Peter Levine – The Secretary of Defense, The Secretary of War

Peter Levine

The Secretary of Defense, The Secretary of War


I was having a beer with my dad in the town I grew up in. He still lived in the town with my mom. I’d said goodbye to it after high school. But I was back for a visit home; he was getting older, so was my mom, she had been sick for a long time and he needed airing out. We were at this local restaurant – in the daytime, wealthy mothers from Glencoe and Winnetka brought their kids there; salads and iced teas for the moms and hamburgers and hot-dogs for the kids. We weren’t eating, me and my dad. We were just catching up on stuff. It was summer out, when this was all happening.

He was sitting on my right. He was wearing slacks and a white shirt, even though it was a Sunday. He didn’t believe in shorts and tee-shirt and baseball caps, which is what I was wearing. He had a beard and I started to think that in some regards I was pretty lucky, because his beard, aside from the area around his mouth, was still dark brown. The area around his mouth, though – under his lower lip – it was as if he’d had been drinking something that was bleaching out his chin. The hair on his head was still dark, though. What little he had left of it. So, I had that going for me – dark hair. Though, not having a lot of it.

It didn’t much matter to me.

He ordered another beer for us, our third. A lot of time I spent with my dad, we didn’t actually talk. A lot of time we sat in silence. He was one of those guys. You didn’t always have to be talking.

I was looking at the pennants of the local high school football team, some old photographs of high school athletes from about fifty years ago that the restaurant had managed to dig up from someplace – to make people feel like it, the restaurant, was really a community staple. A really good local hangout. There were pictures of football players and track runners, and it was kind of funny to think about, because these boys, the ones in the photographs, were now old men.

“You see that guy over there,” my father said, looking behind me.

I looked to where he was looking. He was looking at a man, shortish but well-built. The man was wearing khaki-colored slacks and a short-sleeved blue button-down shirt. He was standing over two little girls. And also there was a young woman and a young man, perhaps a little older than me, maybe in their mid-thirties, and they were talking to a young boy. They must have been the parents. The whole family was a really nice-looking family. The two little girls were drawing with crayons and they kept saying Grandpa, Grandpa, look. They were competing for his attention. But I couldn’t make out what they were drawing, if it was any good and which of the two little girls were better drawers. But the Grandpa looked really happy.

“You know who that is?” my dad asked.

I didn’t answer him at first. I looked closely at the man, trying not to make my staring obvious. It was funny, because he did look familiar to me. I knew his face from someplace. Not the body, which was a middle-aged man’s body, not a grandfather’s body. But the face I recognized. I looked at him closer. But for the life of me, I couldn’t figure out who it was.

“No,” I said. “Jesus, he looks familiar, though.”

“Keep looking,” my dad said.

The grandfather looked up. I could only see the side of his face. But then he looked toward my father and me, us at the bar. He smiled a friendly smile at us, a neighborly smile. And then I knew who it was. It was the Secretary of Defense. I recalled, then, maybe from an old girlfriend of mine, one from college I think, that this man had grown up in my neighborhood. That he had gone to the same high school I’d gone to ten years ago. That he was a wrestler in high school. I think I remembered hearing that he’d won a state championship in it. Trivia. It was possible that one of the old photographs we were sitting near had his image as a young man, when he was this great high school wrestler.

“I got it,” I said to my dad.

“I’ve seen him around,” my dad said. “I guess his daughter lives here. That must be his daughter.”

It was true – this woman bore a resemblance to him.

It was really bizarre seeing this guy with his grandchildren. He looked like any regular grandfather – a little better preserved, perhaps; stronger looking than most grandfathers, and younger-looking, I supposed. Everything I’d seen of the man was from television or pictures in magazines. And always, he really seemed like a jerk. He had this whiny voice, was always trying to be an asshole to reporters, dismissive, irritated.

My current girlfriend hated him. She really despised the man. Maybe more than the President, who she detested. Said this Secretary of Defense was a war-monger. I wasn’t so quick to call him a war-monger. I was undecided on the whole issue. I mean, I’m more butter than guns, but on this matter I wasn’t clear. I wasn’t big into the war, but I sort of wanted to give the guy a break. All the propaganda my girlfriend loved to spread about him – it seemed outlandish to me. And I have to admit, seeing him with his grandchildren, I was glad that I’d given him a break.

