With a helpful nudge from "Judith," here is the monthly column as it appeared in the local paper today.
Military matters, from father to son (12/16/15 Daily Hampshire Gazette)
A couple of months back, my younger son, a machine-gunner for the Army National Guard, came home one evening and announced that two security positions had opened up in Afghanistan and he had volunteered.
My stomach lurched, but I tried to keep a straight face. Ives is 21, a college student and has been drawn to the military since he was little. There comes a time when a father needs to let go of his children. But that doesn’t mean the transition is easy.
Yes, a part of me can see the attraction of military engagement, but another part rises up in a protective fury: This is my son we were talking about. My son!
The late Russian dictator Joseph Stalin once said, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” With more than 20 million Russian dead during World War II, you can see where he was coming from.
But the idea that my son might become another man’s statistic was beyond all words! It was beyond horror. And it was at this point in my paternal confusion that a recollection asserted itself.
In 1959, I attended a college that had a mandatory ROTC (Reserve Officer Training Corps) program for freshmen. As a freshman, I successfully petitioned to be excused based on a 19-year-old’s conscientious objections. At 19, I was very sincere.
Yet, two years later, I signed on the dotted line and joined the Army as much as anything because, I was “more interested in experience than I was in virtue.” There was a draft at the time and “everyone” participated. My father was flabbergasted: How could a “rather intelligent young man” — as he once described me — be so stupid?
Anyway, I signed up and went. I was a pretty good shot, but when all was said and done I ended up as a pencil-pushing spy in Germany — a linguist who never shot at anyone and was never shot at in return. In addition, strangely, the unit I was assigned to in Berlin turned out to be the single most intelligent group of people I would ever meet in my lifetime.
My father disapproved and I did it anyway. And now my son was on the verge of doing it and it was my turn to grind my teeth.
But there is a difference between a pencil-pushing spy and a cannon-fodder machine gunner. I can sympathize with a young man’s willingness to go in harm’s way if that is the price for an inner peace that youth seldom has a handle on. There is “brotherhood,” “patriotism,” “service,” “courage,” “heroism,” and perhaps a whispered hope for “glory” ... all of it a heady and reassuring social support system.
Was it ever otherwise? Old men fashion the dreams; young men live the nightmare.
All of this and more like it flashed through my mind as I considered Ives’ announcement. I wondered if there was anything I could say that might be useful to the course he had chosen or might fall victim to.
All I could think to say was this: “If you are selected to go to Afghanistan, I think the first thing you want to do is learn at least 100 words of the native language spoken in your assigned country. It may not be much, but it could save your life or the lives of your buddies or the lives of the people whose land you occupy.”
My son looked supremely unimpressed. Machine guns don’t need words. Bullets have their own language. “Peacenik” rhetoric changed nothing. Why make things any harder than they needed to be?
But what good soldier is not trained to know his enemy? How could you know your enemy without some facility in the language? Does esprit de corps mean a willful ignorance and mindless flag-waving? Wouldn’t you like to think that women and children (the ones referred to blithely as “collateral damage”) might somehow be absolved and made safe?
One hundred words. In that desperate split second before the trigger gets pulled, one hundred words might make all the difference. True, it might make no difference at all: Sometimes cruelty is the only recourse. But in the instances where words can suffice, aren’t they preferable to the blood and loss, however gaily the banner waves?
Ives was not selected to go to Afghanistan. But given the events in the Middle East and given a hobbled political arena, I imagine he will get his chance. “Terrorism” is chic.
As always, the old men wear lapel-pin flags as if they were patriots.
As always, young men go to war.
And, as always, like deer on a highway, fathers stand transfixed in the statistical headlights.
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton. His column appears on the third Wednesday of the month. He can be reached at email@example.com.