Last week, as a visit to my hometown drew to a close, I stood at the foot of my father’s grave and wondered once more at his life. He was born in a log house in northwest Louisiana and came to see the automobile, the airplane, space travel, computers, and cell phones. And he also saw World War II – up close and personal.
On a morning in the year before he died, as the U.S. prepared to invade Iraq, an aide at the nursing facility he called home came looking for him. She eventually found him in his wheelchair in the room’s walk-in closet. When she asked him what he was doing there, he stammered that the Germans were looking for him.
Such is the condition of those who suffered from shell shock, as they called it after World War I, or battle fatigue following World War II, the term sanitized in recent years to post-traumatic stress disease. From what I understand of the syndrome, it never leaves you once set in motion. And so my father, on his return from Europe following that war, would scan downtown rooftops for snipers and duck into stores at the sound of a car backfiring. Perhaps Mother knew that during those years his overlong weekend hunting and fishing trips were at least partially for the primal therapy of screaming out his fears and anxiety in attempting to rid himself of the war. But I never knew it until he confided his condition in the months prior to his death.
Still, he did everything in his power to direct me into a military career, from teaching me to shoot all sorts of guns, to fighting. I readily embraced the Boy Scouts (eventually an Eagle Scout), and sought an appointment to one of the U.S.’s several military academies. I did attend the U.S. Naval Academy, but stayed in the Navy only a short time. This disappointed my father greatly. He couldn’t understand my resistance to a military career, and I held this urging to military service against him for years.
But as I left the cemetery that day, continuing to ponder his military career and its impact on his health and family life, I think I finally understood something he wasn’t able to verbalize about his calling. Why, I’d wondered for years, and despite his condition, would he urge me to such a terrible way of life. My answer that day transcended political postures, even the morality of death and destruction. Oh, it’s true that some sneer these days at what has been called the military’s “cult of death” – the overdone ceremonies of military funerals, the seeming pride in honoring the death of someone who has spent a life in the execution of war. But I believe my answer transcended even that.
For the most part, the military mindset is one consumed by tunnel vision. When social, political, and diplomatic structures have collapsed to the point of armed conflict, the combatant can’t afford to wonder too greatly about the politics of his or her situation, or even about the morality of combat. One’s singular duty is to overwhelm one’s adversaries. In this regard, there is only the mission to be carried out – and survival. So until we as a collective world society learn to see the strength in diplomacy, in understanding and accommodation, we will fight wars. I think military types understand this, at least viscerally. They understand that someone has to risk death – despite all the shortcomings of war – in order to reach new social and political accommodations within our flawed international structure. A nation’s warriors, then, are those who struggle against the inner conflict that screams Survive! on one hand and, on the other, a teeth-clenching willingness to die on a forsaken battlefield, to save their comrades in arms by giving theirs, in the belief that they are, ultimately, protecting their way of life and the lives of their families and friends.
My father was one who thought this way. To be sure, there were times I felt proud of my few service achievements, proud of those with whom I’d overcome obstacles on the way to a warrior’s life. That much of him was, and remains, a part of me. But I could never have willingly stood on the precipice between life and death as he did.
Now, with Memorial Day upon us again – and being the person I am – I resolutely refuse to celebrate the killing and destruction of war. But I have come to a grudging admiration of those who perhaps realized pragmatically that the Age of Eternal Peace isn’t quite here yet and thus were willing to give all there was of themselves in the hope that someday we’ll find compelling reasons to beat our swords into plowshares.