Whenever she would see him on television she had to say something. She couldn’t just let us watch in peace. This girlfriend, she was such a bleeding-heart liberal that if you told her Santa Claus was a Republican, she’d boycott Christmas. She’d organize a rally. I didn’t like this about her. She was really terrific in so many ways – pretty, kind, sharp. But when it came to politics, she was about as one-sided and myopic as you could get. I hated that.

Sometimes it made me think that things wouldn’t work out with her. That her one-sidedness would eventually bleed into other areas in our life. If not now, then in the future. Like, maybe she would be against our kids watching cartoons, while I thought watching cartoons was a fine thing for a kid to do. She was a nut for the outdoors, so maybe she’d always want the kids outside playing, rather than in front of the TV. Maybe no TV at all, which is pretty irregular, in my opinion.

From what I’d read, after high school, this Defense Secretary had gone to the Naval Academy at Annapolis and then on to Vietnam and then into Hanoi. He’d gotten shot down and spent eight months in a prison camp. Then he got out and went into politics. He always had that card to play – him being an American hero. He looked the part, too. Even in this little restaurant. Looked clean-cut. I think he was a senator for awhile. And then he got tapped to be the Secretary of Defense.

My dad didn’t seem too impressed with the guy. He went back to drinking his beer. What I figured was that when you get to be my dad’s age, which was tipping over sixty, you don’t get that impressed by important people any longer. He probably thought the guy was just some guy. I mean, it wasn’t like my dad was going to introduce himself to the guy. And I wasn’t either. I mean, I knew a lot of people who would, because they thought it would be neat. It was sort of neat – in the way that you see a celebrity or an athlete – someone who in your regular life you only see on television or read about, and you want to know them, or get their autograph. If my current girlfriend were here, she’d probably take aim with the ketchup bottle and nail the guy. I bet she would. Right in front of the guy’s kids and grandkids.

I got my dad another beer and one more for me too. He needed it. I wanted to get my dad drunk. It was awful, the thing with my mom, but we’d known about it for a long time. It wasn’t a surprise. I said to her what I needed to say to her, and she to me. He’d been spending too much time taking care of her – she had nurses, she had everything she needed, she was in the ethers – but still, he tended to her, my dad. You can’t spend twenty-four hours with a dying person. It’s not healthy for the caregiver. I read that.

So when I came in town I decided that while I would spend some time with my mom, I would also try to chill him out as much as I could. He wasn’t like other dads. Or rather, he wasn’t like my friends’ dads. I mean, you couldn’t really talk to the guy about a lot of stuff. I could talk to him about work. I could talk to him about sports. Those were two things.

But we were putting these beers away, doing a pretty good job, and it didn’t much matter how much we drank because we lived just a few blocks away. We would walk down the middle-country street full of chestnut trees and green grass and giant homes that spread out like beasts.

I realized, the way one realizes when they’re drunk, that I had to piss. Like, it came on all of a sudden. Sharp. And so I said I’ve got to piss and he said okay, he’d settle up while I was in the bathroom. In the bathroom there were two urinals and one toilet. Sometimes when you have to piss so bad, though, you can’t piss right away. Like, it takes a minute or two for everything to filter in. It’s not terribly comfortable when that happens. They had the sports section posted above the urinals so that the guys pissing could read it. I read it. But, I’d actually already looked it over that morning in my old bedroom. That had been pretty nice. And then I looked at the tiles on the wall. It was pretty clean, except for a booger someone had scraped. So, the booger. And then there was some writing, in the grouting between the tiles. It was tiny. It was a joke.

The joke read: What is better than fucking a dead baby? Nothing.

