Thursday, May 11, 2017

After graduating from college... 1941, my father returned to Chicago and got a job with the retailing giant Montgomery Ward. I imagine he intended to establish himself there before proposing to my mother, whom he'd dated off and on since high school. But in December of that year the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and the United States found itself at war. When he reported to his local draft board my dad was classified 4F ("not acceptable for military service") due to a childhood accident that left him hearing-impaired (what we used to call "deaf") in one ear. By 1943, however, the demand for young men was so great that he was "called up" anyway and sent "overseas" to the Pacific where he served until the end of the war.

Was my father patriotic? I suppose, but no more so than anyone else. Did he hate the Japanese? Probably not before they bombed Pearl Harbor. In fact, I doubt if he could have found Japan on a map before that; he certainly didn't mind doing business with the Japanese after the war. Was he a member of the "Greatest Generation"? Honestly, I think he would have laughed at that. "Hey, they called me and I went -- simple as that."

In 1946 my dad received an honorable discharge from the Army and resumed civilian life. He rarely talked about the war or his service in it; I think he was genuinely bored by the subject. (He was far more animated by sports or business.) But one night he did confide in us that he was glad that none of his four sons had to serve in the military like he did. "It was a bitch," he said, between sips from a martini.

(My sister's husband did serve in Vietnam for one year. He drew a "bad" number in the lottery and, rather than wait to be drafted and serve as a "grunt" on Search and Destroy missions in the jungle, enlisted and was able to "choose" Military Intelligence. They shipped him and my sister off to Monterey, California in 1969 where he spent a year learning Vietnamese. Once "in country," he mostly sat behind a desk in Saigon.)

I was too young for Vietnam; in fact, I think the year I turned 18 -- 1976 -- may have been the first year they stopped issuing draft cards. But I've often wondered what I would have done had I been born, say, ten years earlier and was subject to the draft. Like Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, Donald Trump and many, many others, I probably would have done anything to avoid combat: obtain a college deferment, enlist like my brother-in-law did, or make use of some other creative scheme. But, if worse came to worst, I think I would have gone anyway. Why? Because it would have probably been better for me to just take my chances rather than going to Canada or -- worse -- jail. To be clear, I'm no hero: I just think serving, like my dad did in World War II, would have been preferable to not serving.

Okay, you're probably wondering about now, what is the point of all this? (And why am I putting so many words in "quotation" marks all of a sudden?)

And the point is that I've been reading a book lately, The Nightingale's Song, which is about "the military and political careers of five graduates of the United States Naval Academy, most of whom served during the Vietnam War in either the United States Navy or United States Marine Corps: John McCain, Bud McFarlane, Oliver North, John Poindexter and Jim Webb."

The author, Robert Timberg, is a journalist who also graduated from the Naval Academy and was wounded in Vietnam. Timberg writes a lot in the book about "duty, honor, country," etc., and I'm struck by how differently he and the five subjects of the book feel about military service than my family did. To repeat, my dad served in the Army because he was drafted, my brother-in-law enlisted to avoid being drafted, while the rest of us were just plain lucky. Had any of us been drafted, I think we would have served as the least bad option. But in no case were any of us dying to go to war to "serve our country." We just didn't think like that.

And that's the whole point of this post: are some people just born to serve in the military? Is it a function of their DNA? And is that true for other things as well? Are you religious (or not), for example, because you were born that way? Are you liberal, or conservative, for the same reason? I'm starting to wonder. Do you view reality objectively, or are you merely hostage to some worldview you inherited, like the color of your eyes? After all, who's to say whether religious people are right or not? Or whether conservatives are right or not? Maybe we're just born with these tendencies and we're wasting our time arguing with each other.

Take an issue -- any issue -- like abortion, for instance. Is there anyone in America who doesn't have a strong opinion on the subject? (And is there anyone who doesn't think they're right?) I think you'll agree that there are many intelligent, well-meaning people on both sides of the argument. But how can that be? Wouldn't your ability to reason lead you to one conclusion or the other? Maybe not. Maybe you either just think it's an innocent human life that begins at conception or you think it's a woman's right to choose whether or not to continue a pregnancy.

Maybe we're kidding ourselves when we think we've thought it all out carefully and arrived at the only reasonable conclusion. Maybe we were born (or bred, but that's another conversation) to think about abortion the way we do. And maybe that's true for most everything. Who knows?

1 comment:

Ed Crotty said...

Evangelicals supported abortion initially. But they wanted tax advantages for their religious segregation academies. Which is where they found common ground with Catholics, and then adopted anti-abortion as a plank.