Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Veterans Day, 2008

When I was growing up, everyone's father was a vet.

This was the Baby Boom.

For us first wavers, everyone's father was in WW II.

For some of the younger Boomers, the war was Korea.

When we picnicked, or hung out in the backyard playing Monopoly or Clue, we did so on Navy or Army blankets. When we played war, we had real canteens. We wore white sailor caps - brim turned down, which was the cool way.

We got VFW and American Legion magazines. They were pretty boring, and had the least funny cartoons - cartoons that made Beetle Bailey look like a laugh riot - but they came every month, and, since I'd read anything, I read them. My father wasn't active beyond dues-paying in either organization. I doubt he even paid American Legion dues, since he considered them a bunch of right-wing nuts. But we still got the magazines.

And when my father died, we - his surviving children as long as you were in school and under the age of 22 - got money from the VA.

It wasn't much, and I only got to collect it for a year, but for my younger sibs and mother it came in handy.

It wasn't much, but it was pay back for the four years my father took out of his life, 1942-1946, to serve in the Navy.

He didn't do anything very exciting while in the service.

He was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia; Trinidad; and downtown Chicago. (War is hell!)

Getting to and from Trinidad by ship was the most dangerous experience my father had. And while he was stationed there, they brought in a captured German U-Boat.

Why Trinidad, you might ask?

My understanding is that at one point, the main front was going to be through Africa and Italy, and Trinidad was a prime staging area for materiel. My father was a Chief Petty Officer, and he managed some sort of supply depot.

As my father always said, you went where the Navy sent you.

And after Trinidad, that was Chicago, where he was a paper-pusher. And where he met my mother.

From World War II until Vietnam, military service was pretty much an expectation for young men.

You went in. You went where they sent you. You (mostly) came home in one piece.

Vietnam put an end to that - and an end to a military comprised of people from all walks of life, all levels of society.

I still know plenty of veterans of my era. Yes, most of the people my age that I know escaped somehow - lucked out with their draft number; got the get-out-of-military free card from a willing doctor; worked (like my husband did) for government agencies that got you a deferment; went into the Guard/reserves when, unlike in today's Army, that was a way out of actually going to war, not a guaranteed way in. But I know a lot of men in my cohort with military experience.

But next generation down?

I don't have any friends or family with sons or daughters in the military.

Other than a few acquaintances with relatives who are "in", my only connection to the war is reading the sad stories in the newspaper when someone local is killed in Iraq or Afghanistan.

I used to be more optimistic, but now I pretty much believe that, as long as there's mankind, there will be war. Whether they involve "us" or not, there'll be no escaping that, I'm afraid.

Somewhere along the line we fell into the notion of the professional military - things were too complex and sophisticated to leave to draftees who were only in for two years. And yet somewhere along the same line we fell into the deployment of the 'citizen soldiers', the members of the reserves/National Guard who thought they were signing up as back-up, and instead find themselves front and center (and front and center, and front and center).

Somewhere along the line we omitted the national conversation on what's worth dying and killing for. The national conversation on who's doing the dying and killing, while the rest of us get to do the living. It's easier to avoid that conversation if your skin (and that of your kids) isn't in the game. Which is a darned shame.

Veterans Day is as good a time as any to reflect on that.

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