I chuckled. Jeez, that was a wicked joke, but I thought it worked in a wicked way. I felt the piss coming. But then the door swung open, really abruptly. A guy came up to the urinal next to me. It was the Secretary of Defense. I didn’t look at him. I didn’t want to acknowledge him. I don’t know what part of the male body makes you pee – not the kidneys nor the bladder nor the actual penis – but whatever that part it is, it hurt like hell. It was throbbing. Because, and I think a lot of men have this problem, I sometimes have difficulty peeing in front of other people. Sometimes I can stand there and stand there and nothing comes out. Usually it happens in bars. Or at Wrigley field, where all they have to piss in is a trough. Oddly, it never happened at home. Not in front of my girlfriend, either. But it was happening now. What was worse was that there was no partition between the urinals. If I looked down, I could see the Secretary of Defense’s penis. He could see mine, too, but I don’t think he’d go tell anyone about it. But boy, I bet my girlfriend would get a big kick out of it if I told her I saw his penis and it was tiny. Minute. We were really juvenile like that, sometimes. She’d would say something like No surprise there. Or, I knew it. Or, That explains a lot.

If I told my dad that, he would ask me why the fuck I was looking at the guy’s dick. He would tell me to let him piss in peace. If I told my mom, she wouldn’t say anything.

As it was, I didn’t look at the Secretary of Defense’s penis. I just tried to piss. And this guy, once he started, it was like a hose. I mean, I’m surprised the force of the stream didn’t make him fall over. But he was going and going, and it made me really jealous. But I figured he was in the military and in the military you probably have to get used to communal living, showering and shitting and pissing in front of other men. Not to mention him having been a pilot, him having gotten shot down and then living in the awful prison camp, where you probably lost all sense of humanity, probably went crazy a hundred times over a day.

I saw an interview with this guy, the man standing next to me, about his prison camp experience, and some of the things these guys went through. I mean, shit you wouldn’t believe. These guys were turned into jelly. Put into devices or attached to devices that it would be hard to even conceive of. For example, the Secretary of Defense, in this documentary, explained that he’d been attached to some kind of wooden frame that was meant to bend his spine back to the point right before it broke. He’d said in the documentary that he could hear the vertebrae about to snap.

They hadn’t, of course. And maybe it hadn’t only because he’d been so strong. From the time he was living in my suburb and being a high school wrestler and having the body of the wrestler, sheaths of muscle, like plates, lying on top of each other. His little body in the shape of a V. And then all the physical training he’d have done in the military. This guy was probably pretty tough. Not that you could tell a few minutes ago, with him and his granddaughters. Nor with him pissing next to me.

The thing my girlfriend could never figure out, and was in fact a mystery to me, too, was that he was really hawkish. In spite of what he went through. That didn’t compute to us.

All these magazines and news programs had started to report that it was he, rather than the President, who really pressed for war, and it had finally become clear, after a total invasion of what was a sovereign country, that his reasons for pressing for war were myths. Or, that he was ill-informed.

We were having coffee, me and my girlfriend, at the local coffee shop in the town where we’re both lawyers, and she said My God, not only is this man a war criminal, but he’s stupid, too! But I didn’t say he was stupid. Because I didn’t know if he was stupid. I mean, he certainly seemed like an asshole. If she had just said he was an asshole, then I might have agreed with her. But I didn’t want to think that someone who had come as far as he had was stupid.

My dad and I never really talked about the subject and it was okay, because I got my fill of it with my girlfriend.

So there’s me and the Secretary of Defense. That part of my body that made me had to piss was really aching. In fact, I think the urine might have started to creep back inside my kidney filtration system. But it wasn’t awkward, like it so often is in these situations. Because he was going like a madman, just letting it all out. Fine.

He emitted a very long breath. He didn’t care that I wasn’t peeing. He probably was used to it, in fact. People probably got stopped up around him all the time. I didn’t look down, to see what kind of equipment he was packing. I really didn’t want to know anything about it. The funny thing was, the Secretary of Defense smelled familiar to me – it was obvious – it was the same aftershave or deodorant that my dad wore. Something really old school. I don’t recall what the name of the stuff was. English Tonic, or something like that. I said to myself that when I went back to my dad I would ask him.

