Thirty years ago, you probably wouldn’t have liked me. I probably wouldn’t have liked you either, which is a bloody shame.
I was a smug, sanctimonious little cuss, which in itself probably isn’t remarkable for a 20-something. But I was an Abbie Hoffman wannabe growing up in the Vietnam War era. I read his book Woodstock Nation and totally bought into it. I had hair crawling down my back and I fancied myself an anti-war peace freak. (God always gets the last laugh – now I have hardly any hair to speak of.)
I believed war was evil and was always wrong.
I assumed everyone in the military possessed less-than-average intelligence and understood nothing but brute force. I hated Nixon, and Johnson before him, for escalating US involvement in what so many said was an illegal and immoral war.
I actually approved of the guys who fled to Canada rather than going to combat. Had the draft not been discontinued just as I turned 18, my plan was to declare myself a conscientious objector. My Southern Baptist background notwithstanding, I really thought I could make that work. If I’d been honest with myself though, I was motivated more by fear than conscience.
As it turned out, my service was not required. Who knows what kind of soldier I might have been? I’ll never know if I would have measured up to my dad, who was drafted and served stateside in the Army during the Korean Conflict, or one of his older brothers who served in the Navy in WWII. The Greatest Generation left some awfully big boots to fill.
My changing attitude
Gradually during the Bush I and Clinton years, my attitude started changing. Call it maturity maybe. I met a guy who spoke of holding his buddy’s intestines in his hands as he watched him die in Vietnam. He was forever affected by this and other experiences he had as an African-American soldier during an era that didn’t always value his service. I thought of my first girlfriend at age 15, whose older brother had given his life in ‘Nam.
I saw refugees from all over the world willing to die trying to come to the United States rather than live under brutal and oppressive regimes. They understood better than I did that, despite all the things wrong with our country, it was the greatest chance at freedom and a good life for their children.
Later I thought about a family whose daughter was a classmate of my daughter’s, the mom a friend of my wife. They lived without their dad and husband – a major in the US Army Reserve – for a year while he helped rebuild Baghdad’s fire department and other infrastructure following the fall of Saddam Hussein. His unit did not escape the horrors of war, losing one member to a roadside bomb.
At the risk of repeating a cliché, I came to clearly understand that freedom is not free and that countless good people have sacrificed a lot more than I have to preserve it.
I still think war is horrible.
I have no clue how horrifying it is, in fact. I don’t think anyone short of the Hitlers and Saddams and Bin Ladens of the world would argue that war is a desirable option to achieve anything. It is to be avoided if at all possible, but NOT at all costs. Those who say it is never necessary either cannot or will not recognize the dark consequences of passivity and appeasement.
To those of you who have served and those who are serving now, I say God bless you for your willingness to make that sacrifice in order to protect the freedom and safety of my children and yours. My life is the poorer for not knowing you sooner. And without question it is richer because of your service to our country.