Monday, September 24, 2007

September 24, 2007 - Hurry Up and Wait

Last night I watched the first part of Ken Burns’ new documentary series, The War – his take on World War 2. It was, as I’ve come to expect from Burns, gripping. One of the people interviewed, a woman from Alabama whose brother went to war, kept saying over and over how suddenly all their lives changed, the day they heard, over the crackling radio speaker, the news of Pearl Harbor. She seems a bit bewildered by the rapidity of the change, even to this day. Anyone with an eye to the political situation in Europe and East Asia in the late 1930s could have predicted that global conflagration was in the offing, but Americans were oddly insular. Our nation was in denial that the rise of the Nazi, Italian Fascist and Japanese war machines would ever affect us.

Lots of people are fond of describing patients’ experience of cancer in military terms. Turn to the obituaries any day of the week, and you’re likely to find the words “after a long battle with cancer” somewhere on that page. I’m not fond of such language, as I’ve said several times upstream – although I’ll admit that the shock of a cancer diagnosis, and the rapid changes it brings about, is not unlike receiving the news that formations of Zeroes have been sighted over Pearl Harbor.

Yet, it just doesn’t make sense, biologically speaking, to think of cancer as an outside invader. Our own bodies make the cancer. The cancer is us. If we’re going to use the military metaphor at all, I suppose we’ve got to describe it as a civil war – a protracted, brother-against-brother slugfest – rather than some pious crusade against a foreign enemy.

Even when we’re healthy, our bodies are perpetual killing fields. Cells come into being and die every hour, every minute, only to be replaced by other cells. That’s the natural order. It’s when a cell doesn’t die when it’s supposed to that the trouble begins. Maybe we ought to think of cancer cells as legions of the undead, marching dumbly onward.

I’m no fan of horror films, but I do know that one thing that makes for a good one is how well the director manages the viewers’ experience of waiting. There’s a delicious experience of foreboding that’s dear to the hearts of true horror fans. A good director knows that, once the swamp creature or zombie or pissed-off dinosaur finally shows up, that’s good for only a few minutes’ worth of celluloid. You could never sustain that level of terror throughout a full-length film. So, a great many minutes of horror movies are dedicated to spinning out that experience of waiting: knowing the evil adversary is coming, but not exactly when.

You can probably sense where I’m going with this. Someone has memorably described an ordinary soldier’s experience of war as long days of boredom punctuated by moments of absolute terror. Burns’ footage of Marines undergoing training and leaning on the rail of the troopships, then finding themselves in the fight of their lives in the pestilential jungles of Guadalcanal, is true to form.

I’ve noticed that members of the World War 2 generation are fond of the phrase, “Hurry up and wait.” It captures a reality they knew all too well: whether it was lining up for an army physical, queuing for a gas-ration card or playing endless rounds of penny-ante poker on a barracks footlocker.

In that respect, I suppose the military metaphor will serve for me as well. “Hurry up and wait”: I know a little better, now, what they mean.

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