I am an American, Hoosier born. But it’s Geneva where my memories begin in earnest. Not entirely out on my own, I usually felt as though I was. I vividly recall roaming the city after (or occasionally before) classes let out in search of the sort of café you might find in a Van Gogh – a spot where a budding writer might read and reflect and write in between cups. The role these years played in my development can scarcely be exaggerated. Although by this point I had seen some of the world, if only a glimpse of it, something about leaving home for more than a stretch made it seem real for the first time. Living in Switzerland, and attending the world’s original international school, was an experience tabula rasa.
It was not long before I cut my teeth in this idyllic setting, making a name for myself as a certain breed of ugly American. I had no desire to be acquitted of this charge, coming as it did from those who understood the term to be redundant. They might have loathed America in different ways and for various reasons, but they loathed it and its defenders fiercely (the feeling was mutual). I had no inkling how much this reputation meant to me, however, until that fateful day in September 2001 when I instinctively reached for a notebook and put quill to ink out of solidarity with my distant, bloodied country. Over the next days, many of my acquaintances – not all of them non-Americans – rushed in the opposite direction to put the United States in the dock, at which point I felt a seismic fissure open in the ground underneath us: ugly or not, I never felt more American, and was intensely proud to be so.
The memory of that time has stuck with me and still has the power to make my pulse quicken. My modest pamphleteering on behalf of America’s exceptional place in the world had seemed appropriate enough, even hair-raising at times, but I couldn’t help noticing that it provided rather low returns. I felt compelled to find a larger stage in that cause to offer my services. By the time I left Geneva to return home for college, I had a fairly formed view of what I needed to do. Surveying freedom’s battle raging in Mesopotamia, I registered a near-visceral urge to put down the enemies of an American-led world order with more than words.
This urge to stand sentry under the colors was dashed when I was discharged from the army before I graduated officer’s school, much less got the chance to release the safety catches on my rifle in combat. But I am a prisoner of my own past, and since the opportunity to unsheathe the sword slipped away I have again had recourse to the pen. It now seems the only weapon I’m ever likely to wield, which is just as well. All these years later it might seem quaint, but I still detect the sharp smell of cordite on the page. And I cling to the belief that in the seclusion of the café there remains a battle to be fought.