Best Defense

Soldiers and motorcycles: An excerpt from Elizabeth Samet’s ‘No Man’s Land’

Last March, back home in Seattle from his deployment, Kevin headed out on his bike across the country.


Best Defense is in summer re-runs. This item originally appeared on November 14, 2014.

By Elizabeth Samet
Best Defense guest columnist

My friend Max insists that he would “sell his organs” before his Fat Boy. Max did “some serious riding” when he returned from Iraq, and he has been to several rallies and crossed the country twice since leaving the army in 2006. When I asked him to explain the special relationship between combat veterans and bikes, he proposed that riding constitutes a strange form of “detox” or “rehab”-a way to “come to terms with the version of you that’s returned . . . Not necessarily changed for better or worse. But different.”

In addition to the bonds cultivated or preserved by riding in the midst of a group of like-minded bikers, there is an elemental freedom to the motorcycle: riding creates a space in which a veteran can afford, as Max puts it, to think about everything “you either didn’t have time to think about over there . . . or you obsessed about . . . only to return home and find out it didn’t matter.” The road is the place where Max can be understood without having to explain himself. Even after many of his illusions have been shattered by real-world experience, he retains a romantic faith in the road: “The road has all the answers . . . The road is a promise fulfilled.”

Kevin, who returned home from his final tour in Afghanistan about a year ago, also finds clarity on a bike. He even spent his mid-tour R&R leave riding motorcycles in Australia. For Kevin, riding is part of a quest for simplicity and understanding. It engages him by penetrating to essentials. Bikes have the great virtue of being “uncomplicated . . . If something isn’t working, you know right away how to fix it.” But the chief boon of motorcycling for Kevin seems to be the measure of control it gives him-a sense he lacked in combat situations: “There’s so much uncertainty, so little control” in war, but a bike “registers your slightest command. It will go wherever you want as fast as you want it to.”

This theme of control is one to which the veterans I know frequently return. Max describes the sensation of “being in control and out of control simultaneously. On the very razor’s edge. And maybe that’s why motorcycles are so alluring to veterans. It’s that same . . . feeling that follows you everywhere in a combat zone.” Damon, who prefers BMWs to Harleys, has often talked to me about what he regards as the largely illusory relationship between riding and control. He classifies motorcycling and war together as examples of a Faustian bargain. Control and autonomy are simply delusions common to the experiences of riding a motorcycle and fighting a war. The knife-edge that Damon recognizes, and has himself navigated both on a bike and in Iraq, is shrouded in a romance that seduces even as it betrays. At its paradoxical heart lies the ultimate test of self-control together with the great temptation to total surrender-in a burst of speed, perhaps, or in a burst of gunfire.

Last March, back home in Seattle from his deployment, Kevin headed out on his bike across the country. In early May, the eastward leg of his trip complete, we were catching up over beer and tacos in Greenwich Village. Although we have been regular correspondents over the years, this was the first time I had seen him since his West Point graduation. He was working hard at a Walt Whitman beard but otherwise looked the same: lean and serious. He still has that bright eye and curious spirit I remember so well, and he has come away from his experiences, dispiriting as many of them have been, with if anything a more optimistic view of human nature than he had before.

During his trip Kevin’s military service often came up naturally in conversation and served as a point of contact with fellow riders as well as with the many people he met along the way. The nature of his engagement with the homeland he was traversing depended in large measure on the fact that he was wearing the leather gear of the motorcyclist, not the military uniform that marks service members out as spectacles and sometimes complicates their communication with civilians. Kevin came away from the trip feeling as if his interactions with his fellow citizens, brief though they had been, constituted real and honest connections, animated by generosity, solidarity, and a healthy curiosity.

“There should be some important place you want to go,” he told me after finishing the epic road trip that had somehow taught him how to come home: “somewhere legendary that you’ve never been.”

Excerpted from NO MAN’S LAND: Preparing for War and Peace in Post-9/11 America by Elizabeth D. Samet, published November 2014 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC.  Copyright © 2014 by Elizabeth D. Samet. All rights reserved.

Elizabeth D. Samet is also the author of Soldier’s Heart: Reading Literature Through Peace and War at West Point, which was named one of the 100 Notable Books of 2007 by The New York Times. She was a 2012 Guggenheim Fellow and is a professor of English at West Point. The opinions expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Military Academy, the Dept. of the Army, or the Dept. of Defense.

Thomas E. Ricks covered the U.S. military from 1991 to 2008 for the Wall Street Journal and then the Washington Post. He can be reached at @tomricks1

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