Monday, May 26, 2008

Six Degrees of Separation from the Military

As I was growing up as a "first wave" Baby Boomer, pretty much every man I knew had been in some branch of the military service, mostly during World War Two. The exceptions were men who'd been too old for the draft, or had been exempt because they already had kids and/or did some sort of defense-related work.

We wore our fathers' old Navy caps, used the scratchy wool blankets from our fathers' cots when we hung out in the back yard playing Monopoly or Sorry, and drank from Army canteens when we went on hikes or out blue-berrying for the day. Some kids had "Nazi" helmets or "Jap" flags. I remember Peggy Gagnon bringing in ration cans that her father - who, I believe, had hit the beaches on D-Day - had saved.

If your mother were frugal and clever with her hands - as my mother was - you wore clothing that was made out of your father's old uniforms, cut down. Thank God my father was in the Navy, not the Army, so we got to wear blue jackets and white shorts, rather than khaki and brown.

There was a man in the parish who'd had his jaw blown off during the Korean War, another guy who used to wander around who was said to be "shell-shocked."

Older cousins and younger uncles all spent time in the peace-time service.

My father teased my Uncle Jack when he joined "Hooligan's Navy"" (the Coast Guard). When my Uncle Bob was in the Army, he sent all the girl nieces Fort Leonard Wood Missouri head scarves one Christmas. (The boys got the far cooler flat-top caps like the one Fidel Castro wore. I think they had shiny metal sergeants' badges on them.)

Jackie Fitz, an older kid around the corner, joined the Army and, like Elvis, was sent to Germany, where he married Hildy, a German girl.

Then there was Viet Nam, and soon it was the guys I knew who were getting drafted or, as became far more likely, doing whatever they could do to avoid the draft.

Some guys from the neighborhood went over. A second cousin was there, and died of a drug overdose shortly after his return to The States. My cousin's cousin Joe  - and, thus, a virtual cousin - served at ground zero for Agent Orange, and died at the age of 49, likely of Agent Orange associated causes. I went to the funeral for the brother of a classmate who was killed in action.

A high school friend became a Navy nurse to pay for college, but she didn't go to Viet Nam.

Then there was the night when they picked the numbers, assigning every date in the year a number that indicated when the birthday boy would be called up - low numbers were unlucky, high numbers were golden.

And then there was no draft.

I'm pretty sure that my brother Tom (May 1952) has a draft card. But Rich ( November 1955)?  I don't really know.

Over the years, I've certainly worked with plenty of men who'd been in the service, and some who were in the reserves. But, by and large, I have no close friends or relations (other than those older cousins) who've been in the military.

This came home in spades when I was up in Syracuse last week, and had dinner with some former (and current) colleagues.

"Annie" is a young, bright, ambitious go getter - two kids under the age of three, a full time job, an on-line MBA, and a husband who's - knock on wood, please - finishing up a 14 month-long deployment in Iraq. Fittingly, "Rob" is due home on the Fourth of July.

Rob will be coming home to quite a bit of uncertainty. His one-man carpentry business has pretty much disappeared while he's been overseas, and he'll have to rebuild from scratch. But he is, Annie told us, planning on staying in the National Guard and will thus be vulnerable to another round in Iraq.

Annie is pretty much the only person I know who is directly impacted by the Iraq War. Other than for Annie, the "closest" I can get is through my cousin Barbara, who has a friend whose daughter was over there - not as a soldier, but as a member of the State Department and PhD expert on the Middle East, living in the Green Zone, helping write the Iraqi constitution.

On Saturday, I attended a wedding where I must have chatted with a dozen people in their twenties: three law students; two information experts (which is what librarians are these days); an architect; a film editor; a couple of "policy wonks"; the business manager for a large medical practice; the community relations guy for a professional sports team; a medical student...

By anyone's reckoning, a bright and ambitious group, not one of whom is ever likely to end up in the military.

World War Two was everyone's war.

Viet Nam was, too, although it was the war that caused the great divide between those who went and those who managed somehow not to. But there's no one who came of age during that war who doesn't know people who were intimately involved with the struggle: to fight it, to end it.

And now we have different sorts of wars.

We are told that the instruments of war are too sophisticated and technical to be able to rely on draftees to handle them, that we need to have a professional military to fight our wars - augmented, of course, by the citizen soldiers like Rob who truly believe that serving in the military serves a noble purpose (or who truly believe they have no other economic options).

Whenever we saw Tom Dillon, our neighbor who'd had his jaw blown off in Korea, my father would remark about what a "good looking kid" he'd been. What a shame to be one of the unlucky ones, unlike my father who's time in the Navy (1942-1946) played out in Norfolk, Trinidad, and Chicago. My father proposed to my mother right after Hiroshima and Nagasaki, figuring (correctly) that Uncle Sam wouldn't be needing him in the Pacific Theatre of Operations.

Annie's husband is the closest I come to anybody who's serving in Iraq or Afghanistan.

How much easier it is to "live" with a war that doesn't have any direct impact on you or anyone you know, or even know of, except remotely.

Just something to think about on Memorial Day.

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