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Service and sacrifice
November 11, 2010 - Bill Ackerbauer
When Veterans Day comes around, I normally don't have much to say about it because I am rather conflicted on the subjects of war and power and nationalism.
The traditional, apple-pie eating half of my mind is filled with respect — awe, even — for the bravery and sacrifices of our military personnel. This feeling is augmented by the love and respect I feel for my relatives and close friends who have served in the armed forces.
The idealist in me, however, regrets that we humans are still a species that requires the services of professional warriors. What’s worse is that these services are so often employed for economic and hegemonic gains rather than strictly in the defense of innocent lives and good principles.
This ability that I have, to hold two such contradictory thoughts in my mind simultaneously, has been defined alternatively as intelligence (Fitzgerald) and insanity (Orwell).
Perhaps because I grew up during peacetime — I was born around the end of the Vietnam era — I never felt any particular duty to sign up and tote a rifle for Uncle Sam. During the entire seven months of the first Gulf War, I was living overseas as an exchange student in Jamaica. My experience there involved much more R&R than fighting, though I did survive a couple of skirmishes with people who wanted the contents of my wallet. (And after my passport was stolen, I learned a bit about low-level international diplomacy. More about that story another time, perhaps.)
Perhaps it’s ironic that I mention my exchange student days here in a blog post about military service: The organization that administered the program was AFS, formerly known as the American Field Service, which was established as a volunteer corps of ambulance drivers in World War I. But I was no heroic young Hemingway. The year I spent with AFS in Jamaica was about cultural exchange for personal and interpersonal growth rather than service and sacrifice.
So, while I watched the first Gulf War on CNN from the comfort of my host family’s living room in May Pen, I felt a slight twinge of guilt. Guys my age were risking their lives in combat to help liberate Kuwait (and its oil) from the evil clutches of Saddam Hussein.
A few years later, with a college degree in hand and my overseas experience still fresh in my memory, I thought about joining the Peace Corps. It seemed like a great opportunity: traveling abroad, learning a new language and customs, and getting the chance to help people in need, with no need to wear Kevlar or field-strip an assault rifle while blindfolded.
There was only one obstacle to this non-military service, though, and it was insurmountable. The Peace Corps only pays a small stipend that covers travel and living expenses, and I had to start paying off my massive student-loan debt. I had to go to work and earn a living.
The military was still an option for me; two of my best friends had already joined the service and were enjoying it. But by this time I had developed strong distastes for both violence and authority. And I’m fairly certain my liberal arts education wouldn’t help in combat: Faced with a kill-or-be-killed situation, I’d probably waste valuable time and mental energy ruminating about “The Red Badge of Courage” or trying to remember Jean Paul Sartre’s philosophical theories about fear and oblivion.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that not everyone is cut out for military service. And while I don’t endorse every objective our troops have been asked to achieve over the past two centuries, I am grateful that we have the right to conscientiously object to things we believe are wrong — and I am thankful that our troops are ready and willing to stand in our defense.
Post script: I was prompted to write this post, in part, by a book I have been reading this week. “Matterhorn” is a novel about the Vietnam War by Karl Marlantes, a decorated combat veteran of the Marine Corps. I am not necessarily a fan of war fiction, but I am engrossed in this book.
This article about the author’s 30-year battle to get the book published is worth checking out, too: Karl Marlantes' 'Matterhorn'.
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