In 1999, as war swept through the wreckage of what was once Yugoslavia, I bobbled my three-year-old son Matthew on my knee while together we watched a television newscast that quite unexpectedly began broadcasting images of a burned-out civilian bus accidentally targeted by a NATO missile.
Matthew was too young to be upset by any of this, but I was upset in the way that a new parent is upset whenever certain harsh realities intrude upon their children. I was still at that early phase of parenthood that had me marveling at the length of Matthew’s eye lashes, the crystal depth of his hazel-brown eyes, and the soft feel of his feet and hands. He was everything lovely and innocent in a child—and I just couldn’t square that innocence with the horror unfolding in front of us on that TV screen.
What I felt was shame and embarrassment, as if I or my adult world had been found out, and revealed in its immorality and imperfection. And looking at Matthew, I wondered how I could ever “explain” any of this to him.
A few short years later our country found itself involved, yet again, in another war, the conflict in Iraq. As was my habit at the time, I would go at dusk to sit in the wooden stands down in the Arroyo where a cool breeze seemed always to gather no matter how hot the day, and together with several other fathers, watch our sons play baseball. The smiles were always easy, the banter good-natured and generous, the kind of peaceful, small-town ritual that gives small towns and fathers a good name.
I don’t think any of us sitting there in that golden light ever imagined that our young boys who were only nine or ten at the time could possibly be exposed to the fighting in Iraq, but five or six years later as the conflict dragged on, that notion was no longer an abstraction.
I knew at least one, slightly older boy who had joined the National Guard seeking direction and benefits only to find himself facing live-fire in Iraq. And though I never asked, I often wondered, which of those fathers who had watched on countless nights their sons running, throwing and gliding across grassy fields would press for their sons to fight in Iraq? Who among those fathers would not literally move a mountain to keep their sons safe and away from the killing ground of that war?
As an American citizen, I am certainly aware of the point of view that represents war as a regrettable necessity in an imperfect world. I would not argue that the flawed and aggressive history of mankind has not been steeped in war, but I would never celebrate any of the so called virtues of war without first acknowledging that at its core, no matter what the cause or justification, war represents not the greatest test and virtue of mankind, but its greatest failure.
That being said, I would also never advocate for the unilateral disarmament of our nation, which must, after all, and despite its best inclinations, exist in a world that largely rejects my premise, celebrates military prowess, and tends to war at will.
But there is, at least for me, a rub. If in a democratic society the people, who are not compelled to fight by a dictator or by laws not of their making, embrace war as an acceptable means for the settling of disputes among nations, then those same people cannot in good conscience hold that position without simultaneously and assertively making themselves and their children available to fight. In our democracy the current arrangement of an all-volunteer army is not an appropriate instrument for fighting wars of our collective choosing.
Rather, it is a convenient and immoral act of self-deceit, which enhances rather than deters the possibility of future wars. It does so by placing the vast majority of citizens at a comfortable distance from the bloody effects of the war policies they support. And it does so by undemocratically distributing the pain and suffering of war among a willing, yes, but unacceptably small segment of our society. In the roughly 10 years of war in Iraq and Afghanistan less than 1 percent of the adult population of the United States has participated in the fighting.
Check back Sunday for Part II of this blog post.