26 May 2008


I am lucky, this Memorial Day.

I can think of only one relative who died while serving in this country's military, out of many dozens of them. I've been to the Vietnam Memorial, been told of the relationship, looked at the name engraved in stone. He was a cousin of my father. But I never knew him, and he is a relatively distant relative. A large share of my ancestors came to the U.S. after the Civil War, and good share were the wrong age, the wrong gender, or had essential occupations (mostly in farming) that kept them out of World War I, World War II and Korea. They made sacrifices in wartime, but not of their lives. Many of my relatives were drafted in peace time, but that rarely kills you.

My family tradition does not include military service as an important virtue and obligation that one must volunteer for as a matter of duty in the absence of a draft. I can't name a living relative who ever told war stories, bragged about his military service or extolled the value of becoming a soldier or a military officer of any kind. If my relatives expressed any sentiment that I recall, it was relief at having escaped the draft or having mustered out as soon as possible after having been drafted. I grew up never seeing service as a military officer as a path that I was under any pressure to pursue or consider, although I was never expressly discouraged from doing so either. I grew up with a strong sense of honor, but that sense had little to do with bearing arms.

In law school, I investigated the Judge Advocate-General's Corp. The physical fitness requirements, the expectations of spit and polish, and a prevailing belief at the time that military justice was corrupt quickly dissauded me. (The pay and benefits, as well as the opportunity to see the world, actually seemed rather decent at the time.)

My peers were mostly college bound small town kids from the Midwest and didn't sign up (or even seriously consider doing so) either. I knew as many consciencious objectors as I did people who signed up. I wasn't either. I registered for the Selective Service and read the rules and felt a great relief the day that registration expired. I actively opposed the first Gulf War from a seat as an intern in Congress, but I was opposed to that war, not all wars. My peers and I exaggerated the danger and assumed that if you signed up to serve in the military that there would probably be a war and that you would probably get shot.

Honor as a war hero is something that it never occurred to us to crave. I still have mixed feelings about war heros. While they often did the right thing at a given moment and saved their buddies at great risk to their own lives, acts of heroism are usually made necessary by somebody else's incompetence. Heroism is usually a symptom of failure. Respect for what the hero did is often tempered in my mind by rage at our other guy's deadly mistake.

I am hardly atypical of my generation. No U.S. military action since Vietnam has involved a draft or killed U.S. service members on a similar scale. Vietnam was in its final days before I had even a glimmer of a notion that it had ever happened. For me, it is a piece of history I have heard retold vividly but never experienced myself. Hearing the American Top 40 played looms larger in my memories of those early years of my life, than the war, although I recall seeing a glimpse or two of it on the TV news.

The current Iraq War has come with the highest price in our soldier's lives since Vietnam, but it is an order of magnitude smaller in scale and because it has been fought by a volunteer force, very few of my peers have had connections to it. Some of my high school friends and some friends of friends in my adult life have been involved in the enterprise, but thankfully, have been spared so far, like 99% of their peers who have served in the military during the Afghanistan and Iraq Wars period. Certain units have paid much higher prices, but my friends haven't been in those units. I suspect that we are in the last half of these wars, although one can never really know for sure until it is over.

The most personal it has gotten for me was sharing a home with a distant cousin in Washington D.C. as her beloved was deployed to the Gulf War, feeling her anguish, fear and uncertainty. Fortunately, in the end, the Gulf War turned out to be the most lopsided military victory that the world has ever seen, and Bush the elder didn't push to turn it into a prolonged insurgency. No one we knew died.

I have received the benefits of the service of those who have died for their country, while paying a low price among my friends and family. I am lucky and I know it. Civilized people should feel gratitude for benefits conferred upon them, even when they didn't ask for the sacrifices that brought them about.

Thank you, those of you have have died for our country, and even more so, those of you who have been left with holes in your lives as a result of their absence. I fly the flag before my house today for you.

Millions of people in our country today weren't so lucky. The latest war has produced thousands of orphans, widows and parents who have lost children. Prior wars left even more behind, their lives shattered by the loss of a son, husband or father, or sometimes (rarely until the recent war) a daughter, wife or mother. Ten times as many still have their loved ones, but those loved ones are maimed in mind or body or soul. All those losses are not easy to bear. We have a government agency, a big one called the Veteran's Administration, to console you and give you what you need. But government benefits can never be enough. Tragic losses can never truly be repaid.

Their losses have nothing to do with the politics that brought about the wars that they died in. Soldiers do what they are told. They don't decide whether or not to engage in the wars that produce their sacrifices. Those decisions, we leave to another caste, politicians. The soldiers didn't make those choices. They didn't choose to uphold our values or to betray them. They made a simple act of submission to the needs of their country and the wisdom of its leaders. Their sacrifices were an investment in our future, placed in trust for management by others who never knew them. Our country needs their gifts of obedience to survive. We betray their memory when we mismanage what they have offered us.

War seems to make heros out of some men, demons of others, and hardens most of the rest. The line that divides these men can be paper thin.

Of course, not every hand has been dealt yet. I could still lose a friend, a son or a daughter, a son-in-law or a daugher-in-law, or a grandchild to war. I long for peace from 2017 to 2027 or so. But there are no guarantees in life. It is a possibility every parent faces and feels differently about. I refuse to think very hard about it until it becomes reality, or at least, until it becomes probable. There is no reason to borrow worry. Like prior generations, I am unlikely to encourage or discourage service, and I suspect that my children are unlikely to seek it out, although they might.

My parents took that chance when they let me participate in the proto-military culture of the Boy Scouts (that part always spooked me a little, as did the anti-gay culture of the military and later the Scouts). But nothing came of it. I don't know if the service minded generation of my children will influence them towards this end. The soldier's life gets better press now than it did when I was a child in the immediate aftermath of Vietnam. I will have to wait and find out the hard way.

Until then, I will remain lucky and thankful.

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