I'm very grateful for the chance to blog for Powell's for the next five days. I'm about to start a book tour for my new book, The Braindead Megaphone, and I guess the idea is that I'll blog from the road. Tonight, however, I'm home in Syracuse, and not much is going on. Instead, I'd like to tell you about a little trip I took last week.
Like many Americans, I've been troubled by rumors of mistreatment of prisoners at Guantanamo Bay.
So last week I paid Gitmo a visit.
Although it's difficult for the "average citizen" to gain access, I had an advantage: the great respect (bordering on awe) the American government has for us "literary types." As you may know, all a writer has to do to gain access to a restricted federal facility is show up at the front gate and declare his or her genre. You just declare "short story writer," or "literary essayist" or "lyric poet," and they let you right in. Of course, sometimes there's a bit of a hold-up when the sentry wants to ask some question about the use of mis-en-scene in Chekhkov or something, but I usually enjoy this part, and do my best to reciprocate by getting the soldier to teach me something about his gun or a grenade or something, just so he doesn't feel outmanned.
Anyway, I want to report that there are a lot of false rumors floating around about "Gitmo."
First thing that happens is, they give you these plush slippers. Everybody wears them — visitors, guards, prisoners. It's to protect the beautiful wood floors. That's right. You don't hear much about that from the elite liberal media, but the floors at Gitmo are of a very rare and soft form of mahogany, that is kept in tip-top, gleaming shape year-round.
Inside, several individuals in plush robes were playing Ma Jong, studying the Koran, watching a large plasma TV, enjoying a massage, or wandering amidst the expensive collection of artwork.
"What's up with all this luxury?" I asked my guide, Colonel C___.
"Well, George," he said. "These people are our guests. The vast majority have never even met an American. We want to make a good impression. Just think of the wonderful work of conversion we can accomplish here, just by giving them a chance to see our world!"
"Uh, well," answered the Colonel C___. "The thing is, we don't really know if they're guilty or not, right? I mean, none of these fellows has even had a trial yet. And gosh, I'd hate myself if I was rough on somebody who hadn't actually done anything! I could never live that down. So we're erring on the side of assuming innocence, I guess. After all, if we mistreat them, and they get out, they'll only vent their anger on us. Or are we wrong about this? You tell me, you're the fiction writer, you know tons more about human nature than us "military geeks."
Then I asked about another rumor I'd heard, namely that there were a number of very old, and very young, men — even boys as young as 14 — at Gitmo.
"True!" he said. "Here's one now!" He then waved to a young man he referred to as "Ali," who indeed looked very young, and was, it appeared, being tutored by a U.S. soldier in the fine points of the Constitution.
"Hi Ali! What's up?" said Colonel C____.
"Nothing much, C-Man!" Ali shouted back, a happy smile lighting up his face. "Private Leonard was just teaching me about the Constitution! What an incredible document! I hope to help implement some of these ideas in my own nation, when I return home!"
"Super!" said Colonel C, giving me a wink. "So you think it's a pretty durable, transcendent document, eh?"
"I think it rocks!" said Ali.
Just then a badminton birdie flew across the room and landed in the Colonel's holster. "Hey, cool it, Fariz!" he laughed. "Work on that serve, will you!"
"I will do it, Colonel C___!" responded an affable bearded man. "Perhaps you can teach me, as you are known to be 'King of Serve!'"
I asked Colonel C___ about the rumors I'd heard about mass suicides, sleep deprivation, routine torture.
Colonel C___'s jaw just dropped, and his eyes suddenly filled with tears.
"Youâ€¦you've actually heard things like that?" he said. "Jesus, you're kidding me. People are saying those things? About us? Jeez. That'sâ€¦ that's terrible. We work so hard in hereâ€¦"
"Well," he said. "I don't suppose we can control what people say about what goes on in here. All we can control is what actually goes on in here."
All in all, these guys seemed pretty tame. Where, I asked, were they keeping the hardened Islamists, the really violent ones?
"Gosh, I don't know," Colonel C___ said. "I mean, since they haven't been tried yet, I don't really have any way of knowing who did what, you know? I mean, some of them paint some pretty lurid stuff during Painting? And we have our share of grumpy-Petes, especially around bedtime — but until I find out who did what, I'm treating them all decently. Because what do I know? I'm just a soldier. I'm not a judge, not a jury — I surely can't be expected to treat these guys harsher or kinder based on what they did or didn't do, especially since we haven't really made any substantial attempt to determine any of that."
"What do you think, George," he asked sincerely. "You know all about various narrative devices, and how to get an epiphanic ending that really seems earned. How are we doing here?"
I told him what I really felt: That Gitmo was a terrific place, representing a proud moment in American history.
And what an excellent send-off I received! A four-course meal, fireworks under the stars, a staged reading of the Bill of Rights that left everyone teary-eyed: I truly felt like a guest of honor, in a high-minded place that resonated with the American Ideal.
But I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised at the excellent treatment I received.
I am, after all, a fiction writer.
Tomorrow, we turn our attention to Phase I of the book tour: Packing, Worrying, Developing Stage Fright, and Doubting One's Own Work.
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George Saunders is a MacArthur “Genius Grant” fellow and the acclaimed author of several collections of short stories, including Tenth of December, Pastoralia, and CivilWarLand in Bad Decline, as well as a collection of essays and a book for children. He teaches in the creative writing program at Syracuse University.
Books mentioned in this post
George Saunders is the author of CivilWarLand in Bad Decline: Stories and a Novella