This week, we observe Veteran’s Day in the U.S. And that makes me think of my father, who served in the Navy during WWII. At the time, he was already married and had two small children (my oldest sister Jan and my brother Bill). He served on a minesweeper in the Pacific and visited Guam, Japan, and Hawaii during his service. Before he left, my mother and he devised a way for her to have some idea where he was stationed based on how he addressed letters home; government censors blacked out anything that gave away location. I don’t know what the code was, exactly, but my mother told me once that they looked at a map together and assigned someone’s name to each broad area where they though he might be sent. What happened to those letters is a mystery. I was born a long time after WWII, my parents’ youngest child at the very end of the Baby Boom, and never saw them.
My father didn’t like to talk about the war when I was growing up. And, to me, it seemed like a distant event that had nothing to do with me. I had no idea how a minesweeper worked or just how much danger my father had been in. When I was a child, the Vietnam War was going on, and my biggest wish was to be old enough to take part in the antiwar demonstrations I learned about on the evening news. My brother, who was 20 by the time I was born, joined the Army when I was a baby. He didn’t go to Vietnam; he went to France. I am sure my parents were relieved. But my father didn’t let me get away with blabbing about how I wanted to protest war without saying that sometimes wars were necessary, that sometimes a country has to defend itself and sometimes those wars are good for the economy. To which I always asked a question, argued, wished that those old men (and they were always men then) who declared wars went and fought them themselves instead of sending others. Wouldn’t that be more efficient?
The intricacies of war continued to be unfathomable to me as I grew up, as I watched the Saigon airlift on television in 1975 and understood that Vietnam was supposed to be over for the U.S., saw that boys my age were not going to be drafted, went to college in the late 1970s and headed straight for political science courses. I wanted explanations.
But college campuses in the late 1970s were not the hotbeds of activity that they had been in the late 1960s. There were demonstrations about things, sure, but things seemed to have quieted down and all the outrage against injustice that I’d expected had drifted towards apathy. The political science courses I took seemed a little dry at times, when what I really wanted was to get to the meat of things. I was too impatient to absorb the history of the world’s governments in order to better understand current affairs. And then I moved on, had jobs and partners and children and other things to occupy my mind.
When my son was a new college student and we first sent troops to Afghanistan, then went to war in Iraq, I was very frightened along with everyone else. The first thing I thought of, selfishly, was whether the draft would come back and my son would have to serve. Then I started thinking about all the rest of it, the broad implications of soldiers and weapons and foreign policies and economics and colliding ideologies.
And I talked to my father. No arguing this time. No child-like idealism that this could all be solved if people would just sit down together.
That’s when I learned my father was against that particular war, that he was against war in general. I had grown up thinking he always supported what the President did, because that’s what a good citizen and a good soldier does. In his old age, he bluntly said it was such a stupid thing to send young men to die. To have the capability to cause massive destruction. And I believe he simply couldn’t have that conversation with me when I was a child and all the complexity of the world was beyond my understanding. But as two adults, we could talk about these things, about the pain of having to defend one’s country, of having to choose a side, of knowing that someone else might die as a result. And if he were still alive, we would have endless conversations about the situation in the Middle East, about ISIL and Syria and whether peace is ever going to settle in that area. And I think we would agree that we are so very lucky, those of us here in the United States, that we do not have a war on our own soil, that most of us get to move about the places in which we live without wondering if we will be killed by an act of war. For now.
But we cannot be complacent. We have soldiers who serve our country every day, somewhere in the world. We have the power of our vote to try to elect leaders who will take seriously their responsibility for the lives of these warriors and the lives of others who will be affected if we engage in warfare. And we have the power to have conversations with people all around us, people with different ideologies and passions, who also worry about their sons and daughters.
Sometimes, maybe it really does come to sitting down together. The work of understanding one another instead of blindly reacting is absolutely required.