The Secretary of Defense looked up. He had been focusing on the thick stream of urine coming out of him, but he’d started to slow down a little. Not much, but a little. He looked at the sports page that the restaurant had posted. But not for very long. Maybe he’d read it on the plane that he’d taken into our city. I bet he got some special private jet to fly him in – had the thing at his disposal – and they would lay out the paper for him. I bet he could have whatever he wanted on the plane – sandwiches and drinks and soda. He could probably watch DVDs. Leather bucket seats like I’d heard or seen someplace, like on some celebrity exposé, but I couldn’t remember where. Maybe it was just him and some security guy. But the security guys weren’t with him at the restaurant. Just his family. Not his wife, though. Maybe she had something important to do in Washington. In fact, I don’t ever recall hearing about his wife. Which was odd. I mean this guy had been Secretary going on six years and I don’t once recall ever seeing a picture of him with his wife. Not at a State Dinner or a tour of another country. Nothing. Even though my girlfriend once said that she – the man’s wife – was probably like all the rest of them: some religious nut who thought our nation’s cause was just, that Jesus lived in Iowa. Probably never had sex, the Secretary and his wife. Probably slept in separate beds. This is what my girlfriend would say. She really hated this guy. We did okay, though, me and her. Slept in the same bed, sex all the time.

What if he didn’t have a wife, this guy? It was possible. Perhaps he did have a wife, once, when he was in the military, some young, blond-haired-Betty-Crocker-type wife. Really sweet. A trophy wife. But then he got back from Hanoi and maybe he would have had bad dreams. Like in the movies. Or bad day-dreams. Certainly you don’t walk away from something like that and not have bad dreams. So the dreams. And maybe, in order to not have bad dreams, he would fix himself a drink before he went to bed. And then maybe that didn’t work so well, and so he’d fix himself two. Or three. Him just sitting up in their nice little home, all quiet outside, could only hear the insects in the grass groaning, the earth respiring, the vapor on the earth. His wife sleeping. The condensation beading up on his drink and spilling onto the side-table they had by the sofa and his wife getting up in the morning, every morning, wondering at first what the hell was ruining their side-table, but then realizing it was her husband up at night having his drinks. Maybe the guy would be watching television, but maybe not. He might have been used to the quiet. Maybe he reveled in it.

Eventually, they would have that daughter of theirs – the one I saw outside in the restaurant. And he would have been working for the military still, but with all his decorations, he would’ve started to think about running for senator. Maybe some people he knew, some high-echelon military guys, had suggested it to him. And then he would go home and maybe he would mention it to his wife, but maybe not. Maybe the war turned him off from being a regular husband. Maybe, he would just sit there with his drink, the ice melting, his little daughter and wife sleeping, all around them other families sleeping – maybe it was two or three in the morning – and he would fantasize about being a senator. I don’t know, though, what he would have fantasized about, because if he grew up in this town, the one I grew up in, then he probably had some money. And senators didn’t make a lot. So it wasn’t money. Probably it was something involving power. But then, I thought, he’d been a fighter pilot – he had the power to kill or not kill people. How much more powerful can one get than that?

He looked up at the booger. His expression didn’t change. And then, I could tell this – he read that joke, the one about the dead baby. I could just sense his reading it. I could feel his eyes on the black ink on the white grouting, squinting a little to read it. Someone had written this – had a pen on him and they must’ve really taken their time with the writing, because they’d have to have written in it such tiny script.

The Secretary of Defense didn’t smile. He looked back down. He must not have thought it was funny, like I did.

I felt myself loosening up and was happy about this. I could feel things starting to re-emerge – an acute rush that felt like coming, different in a way, but still terribly satisfying. Where you have to go so bad that what comes out first is a dribble. Then a deluge.

I started to reconsider telling my girlfriend about the whole thing. She might get a kick out of it and she had this really wonderful, throaty laugh, and she might tell some of our friends, and maybe I was being too harsh on her. She was a lawyer and I was a lawyer – we both loved playing squash, we both loved golf, we both loved cooking and terrific wine. She even liked to smoke a cigar with me every once in a while. Everyone said I had a terrific catch, and she said I had a terrific catch and I said the same to her. We were living together – and it was comfortable, living with her. She didn’t always need to be in a conversation – she appreciated silence as much as I did.

