in the light – but I’m also just complimenting myself on a job well done.
“Thanks,” she says, putting her re-stacked books down long enough to touch it. “Yours, too. Should we get to class?”
I check my watch. We’re about 45 minutes early but I don’t think either of us cares much. It doesn’t take very long to get ready in the morning when you basically have two changes of clothes.
“Yes, ready,” I say.
We almost have the same schedule, Zelda and I. Like all first years, we’re taking History of War and Tactics 101, except when she’s in one, I’m in the other and vice versa. I think these first two classes will be as easy to pass as creamed corn, as my abuela Roberta used to say.
Then we head to morning drills and a break for lunch, followed by our two second-year classes, which we take together: Understanding the Enemy and The Art of Restrainful Restraint.
It’s these second two that present the thrill of a challenge.
“Who here knows what an enemy is? Who has ever had an enemy?”
Professor Munger, a small, muscular woman, stands before our class of 20 students. Many of them look familiar but there’s only one I know by name besides Zelda.
A few hands raise tepidly in response to her question but only one shoots up with confidence. It is the hand of Jancy, kitchen quitter.
“Yes, cadet? Who is your enemy?”
“The Chinese and the Mexicans,” Jancy says with conviction.
I flush. I’m pretty sure I’m the only person of Mexican descent in the room. It feels like everyone is looking at me.
“Interesting. Can you explain why?”
“Because enemies are people who want to harm us and they went to war with us, ma’am. They bombed our country. They killed our soldiers and our civilians. And the Mexicans, we share a border with them, so they are still an active threat. They’re still our enemy.”
“Anyone else agree or disagree with cadet – Friedrich, is it?” she says, pointing her comms bracelet at Jancy.
Silence. A few nods. I wonder if I have the guts to defend people from a country I’ve never visited but whose history is intimately tied to my own. Then I think of my dead siblings.
“I disagree, ma’am,” I say, surprising myself. My flush deepens.
“No surprise there,” says Jancy, her red lips stretching into a smirk. “I bet you got here on brownie points.”
Brownie points are what some people call the policies to get more minorities in leadership roles in the military. I’d heard Peacekeepers complaining about it on the train. Get it? Brownie points because we’re brown and the government is supposedly pandering to us.
“I disagree, too,” Zelda chimes in. “The war is over. And why would you consider entire nations your enemy when the vast majority of citizens have no say in whether their country goes to war?”
Professor Munger clears her throat. “Cadet Appelle, what if I told you there was a fleet of cargo ships filled with food and clean water headed from China to Mexico, and we had a chance of intercepting those ships. Doing so would feed millions of starving Americans, yet would result in millions of starving Mexicans. Would you order the interception of those ships?”
Zelda is quiet. “I don’t know.”
“Wrong answer, cadet,” she says. “You’re thinking with the empathy of an individual but you are no longer an individual. You are a small part of a greater whole – the U.S. Armed Forces.”
Professor Munger paces before the class, the brass on her chest flashing. “A quarter of you will one day command squadrons or even fleets of individuals whose vaunted mission is to protect the interests of the United States. You will oversee men and women trained to kill, and who are eager to exercise their training. In this class, you will learn how to identify the enemy, be it abroad or at home, and lead your forces to neutralize all threats – both active and passive. You will learn how to put aside your personal values and beliefs and act in the best interests of the country you serve.”
“The war isn’t over,” Jancy adds with satisfaction. “Ask any general – ask my grandfather. It’s not over until we’ve won.”
My favorite class quickly becomes Understanding the Enemy, even taking into account the unfortunate presence of Jancy. I don’t always agree with what we learn but it’s interesting to think in a new way. For one assignment, Prof. Munger has us write letters to someone with whom we’ve fought with in the past. Not just a verbal disagreement, someone whose actions or ambitions threatened our “basic freedoms” in some way.
“These letters must honestly portray your perception of the conflict, what caused it, and why the other party wronged you,” she explained.
The following class, she instructs us to write rebuttal letters to ourselves from the perspective of the other party.
“These letters must honestly and credibly defend the actions of the other party,” she stressed. “Anything less than that – anything written in such a way that underscores your original point of view, will be considered a failure.”
Turns out Zelda failed.
“I don’t want to talk about it,” she says when I ask about her letters. We’re in our room, engaging in the weekly ritual of egging our heads. I can’t help but gloat a little. Zelda would argue with the sun about how hot it is, but it turns out she can’t conduct an honest argument with herself. This may also be the only time I beat her on an assignment.
“Who did you write about?” she asks. I wrote a letter to my mother. But I realize I don’t really want to talk about it, either.
“Nobody, just the guy that got my leg blown off.”
“It’s stupid, anyway,” she says. “That whole class is stupid. All it does is promote groupthink at the expense of critical thought.”
Maybe that’s why I find it so comforting. Even when I disagree with the group, I find it’s easiest to keep my mouth shut in class. Even if they’re not right, they’re bound to get their way.
“I thought you’d love groupthink,” I say, topping off her yokey bun. “You love telling people what to think.”
“Yeah but that’s the problem – groupthink only works if I’m in charge. Imagine someone like Jancy being in charge. Imagine having to follow her without question.”
Jancy has an unchecked arrogance born and fostered by privilege that makes disagreeing with her exhausting, unnerving, and nearly unwinnable. Like if rabies became sentient and slapped on some lipstick before biting you. Zelda is perhaps the only person on this base with the stamina to shut her up.
“Some day, she will be in charge of people,” I say. “Don’t forget, her grandfather is a general.”
“She would never let anyone forget her grandfather is a general. It’s part of the postscript to every letter she writes home, I bet. ‘P.S. Tell my grandfather the general I love him! Smooches!’”
“She writes letters home?”
“All the time – well, I shouldn’t say home. She writes to the WinStar World Casino and Resort in Oklahoma – it’s the biggest military casino outside of Vegas. There’s a wing there named after her grandfather, so I assume she grew up there. We only send and receive mail from other bases and the military casinos.”
That makes sense. Before the drillers dropped, effectively crippling America and forcing our surrender, Mexico and China spent two years systematically bombing all of our ports and major coastal cities. Inland casinos became de-facto hospitals and makeshift military headquarters because they could easily accommodate thousands of people. They have everything soldiers require: booze, beds, and backup generators strong enough to power a small city.
Zelda and I switch positions and she begins gooping up my hair. “They have casinos in Reno, right? Doesn’t your mom work at one?” she asks.
“Yeah, she’s head waitress at Circus Circus.”
“You know, I could send a letter to her if you want,” Zelda says, her fingers gently scratching my scalp. “You could write to her or even your sister – all you’d have to do is address it a certain way to make sure it gets to your mom. I can show you how.”
I’ve lived on base for three months now but it feels longer. It’s strange to think back to my time at the hospital, and before that, home. I haven’t talked to my family in over 10 months, which means I forgot Peasant’s birthday again. But if someone gave me the chance to go back in time and change things, I don’t think I would.
“I don’t even know what I’d say.” I don’t realize I’ve said this aloud until Zelda answers me.
“You could just say hello and tell them that you’re doing well. I bet they’re worried.”
I’m not sure they are. That’s the thing with my family – we’ve lost so much that mourning or worrying over someone who hasn’t died seems passe. And I didn’t die. I just messed up. And I abandoned Peasant. She probably hates me now.
“Can I think about it?”
“Of course. I don’t think the mail room is going to fire me any time soon.”
“Thanks, Zelda, for offering.”
“Sure, that’s what friends are for.”