That Time We Wrote Letters to La David Johnson

The week after four American soldiers died in Niger, Kevin Bowen asked a Warrior Writers workshop at the Suffolk Poetry Center to write a letter to La David Johnson.

At the time a faction of Social Media bots and lemmings circled the fact that Johnson was left behind. The official story is murky, and I’m skeptical of anyone claiming to know the truth. There are quite a few possible narratives, but it’s worth meditating briefly on the effects of racism and colorism and otherism.

Some media mavens rave about the dangers of Islam, as though ancient narratives have the power to kill. As we often hear from gun enthusiasts, “People kill people.” Still one only needs to glance into history to see how dogmatism in any form can get dangerous: Branch Davidians, The People’s Temple, White America, Inc. No law is divine, and if there is a heaven we’re probably not invited. Laws are only as good as the people holding them up.

Since soldiers (and police) stand on the front lines of law enforcement, overcoming “otherism” within the ranks seems to me to be of value. Whatever the reason that La David Johnson faced his death alone under a thorn tree, whether he ran away from the convoy on his own, got ignored in the chaos or both, whatever narrative you believe, try to focus on this one media personality. Try writing La David Johnson a letter.

Alternatively, you could write to any other one of the soldiers who fought that day. Maybe even write a letter to one of the enemy soldiers, or to one of the Nigerien government forces that fired on the American Convoy first before recognizing it as friendly. If you're not feeling any of this, write a letter to a family member.

Here are pictures of the five immediate responses from the five people who were at that workshop:


Here's my considered response:

Dear La David Johnson,

The Army says you ran fast for cover, and then fought to your death alone under a thorn tree. I imagine you died standing. I'm a vanilla veteran, made it on one cruise in the navy. Still, in my head, had I been there, your body (at least) would have made it into the truck, or else there'd have been two dead men left behind for two days.

So I play the hero in my thoughts, like I did with my brothers in my parents’ backyard. You look so young in those videos the Army made, showing comradery for CNN et al. I’m always skeptical of news, no matter the source. Maybe the official narrative mirrors the truth, but human foibles are beyond belief.

I remember how segregated the galley would get, and a lot of casual racism on cruise. I can imagine, since you were not a green beret you might have been seen as second class. Every now and again fights between special operators hit the newsfeed. It’s a prideful club you rode with that fateful day, when you died in Niger. I have a big imagination.

Since I started organizing Warrior Writers workshops in Boston, starting in 2014, I've been curious about its origins and intent. Participating in these workshops has triggered me in odd ways. Sometimes I wonder what compels me to keep scheduling events, to keep showing up. Lovella (the founder) says it all started during an anti-war conference in 2007, and I believe her. I think peace is a value worth keeping, but I’m not always antiwar. I like a good fight. I hope to die standing, like you.

I believe in Biblical justice, in the psychological power of blood. Still, if God exists, that image is in us. As the lemmings say, “Where we go one, we go all.” This is why I don’t claim a disability at the VA. I like to work for money. Free money makes me anxious, like a rat in a trap. I’d rather die in a ditch than in a hospital bed anyway. A long tradition associates immigrants with ditches. I'm with Abraham. Smash all the old Idols. Leave home. Find yourself.

I think everyone who cannot work for whatever reason could be accommodated, if we cared. Nobody needs to be homeless. Nobody needs to be hungry. Earth creates enough resources for everyone to live fat. For some reason, we’re stuck in a clusterfuck, building a bunch of war weapons or other subtle (obscene) eugenics experiments, and not figuring out how to give people food and shelter. Instead of coexisting (YOLO) and improving in peace we feed our weaknesses, get stoned, drunk, choke each other out.

Maybe all of that virtue signaling is my absurd attempt make sense of my melancholic brain chemistry.

I’ve had suicidal thoughts for as long as I can remember. Sometimes the thoughts are funny. Often they’re violent. They’re self-righteous, and generally they’re accompanied by deep depression. So many people fight for life, and here I go wallowing in morose thoughts. I don’t like how Warrior Writers sometimes drapes itself in the suicides of its participants, though I understand why it's politically useful. I don't like brands that associate themselves with warriors that they send to their deaths. I don't like wallowing in failures and weaknesses.

I believe that we should remember the past, understand the pain, and detail it in private so that we might better understand. We can’t fix our errors with headstones. We can learn from mistakes. But let the dead rest. Nobody wants a spot on a wall of failures.

I’ve digressed into grandiose posturing for the sake of a nutty blog. La David, I believe you existed. You held up your honor like the king you were named after, and I see online how your family loved you. Thank you for living well and building our American family. Your death is only a period. Before that you lived like a mortal. Now you are remembered.

To you La David Johnson, and to your brothers Bryan Black, Jeremiah Johnson, Dustin Wright, Bagué Soumana, Abdoul rachid Yerimah, Yacouba Issoufou, and Goubé Mahamadou Issaka: all I know is I that know nothing. Platitudes abound. I admire your courage, and your sacrifice.


Caleb Nelson