"Never think that war, no matter how necessary, nor how justified, is not a crime."
-- Ernest Hemingway, 1946
I was born near the end of the baby boom in what now seems like a fortunate crease: too young for Vietnam. There was no draft when I came of age.
I could have signed up for military service, and considered it. Had I not been found out as color blind and therefore disqualified from pilot training I might have tried to wrangle an appointment to the Air Force Academy. I had the grades and the extracurriculars and had grown up on airbases, under the comforting roar of gray-bellied planes. I could have secured the necessary recommendations to get in.
I was a conformist kid, used to doing what my parents, teachers and coaches told me to do. I might have flourished. Or tried to quit, like a friend did.
He said before they let him resign an officer berated him for an hour, screaming at him, telling him if he quit the Academy he'd never amount to anything, never finish anything in his life. But he knew it wasn't for him and stuck to his decision, and finally they let him sign the papers. He transferred to another school and ended up all right.
He was strong; I wouldn't have been able to withstand that sort of exit interview. I would have acquiesced and maybe run off in the middle of the night or something. Sometimes I shudder when thinking of all the ways I could have screwed up as a kid.
But other than flying, which was something I really thought about a lot when 12 years old, I don't ever remember thinking much about military service.
I knew kids who were fascinated with the paraphernalia, who kept dud hand grenades and samurai swords in their bedrooms and who could pick out planes by silhouette. They had collections of Colby books on fighting gear--they knew about tanks and heavy guns and how to build a booby trap with poisoned-tipped pungi stakes (or so they said).
They pulled on dungarees and T-shirts and crawled on their bellies under wire fences and pretended they were behind the lines. They made their plastic rifles crack and spit, and each in his turn fell, joining the valiant fraternity of the brief heroic dead, rolling spectacularly down dirt mounds to something they imagined was like composed and dignified sleep.
I played these games too--doing what kids do--though not with any special fervor. (I had a different sort of uniform in mind: that of a centerfielder, dividing my plastic soldiers into baseball teams, and imagining that their rifles were bats. Leagues were formed, seasons' statistics kept and copied into wire-bound notebooks that were slipped onto a shelf tight with John Tunis and Sporting News.)
I read comic books and watched TV, same as everybody else. Sgt. Fury and his howling commandos, Vic Morrow and Combat. Movies like The Dirty Dozen and Kelly's Heroes taught me that Hitler's SS had the best uniforms, bible black with silver insignia. Evil dressed sharp, with draped leather boots and riding crops.
But I knew war was not like the movies.
In school there were girls who wore plain steel bracelets engraved with the names of men gone missing. I knew the children of men who did not come home, some of whom were presumed dead. I remember lying awake at night listening to the cocktail clink and chatter of the adults a thin bedroom wall away, and could tell when the talk turned serious. I knew war was not a joke or an adventure. It broke people.
It was an extraordinary thing, a sometimes necessary but extreme action that countries took against one another. And I thought it was about big and important things, about the bringing or preserving of freedom. I thought we went to war only when we had to, that we were a peaceful tribe.
But now I know that since 1776, there have only been 21 years when we were not busy with some great or petty war, in foreign lands or at home. We've been at war for 91 percent of our existence. It is our status quo. War is just another tool a president might employ, to whatever end, for whatever reason.
Aristotle thought there was a special kind of courage that could only be tested by those "fortunate enough" to go to war. Emerson, in his famous essay, wrote: "War educates the senses, calls into action the will, perfects the physical constitution, brings men into such swift and close collision in critical moments that man measures man."
And maybe there is a little to that; war is an extreme experience and no doubt it teaches you things about yourself and the nature of humanity. If you escape it with your wits and soul intact, maybe you can accept it as hard education.
Still, you are lucky if you manage not to go to war. (If you are afraid of missing out, there's always another one.)
Not all wars are equal. Soldiers have died and killed for all kinds of reasons and causes, some worthy, some disgraceful. We identified the people living on this land before the Europeans arrived as an existential threat, so we decimated them. We fought to preserve the right of men to hold other men as chattel.
We also fought to end slavery, and, after Pearl Harbor, we emerged from six years of sleepy isolationalism to help save the world from Axis tyranny. While no war is genuinely noble to those required to fight it, some are necessary and right.
But not all are, and it is an opportunistic politician's gambit to try to reduce all conversations about war to discussions of the bravery and service of our soldiers. Wars might be fought, American lives and treasure sacrificed, for high ideals and moral causes or for a few pennies on the gallon or points of approval rating.
It is proper and important that we consider and investigate exactly what we are fighting for and against, and who stands to benefit.
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Editorial on 01/12/2020