Abut a week ago today I climbed off a plane in Philadelphia, and took the little train to 30th street station where I was going to catch a larger train to New York. Somewhere in 30th Station I passed a news stand; outsde it stood three soldiers, looking ridiculously young and gawky: a blonde girl, a white guy and a hispanic. They had baggy green uniforms, the usual guns and so forth. I don’t know what they were doing there, and they didn’t seem to, either. So far as I know, they were about 6,000 miles from anyone who might seriously be trying to kill them. As I walked towards them, a middle-aged couple ahead of me walked right up to the soldiers, shook their hands, all three of them, and said something about how proud they were.
At this moment, I realised that I know nothing whatever about America, and all the American blogs, magazines and so on that I read have been misleading me by concealing some vital piece of knowledge — but I don’t know what it is.
Obviously I have seen armed soldiers (and policemen) patrolling airports and stations before. I this country we have been fighting IRA terrorists for nearly 30 years. But I have never seen anyone go up and shake their hands while they’re on duty, any more than you’d shake hands with pilot while he’s flying.
Neither the soldiers nor their supporters seemed to find anything odd in the transaction at all. Perhaps no one in America would do so. At first I thought, hah! this just shows they’re playing at war. But I think this is wrong too. Then I thought that it showed how Americans still think war can be fun, or ennobling, or uplifting, or all the other things that we stopped thinking some time around 1917. But I don’t know that that’s true, and I don’t think that it’s helpful either.
Suppose it was just a little gesture of patriotic piety, like crossing yourself as you pass a roadside shrine, or removing your hat in a church? This may be true, but how does it help me? The point is that this comes from some continent so far outside my own experience, and so far outside the kind of experiences that my liberal American friends will transmit or admit to that I can’t keep that continent in mind. Yet without that knowledge, everything I read is inextricably biased by my own hemisagnosia, and everything I learn simply leads me deeper into ignorance. So I am going to stop reading all American political magazines and blogs unless I am actually in the country.