Thursday, December 16, 2010

where cowards lurk

When I was a freshman in college, there were a number of academic requirements -- English, science, a foreign language, etc. And together with them was a requirement that males take ROTC -- an acronym that was pronounced ROT-SEA and stood for Reserve Officers' Training Corps. Back then, in the late 1950's and early 1960's,  the U.S. had 'universal' conscription and the military was part of the national tapestry. Flower power would come later. The idea that women might be similarly required to have military training wasn't even on the radar.

My father had lectured me at some length about his philosophical opposition to the military and perhaps that lecturing -- which lacked some force in my young ears because he had never actually been in the military -- was part of the reason I decided not to take ROTC ... requirement be damned. I thought through my opposition as best I might at 18-19 and then had a sit-down with the officer in charge of the ROTC program. I made my case on moral rather than religious grounds and to my surprise, I was allowed not to take the course.

Three years later, I volunteered for a three-year hitch in the army. Conscription was still the law of the land and, unless I ran away to Canada, got pregnant, went to graduate school, pulled political strings I didn't have, or pleaded conscientious objector, there was no way out of it. I explained my change of heart to myself by saying, "I am more interested in experience than I am in virtue." It was a feeble argument in its time, but now, so many years later, I have to admit I like it quite a lot. My father was not overjoyed at my choice but, being an college-teacher intellectual, he smothered his disdain.

I did acknowledge that I did not have the courage to be a conscientious objector -- a group whose detractors often bring up their lack of patriotism and just plain cowardice. I never could quite figure out why, if you believed someone to be a coward, you would want them on your team in the first place. The inability or unwillingness to recognize the fact that there are cowards in this world strikes me as an indisputable act of cowardice ... but that's just me.

Anyway, I joined the army. The bottom-line mission of any military is to coerce and kill and I was fortunate not to have been put to the test during my three years. Instead, after a suitable period of running around in the South Carolina dust, learning to shoot and salute and make my bed, I was taught German, sent to Berlin and spent a couple of years with the single most intelligent and eclectic group of people I ever met in my life.

We were "Violet Section," a bunch of fruits and faggots from the gung-ho point of view ... the people who eavesdropped on East German (yes, there was an East Germany once) political phone calls. The army needed smart people and yet smart people seemed limp-wristed to those who maintained a narrower and more heroic vision of coercion and killing. I suppose, in their eyes, we were just one step up from the unpatriotic cowards who never did any military service at all.

I'm not quite sure what got me off on this old-fart recollection this morning except perhaps the re-echoing of the experience-trumps-virtue theme. Mostly, I think it's true. But nowadays I also think there is a point at which virtue can trump experience, as for example, the admonition not to kill or steal or lie or misuse sexual capacities. Each and every one of these capacities is well within the human arsenal and yet, particularly with killing, there is good reason to follow as best possible the admonition: "Don't do that." Why? Short answer: Because suicide is a poor way to lead this life.

And I guess too that I was thinking of the coward anyone might face when trying to lead a fruitful life -- the coward in the mirror. Miles beyond physical cowardice lies mental cowardice -- the fear that things can and do change and that if I take the time to investigate this obvious fact, I will lose my footing and my definition and my comfort. This is not something to scorn like some lapel-pin patriot. This is something to treat with care -- with a gentle firmness that does not surrender to the blandishments of easy bias or judgment or virtuous hallelujahs or group-think.

In this realm, who wouldn't be afraid? Who wouldn't shrink back in horror? Who wouldn't cower among the cowards?

And yet cowardice and comfort are not quite enough. The accusations of the mirror are sometimes just too tough to take and each in his or her own way feels the imperative to step forward, to step up, to be courageous where there are nothing but shudders.

Gently, firmly ... to seek out what nags in the night and casts doubt by day.

To seek it out and, in the end, to make peace with what is at war.

To seek it out and return victorious.

A victory that requires no flag-waving.

I found Zen Buddhism useful, but that's just my mirror.


  1. I've been in the army 9 years. I fly a blackhawk helicopter now. I'm often torn between feelings of what is right or wrong about the military. It is a very gray area for me.

    In the end, I see the enormous support I receive for my family and--at least in my experience--the enormous support I have provided the world through my livelihood. I just spent 2 months in Pakistan delivering food to flood victims for example.

    On the other hand, I am connected in some way, (aren't we all?) to certain injustices I am sure. Also, I spend a lot of time away from the family I wish to support.

    I think most things can be thought of in this way...the good and the bad side of the coin. Experience vs virtue? Few things exceed hovering 50 feet off the ground in a 15,000 lbs machine with the ability to fly where you wish! Fun!

  2. Hi comfortablydumb -- Thanks for your hard work and thanks for reflecting a bit.

    In Zen, a fun question might be: If good and bad come in a single package, what then is good? This is not a question for pussies.

    Keep your eyes open. :)

  3. I was a CO during Vietnam; for 40 years have been a Quaker with a Buddhist practice. Over those years, I've grown to appreciate how the military can be like a good parent who breaks up a fight or like an abusive parent who slaps a child around just because he/she can. Intention matters as much or more than method--maybe in the end they amount to the same thing.

  4. Ursula LeGuin's Earthsea Trilogy has been like a lamp post. Dark night of the soul wakes up. Seriously, I had a dream a couple of nights ago where I blocked a last second shot and won a basketball game. Not me in the daytime. No matter how much we look at this stuff character at 60+ wills out.