As I listened to Magic, the new (and maybe last?) album from Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band, I thought of a buddy and a movie.
A few days ago, a pal of mine, who had spent about a year in Iraq in a nonmilitary but intense position, told me about a recent episode. He had gone to a bar on a weekend night and had fallen into a dispute with a bouncer–a big bouncer. My friend, who’s not that young and not that fit, surprised himself by becoming highly aggressive with the bouncer. He was ready for a fight–eager for it–knowing damn well that if one came his way, he would end up on the downside of the deal. Fortunate for him, the moment was defused, and he moved on intact. “That’s not me,” he told me. “That’s Iraq. After being there, you feel you don’t have to put up with anything here and what happens here is nothing compared to what happens there.”
In Paul Haggis’s new film, In the Valley of Elah, GIs come back from Iraq with a different attitude toward violence and death. The war has changed them–not by robbing them of limbs, but by stealing them of innocence (yes, a cliche) and, more important, by undermining their sense of decency. To say too much would be to give away the mystery in the movie. But Haggis’s point is that besides the obvious impact of the war–the death count, the physical wounds, the mental injuries (such as post-traumatic stress disorder), there are other costs–subtle but deep–to turning young men and women into killers forced to make choices no one ought to have to face.
As Haggis’s film and my friend’s experience illustrate, there is a consequence of war that does not fit into the box scores of lives lost, troops hospitalized, and money spent. It’s what warring turns us into. And that seems to have been on Springsteen’s mind when he penned the foundational songs of Magic.
Much of the album is imbued with a melancholy and a sense of loss, even when Springsteen deploys the power chords, searing guitars, and cascading piano that once (oh so long ago) underscored themes of youthful exuberance, rebellion and escape. This loaded-with-hooks album has its obvious moments. On “Last To Die,” Springsteen sings, “Who’ll be the last to die for a mistake?” It’s John Kerry’s once-famous line rock-and-rollified. (In the last election, Springsteen campaigned with Kerry.) “The wise men were all fools,” Springsteen wails, as drums pound. Neocons, take note.