Prime Directive

"When I finally recognize his costume, I smile, shake my head, and say, 'Look at you!'"

"When I finally recognize his costume, I smile, shake my head, and say, 'Look at you!'"

“Today we’ll see just what kind of monster I am.”
–Army Spc. Charles Graner on his way into court

I’m standing under a street lamp at the end of my street dressed as Captain James T. Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, wearing an extremely tight red long-sleeved shirt, layered over a black t-shirt to imitate the black piping around the uniform’s collar, black slacks and black leather shoes. I’m speaking via communicator-a brand new cellular phone, the kind that flips open-to Mr. Sulu, who had agreed to pick me up at this intersection of streets. I ask for his ETA. “Five minutes, Captain,” he says. I clap the cell phone shut, and it chimes cheerfully. I wait. I look up at the trees and the darkening sky. At that exact moment, the streetlight above me hums loudly and then goes dark. It is the Saturday night before Halloween; the world seems rife with omens.

I meant to go to evening mass, anticipating the next morning’s hangover, but I couldn’t bring myself to walk the block to St. Bede’s because the priest, a poor man’s Max von Sydow straight out of The Exorcist, is cold and unceremonious, and I didn’t want him ruining it for me. Now I’m regretting it. I could’ve used the reminder that we are on the eve of a holy day. And I could’ve used the blessing.

I’m newly married, but my wife and I are separated. She has taken a job in another state, and I can’t join her until the semester ends and I’ve turned in my grades. So I’m living in our almost empty apartment, sleeping on a camouflage army cot. The wood floors creak more loudly now that there is nothing to deaden the sound-no hall carpets or crammed book cases, no tables or chairs, no pictures on the walls, just a stack of six phone books that we found under the couch that I’m hoping to recycle and a closet full of lonely clothes hangers. I feel I’m beginning to understand the Japanese aesthetic. Everything sits on the floor-my computer, lamp in the shape of the Eiffel Tower-and it’s all accessible from the sitting or kneeling position.  It humbles me. The house seems smaller now, not bigger. I have so little that I am more aware of the mess I make. I don’t like it. So I stay out of the house until late at night and I always drink a few beers to help me sleep.

I flip open the cell phone and scroll through my list of contacts; I need company. That’s the genius of the thing-it cuts the loneliness. I wonder if there is a patron saint of space travelers.

A big red Chevy truck comes over the rise in the street. I step off the curb and wave.

Sulu reaches across the seat of the truck and opens up the door. He’s grinning ear to ear, wearing a mustard yellow shirt, black slacks and shoes.  We laugh at how authentic we look. I hand him his communicator, and old deactivated cell phone borrowed from a friend. He’s beside himself with how perfect it is, how silvery and space age. He hands me a shiny silver chevron badge indicating that I am an officer of Starfleet. It is too perfect, almost an exact replica of the real thing I’ve see on television. I made it from a Pabst Blue Ribbon can, he says.

As Mr. Sulu and I drive, I think to myself: I shouldn’t be going out. I should be grading papers or working on my novel, or reading one of the five books I hid from the movers. I should be in Indiana helping my wife hang pictures, or raking leaves; she tells me a wind storm came through and defoliated the huge oak, or standing on a chair installing the new dining room chandelier, or sneaking up behind her in the hallway and kissing her hair. Instead, earlier in the day, Mr. Sulu and I drove to Dick’s Sporting Goods inn the Waterfront Mall to buy long sleeve shirts, on sale.

Our first stop is a pre-party at a shotgun flat in Friendship. In attendance: a Prozac pill, the Cracker Jack Kid in blue and white sailor suit carrying a stuffed dog, a soccer referee, a cowboy, and Ms. Scarlet from Clue, the whodunit board game. Ms. Scarlet is carrying a noose, but wishes it was a wrench instead; she’s afraid that people will see her as just another beautiful suicide.

The rail thin Indian kid hosting this little warm-up says to me, with an accent that modulates between British, Indian, and golden-haired surfer from Santa Cruz, “You’re one of the extras, right? One of the guys that dies when they beam down to a dangerous planet? They wore red shirts, didn’t they? Mr. Sulu corrects him, “He’s Captain James T. Kirk!”  I think about trying out Kirk’s melodramatic delivery, Spock, have you lost your Vulcan mind? But I’m not feeling up to it. No one is drunk enough for it to be funny, including me.

All of us sit in the living room, drinking and smoking. We compliment one another on our costumes and tell stories about previous Halloweens, but most of the conversation is about Star Trek-favorite episodes, favorite characters, favorite spin-offs. The thing is, I’m not really a Star Trek fan. When the soccer referee, who happens to be a graduate student in Philosophy, mentions the Prime Directive, neither Sulu nor I know what he’s talking about.

