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To fight aloud is very brave,
But gallanter, I know,
Who charge within the bosom,
The cavalry of woe.

Who win, and nations do not see,
Who fall, and none observe,
Whose dying eyes no country
Regards with patriot love.

We trust, in plumed procession,
For such the angels go,
Rank after rank, with even feet
And uniforms of snow.
Emily Dickinson


Small metallic placards adorn their otherwise featureless desks, a throwback to the days when work entailed shuffling papers and filing visas. Today it is rare for one of them to grace a desk with his presence--the Department has bought them cell phones and laptops and, remarkably, none of them resisted the new paradigm. It is busy and the hallways are aflutter with busy workers coordinating their knowledge. Here everything is secret; here everyone is sacred. The blank corridors are here and there distinguished by a sardonically scribbled graffito (spotted beneath a security camera: "Quis ipsos custodes custodiet?") There is a sort of nervous, heightened tension that plainly will not dissipate soon--it is not fear, nor is it malice, but rather a foreboding air of inevitability that hangs over all. This is, after all, an intelligence agency; there is no people more likely to be actively cognizant of its own fate, or at the least capable of concocting an outline less sketchy than others'.

Here are the heroes whose names can never be sung, here are fought the great battles of which no one can be told, which no epic can contain. Voltaire said, "To hold a pen is to be at war," and these noble figures every day fight a war more invisible than the one that sprang from Voltaire's intellectual ramblings, and more deadly also. The civilian citizens who entrust their very lives to the efficacy of these great men and women, albeit unknowingly, are in the best possible hands. It is a wondrous thing indeed that so few can safeguard the well-being of so many, and doubly as impressive that they do it without threat of autocracy or injury, without corruption or oppression.

While by their nature and by urgent necessity their selves must be concealed from public view (as they are so profoundly aware, it is a dangerous world), they find outlets for self-expression from time to time. Constructions are always a channel of subliminal communications; the Pentagon, fivefold strength and undying resolve, is placed in plain view of the public and juxtaposed with the departed heroes who rest in Arlington Cemetery just up the hill. This powerful pentagonal figure perfectly obscures the miles of hallways and nervously pacing protectors (perhaps for the better), but it still manages to intimate a certain solidarity among a people so otherwise diverse. So bold a placement might seem unjustified in any more faithless land, but here these patriots express their grudging trust in their neighbors, and here they fight to keep that trust living.

Tomorrow may bring a host of troubles, a hundred petty despots or one rogue leader threatening the fringes or the foundations of freedom, but these guardians will remain, performing their crucial duties until time ends, if need be. And so, too, will they hide beneath this concrete aegis, obscured from view by such a great bastion of freedom, as imperfect and incomplete as it may sometimes seem, of use only while they inhabit that small space of the earth which that mighty structure masks. And eventually, as all of us must, they will go home, or perhaps retire. And when at last they leave--to sleep, to reintegrate themselves into life, even for a while--some of them will take those little metal name cards with them. Succinctly breaking down their character into a first name, a last, and a position, these cards are more than identification, more than some insidious double agent's dream collectible; they are signs of courage.


I don't usually explicate my prose, but it seems right this time. Every year, the local PTA holds a nationally-sponsored "contest" called Reflections. The idea is that each student deserves a thorough arts education and should strive for recognition; every student who enters gets a prize (though first, second, and third places are also given). The "contest" extends from the local to the national level. I've never participated before, but the hapless PTA put up posters all around the school and I felt bad (in the past few years, they have peaked at four submissions, and two of those came from the same person). This year's prompt, plastered all over our walls on giant (tasteful) posters, is "Signs of Courage", and it made me think. I have friends with job history at the CIA, and that organization doesn't get enough good press, what with MKULTRA and USA PATRIOT and those assorted depressing acronyms. So here's a partial paean. It might sound aphoristic and a little awkward, but it's true: Everyone is people.

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