She might just say Oh, wow, that’s a riot, you were peeing next to the Secretary of Defense.

But, I knew that wasn’t true. She would make a jab at him. She would figure out something – as long as I mentioned it and even as innocuous as I might have made it sound – you know, I was out with my dad and I happened to find myself at a restaurant with the Secretary of Defense…blah, blah – I don’t think she’d be able to let it go.

Then I started to feel lousy, because I couldn’t tell her. Or, I could, but I wouldn’t. And then I couldn’t tell my mom, of course. I had plenty of friends, and I guess I could have told them. And I wouldn’t tell my father. I thought that he would think it was sort of a gauche thing to do. Though, I don’t know why he would have thought it was gauche. I guess invading some guy’s privacy – Let the guy have a piss, kid, what’s wrong with you? And I could say that maybe I thought it was kind of cool, or kind of novel, or something, but he would turn away from me and go back to his beer. And then I could say I bet he was glad the man wasn’t the Secretary of Defense when my father was my age and the draft was on, and he would say what the hell difference would it have made? and I’d have said the guy probably would have sent more and more troops over, never admitted defeat – the whole thing might have dragged out years longer than it had already dragged out. And my father would say I don’t know about that, you might be mistaken on that one.

But what the fuck did he care, my dad, I mean, he was in law school himself when his war was going on, and then he got a job teaching – deferral and deferral – he wasn’t about to get sent over to the hot, green jungle.

For some reason, the Secretary of Defense, who’d grown up in the same town as me, gone to the same high school – somehow he’d gotten his ass over there. But clearly, he had sort of wanted to go. He must have. You couldn’t, of course, watching him pee, see the part that was in him that believed he ought to have gone. He was self-righteous – this is what my girlfriend was always saying. And maybe he was, but I mean this guy went through hell, and he really must have believed in something, because he was sending guys like me, young guys, younger even, over to do similar mis-deeds. Then I started to think that my girlfriend had really brain-washed me, because only then, at the urinal, only next to the Secretary of Defense, did I consider that a soldier is a solider, they’re paid to be killers and warriors and all manner of brutal thing – I mean, that’s their job. It would be like a firefighter saying he was willing to pull down cats from trees, but not run into burning buildings.

You don’t pick your wars, is what I’d heard my dad once say.

I think, however, that it was sort of an easy thing for my father to say, sort of a macho-dumb-tough-guy thing for him to say, because he’d not picked any war, and he was as healthy as a horse. He was married, but so were a lot of guys. They had money, him and my mom, but that didn’t mean anything – he’d started out working at some really prestigious law firm in the city, worked like a madman, made a ton of money there, and then he’d opened up his own practice, working like a dog, even long after he needed to – but it was not as if work was really an excuse, nor was his education or background an excuse, for after all, the man I was pissing next to me could have been my father. Or my father him.

Secretly, as my girlfriend would put it – secretly I had issues with my dad. His stolidity. I think I waved her down when she tried that one over on me. Not that she would have let me wave her down. Probably I just didn’t say anything. If he had gone into the war, my dad, he probably would have done fine, probably not have been in any sort of combat situation, him being so smart (he was tremendously bright). So maybe he’d have some kind of analyst job. But let’s say, for the sake of argument, that he’d had to fight. Had to be an infantryman. Carrying all sorts of gear like I’d seen in documentaries and movies – he was sort of big guy, so maybe he’d be carrying that big machine gun that sat on a tri-pod. My father the gunner. Him shooting through thick razor grass, him up on a ridge, or down on one, alongside some river with a funny name, like Duck Tho, or Fat Rhee, who the fuck knows? I don’t know if he’d have been a good soldier or a bad soldier, but I suspect, I mean I care to believe, that he would have been a good soldier. And might have done something brave. And if trouble had found him, say, then he would have been clear-thinking and courageous. He probably would have had a good temperament for being a war-prisoner. Not talked at all. They would have gotten really frustrated at him. Marveled at his quietness – his going inside his own head to some place that they couldn’t, even through all their torture methods: the rack, the electrodes, the prods – not have gotten to. Because he had that thing – that ability, or disability, to be distant. He was in the ethers, too, my father.