“No, really,” he assures us, “it’s very interesting.” The Prime Directive is the moral code that governs the conduct of all Space Federation members; it says no Starfleet personnel may interfere with the healthy development of alien life and culture.

The room erupts-we’ve hit upon something. Star Trek is a morality tale!  Someone rattles off the different ethnic backgrounds of the characters-It’s like the United Nations! The Klingons are the Soviet Union! Someone else breaks in, “It’s like trying to introduce democracy to Iraq!” Bush is a war criminal! Iraq is another Vietnam!

The election is only two days away-the most important election in a generation.

There’s a feeling that the Prime Directive will help us to solve this crisis.

This is an informed group of people: would-be philosophers and writers and psychologists, a dynamite auto mechanic with a degree in geography-he can name nearly every world capital; he knows the location of each ocean and sea. I listen to the laundry list of confirmed atrocities: over one hundred thousand Iraqi civilian casualties, according to Britain’s top medical journal; no weapons of mass destruction in sight; hundreds of detainees held without charge in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

But nobody mentions Abu Ghraib.

I keep waiting for someone to mention it, but no one does. The photos of abuse hover in my head. They have haunted me since I first saw them. I can’t stop thinking about them. There’s something familiar about them, like I’ve seen them before. I feel that know the type of person who would commit such acts. But I decide it’s best not to bring them up; it’ll just bring everybody down.

Prozac begins to get impatient; she’s ready to move on to a party at a friend of a friend’s house in Shadyside-the official university psychology department party. We finish our drinks, smoke down the last of our cigarettes, and file out the door, still buzzing about the possible connections between Iraq and the Prime Directive.


The party is lame. Only a handful of people are in costume, dressed as Pittsburgh Lolitas, dulled visions of the Oakland Catholic girls who wait for the bus outside the Carnegie museum in short pleated skirts and knee socks, no matter the weather. I expected more dark ingenuity from Psychology students.

In line at the keg, a guy in a big afro, bell-bottoms and polyester shirt open to reveal his thin chest hair says, “Beam me up, Scotty.” Noticing my red shirt, he points and laughs: “You’re one of the dudes that dies, right?”

I push my way back through the house, past the table of people playing a drinking game, through the empty dining room where a klatch of Lolitas are grinding to Outkast, through the slender hallway where stoic, plain-clothes boyfriends wait on line for the bathroom, out to the front porch.

I’m alone now. All is surprisingly quiet except for the thump of bass through the windowpane behind me.  I feel like maybe I’m sabotaging my own good time, so I think about trying out a Captain Kirk imitation. This requires a little method acting. I try to find my own points of emotional connection to Kirk’s identity: There are long pauses in my own speech; I slow down at the ends of sentences to allow time to formulate the next thought (something a forensics teacher in high school told me to do to avoid saying “Ummm”).  But what I can’t tap into is Kirk’s confidence, his bravado, his unfailing sense of duty to ship and crew. I’m a coward. Lately, I’m afraid to open my mail.

I know it’s silly, but I think back to the Prime Directive and the war in Iraq.  I think of my enlisted cousin who, at my grandmother’s funeral, dressed in his Marine uniform, said that he couldn’t wait to bomb Iraq into the fucking Stone Age. I think: in two days, George Bush will be reelected; the draft will be reinstated; my students, my students who have been reading Susan Sontag’s Regarding the Pain of Others and Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried will be drafted and they will experience first-hand for themselves what we have tried to understand from all angles all semester-what Sontag concludes we cannot ever understand, no matter the candidness and explicitness of the reportage, no matter how many reporters are imbedded, no matter how freely the images flow-war is indiscriminate; it lays waste to everything.

Ms. Scarlett comes on to the porch and sits down in the chair next to me.

“Is anything wrong?” she asks.

“No,” I say, trying to shake it off and have a good time, “It’s just that…” I pause. I look around for something else to blame. I nod toward the picture window behind us, “It’s just this music.”

Outkast has given way to Chingy-I like it when you do it right thurr, right thurr. And even though it’s petty, for that moment the music becomes a part of it too. I can see the video in my head: the big butted girls in short shorts and skirts and shiny bikini tops in a subway car white-knuckling the silver polls, squatting low to the floor and, somehow, causing their rear ends to vibrate.

Everything is out of balance. I weigh the blurred faces and genitalia of Abu Ghraib detainees against the near-naked, big-breasted, big-assed women gyrating on the subway. I weigh Charles Graner’s look-what-I-caught smile and the pyramids of human bodies against the costumed psychology PhDs grinding in the living room. In between songs, they stand in line at the keg discussing psychotic behavior and dementia.

Scarlett smokes her cigarette and tries to make conversation. She talks about how rap used to not objectify women. This makes me more depressed. She recognizes this and gets up and goes back to the party. Despite myself, I watch her walk away from me and see beneath her short skirt, fish net stockings.

