Wednesday, May 28, 2008
To the Fallen, and the Standing
I would have liked to post this on Monday, but I was in NY with my son on a surprise visit for my Dad's 80th, and between jet lag and family time, I didn't get a chance to. That morning, me and the Lil' Feller had about an hour to kill before meeting up with everyone, since we were both waking up on Paris time. All weekend, there'd been a steady stream of Navy personnel in town for Fleet Week, and it occurred to me there might be some fun events programmed for a seven year-old. Sure enough, the USS Kearsarge was docked at Pier 90, a straight shot down to the water from the hotel, and it was open to the public. So we hopped in a Yellow cab and within ten minutes we were wandering around the various military vehicles -- a tank, an Armored Personnel Carrier, an amphibious landing craft -- stored in the hold.
I asked one of the Marine hosts, not even half my age, how many people rode in the back of the APC, which looked like an oversized oven fitted down the middle with two back-to-back benches about the width of a car seat. "Eight," he replied, before pointing out that by eight, he meant fully armed and equipped. "You don't want to be in there for more than five minutes," he assured me. Toss in the fact that as often as not an APC is transporting its passengers in a war zone, and I think it's safe to say that you don't want to be in there, period.
I was moved by the sight of all the young men and women in uniform in a way that I've never been before. I come from a family with a long history of pacifism and, yes, anti-militarism. Among the earliest photos of me in the family album is one, circa 1969, sitting in my stroller with a wool pennant reading "Bring the GI's home" draped across the front. In our family culture, though, hostility to the military was limited to the generals who sent young men into needless wars. The young men themselves were always regarded with a mixture of respect and regret.
This was the first time I'd ever really been surrounded by American soldiers during wartime. That it was also the first time I was face to face with the American military since my increased professional interest in national security and military issues probably also played a part in my heightened sense of appreciation. Clearly I was the target of a very effective info ops campaign, but I wanted to find some way of expressing to them my respect, my admiration, my emotion, not for their mission, which I find regrettable, but for their service, which I find heroic. The fact that it was Memorial Day, in the middle of a lightning visit back to my hometown, only reinforced the urgency of the sentiment. But as much as I wanted to say something, it would have felt silly to say it to only one of them, and impossible to say it to them all. I thought about trying to find an officer to use as a collective conduit, but the idea struck me as grandiose.
But more significantly, I felt curiously ashamed of expressing my appreciation, because to recognize the enormity of their service is also to recognize the normality of my own life. Unlike World War Two, where every segment of the population was mobilized into the war effort, or the Vietnam War, where the draft served to distribute the nightmare, if not equally, at least more widely, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan have remained largely private wars: On the one hand, a mobilized military bearing an enormous burden; on the other, a demobilized citizenry bearing little to none.
So instead I explained to my son how moved I was, because these young people were serving at a time of war. And when we got to the transport helicopter fitted with medical stretchers up on the flag deck, I made it clear to him that these courageous men and women fly out every day knowing that they might be flying back strapped into one of them. War, I explained to him, is not a game. I hope to God he understood.