But then I had to think, had to, about what would have happened if he found himself in trouble. Real trouble. If, for instance, he’d found himself in a firefight, where you can’t really see the enemy, them having camouflaged themselves so thoroughly that they blend into the forest – but blend into is not exactly right – they are part of the forest and the forest part of them: the bark of the tree, the shade and the un-shade, the green and black canopy, the debris on the forest floor. You might see a shimmer, or the fire flickering out of a muzzle, but that’s it. And my father, white and big, flinging himself down and firing away. Presumably someone would have been on the radio to shed some ordnance on the enemy. But in the meantime, right? Maybe my dad would have given them a good run, but they might have been too much for him and all the guys around him. They might have killed him.

If they did, say, kill him, then of course I would never be born. Because I was born late, after that war. My mom would have married someone else, and maybe she and that other guy would have had a kid. Or maybe she would have just been some lady whose husband got killed in the war, like a lot of women. Who would be taking care of her now, is what I want to know? Someone or no one? Not my father, to run to the drug store; not my father trying to research her illness on the Internet, him typing away and cursing because he was such a lousy typist and always had a secretary to do it for him. Him so savvy in court and in meetings, but looking like a total amateur around the doctors – taking notes, scheduling and rescheduling appointments. Him cleaning up the ruin of her. She would be doing that on her own, I guess. Or with some other guy.

In either case, what she would have told herself was that he, my real dad, died for a reason. Because to not think so would be to believe that there is such a thing as vanity in war – that my dad had gone over there for some reason other than the best reason. Which we know, as my girlfriend was always telling me – was in fact the case. People get killed so that the rich can get richer. Which seemed absurd and silly to me. But I never said anything to her about it.

I wanted to ask the man pissing next to me if this was the case. If somehow he was going to profit from our adventure in the desert.

This man wearing glasses. This man pissing next to me, his little muscular body, his deep-set eyes that far away one might mistake for beady but were not; his smell like my dad’s smell, alcohol and clove and the essence of something burnt, his khaki pants, his bare, hairless arms, his hands holding his privates that I couldn’t see and didn’t want to, his eyes still sharp, his back still curved and solid like a wrestler’s, even though someone had tried to break it. His family, trying to be happy and healthy and make their kids laugh, sometimes the kids laughing so hard they threw up, which had happened once or twice with me – my mom was some comedienne; his gray hair, short around the sides and short on top – still pretty thick, the clean sides of his face, as if he’d just shaven, his sloping shoulders, his position in government, which, two hundred years ago, I recalled, would not have been the Secretary of Defense but the Secretary of War, the top man in the War Department. And then him with his grandchildren, those two little girls, each one, I bet, right now, trying to draw something great for their Grandpa. And his daughter like any girl you’d ever seen, sort of nice looking, with his sharp eyes, fine figure, married to some guy like any other guy you’d ever seen – a guy like me, maybe. I could be that woman’s husband. There was no reason why not.


He finished up before I did, the Secretary of Defense, and he zipped up and turned away and washed his hands. And then I finished up a few seconds later and washed my hands. I was sort of drunk, is the truth. But I still felt pretty good and I suspected that I would sleep really well that night. I really liked the summer in the suburbs. I would get under all the covers, in that huge air-conditioned home, in my old room, among my old things from when I was just a kid, and sleep a great sleep. And I hoped that my dad had had a good time, us going out together. Not talking about anything special, but just getting him away from my mom and the nurse that was now living in the house.

I went back to the bar. The Secretary of Defense went back to his family. I don’t know where his wife was. But he went back to standing above his two granddaughters, who’d drawn a new set of drawings for him. The daughter and the son-in-law and the little boy – they were all eating pizza.

“Are we all settled up here?” I asked my dad.

“Yeah,” he said.

I thought about asking him what kind of cologne he wore. I didn’t. And then I wanted to ask him if he felt better. I wanted to feel as if I’d done something good. Though, it was clear to me that we had pretty much exhausted the matter.