Suddenly, Sulu appears on the porch, followed by the entire cast of characters. “Let’s go, Kirk,” he says into the communicator in his palm.


We’ve heard that the next party has a roller coaster and a fun house, kegs of beer, hot dogs and hamburgers, all for ten dollars and all under a giant circus tent. Prozac tells us there may be a wait to get in; priority is given to people who bought tickets ahead of time, but I am determined to stay out, away from my empty house, away from thinking, so I climb into the back of Cowboy’s Suburban.

The house is set back from the street behind a high hedge, its upper stories hidden by old trees. It looks plain haunted. Bamboo patio torches frame the front steps and the costumed partygoers who sit there, smoking. Behind them, the arms of the wide, dark porch open to greet us. But the front walk lists off to the left through a break in the hedge, and we follow the gathering noise around the side of the house. Here, the tree limbs sag low, so we have to duck. When I stand upright again I am at the end of a line of costumed people, all of them turning to look at me with frustrated eyes.

I think about going home. I think: This is ridiculous. Why am I waiting in line? But thinking this, the vision returns-the orgy, the maidens, the fire, the rollercoaster, the funhouse. I need some proximity to strangeness, something that will take my mind off of the reality that is waiting for me when I am alone.

When a man in the ivory suit finally lets us in, I am in no mood to make conversation with anyone.  I look for the food. There’s none left. I look for the rollercoaster. It’s closed. The funhouse? No one knows what I am talking about. Cowboy gives me a beer from his shoulder-carry cooler and then is swallowed up by the crowd. I stand motionless beneath the big top, making a list of the predictable costumes: vampire, zombie, fairy, flapper, etcetera.

Then I see him: this kid I used to hang around with. We had a class together once.

But he looks different. He’s grown a mustache. He’s wearing pale green rubber gloves, an olive drab t-shirt, Army issue pants and black combat boots. He’s wearing glasses.

Ever so slowly, I recognize his costume. I feel my face animate. I step around a group of people and thrust my hand forward and shake his rubber-gloved hand. I smile and shake my head saying, “Look at you.” I just can’t stop smiling and shaking his hand, like we haven’t seen each other since childhood. He smiles back, a little bashfully, as though both happy and annoyed at being recognized, like a celebrity in the airport.

He hands me a few Polaroids, and I look closely, having to squint in the dim light of the tent. I hold them up to the little light there is: pictures of people with their faces covered and my friend kneeling next to them, smiling into the camera giving a thumbs-up. I must have given him a puzzled look because he produces a Polaroid camera and a black sack, “a sandbag,” he says. It takes a moment for it to come together-for the two to add up to what I’ve seen on television and online and in the newspapers and magazines. It’s as if he’d made an improvised bomb from household cleaning products-it isn’t so much that it’s wrong; it’s that he thought to do it. He’s actually gone through with it, gone beyond that point where rational people turn back, chicken out, shake their heads and laugh it off.

It’s somehow exhilarating.

“Do you want a photo?” he asks. “I thought we would take a photo together, just the two of us”-Captain James T. Kirk, the fearless leader of the Enterprise, with army specialist Charles Graner of Uniontown, PA-prison guard at Abu Ghraib. He turns away from me and scans the mob of people under the tent. His eyes fix on the back of a tall kid talking with a circle of women just a few feet away. He taps him on the shoulder.

“Excuse me, would you mind wearing this?” He shows him the bag.  He points at the camera and makes the international symbol for “take a picture”, his index finger moving up and down in a motion like depressing the button.

The tall kid shrugs and smiles as he puts the bag over his head. Graner’s girlfriend steps a few feet away to properly frame us up. It is only then that I notice she is in costume too-army issue shirt, pants and boots. My old buddy, Graner, kneels down on one side of the kid and I get down on one knee on the other. I give the thumbs up. I smile.


Splotches of color dance before my eyes. There is a mechanical whirring as the gray tongue of film shoots forth from the camera. I can’t remember, but I believe then, dazed by the flash, I thanked the tall kid and shook his hand.

“No problem.”

Now it’s awkward between us. There’s not much else to say. I tell Graner it was good to see him, he says the same, but before he walks off with his girlfriend into the crowd, he hands me the Polaroid. I put it in my pocket before anyone sees.

Not sure what to do now, I stand on the sidewalk in front of the house and look for a ride home. A group of partygoers is huddled there waiting for cabs. An actor kid I know is there with his arm around a girl dressed as a cat. I can tell he doesn’t remember my name.

“Hey,” he says and smiles. “You’re one of those guys that dies, right?”

Dave Griffith is the author of A Good War is Hard to Find: The Art of Violence in America (Soft Skull). He teaches at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. Check out his new blog Any Poorer Than Dead.