Saturday, May 15, 2010

To Ian, with Pride

I'm conflicted today. Enough that the first thing into my stomach this morning was Tums. I'm baking a blueberry pie today for a party to celebrate the graduation from college and Air Force commissioning of my nephew, Ian. From the day he was born he was special to me-all my nieces and nephews are. But he is the only one whose mother was at my house when she went into labor, so we were there with her from the first contraction, til her husband came out beaming after her emergency C-section and said, "It's a boy," and the whole waiting room, which was full of relatives, burst into cheers, tears and applause.  My sister had placenta previa, meaning that the placenta was blocking the baby's way, which can lead to great danger for the baby, hence the emergency C-section, so it was a dramatic, emotional night for us.

 Ian has been the kind of child that anyone would be proud to have as a family member. He is smart, witty, loving, hard-working and goal oriented. He graduated from the University of North Texas summa cum laude. In his entire college career he made only one "B" in a class. Last night we watched his parents pin on his lieutenant's bars, and his stepfather offer his first salute. I don't care how hippie or peacenik one might be, it was an emotional moment, filled with pride. Ian's major was international studies,  he is fluent in Russian, and this year began studying Arabic. He is leaving for training in military intelligence in October, after which he will begin active duty.

 There is a long tradition in my family of military service. Two of my sisters, one of my nieces, Ian's father, stepfather and stepbrother all served. All my uncles on my mother's side have served, my dad and his dad did also. One uncle is a retired colonel and West Point grad.

And we are still at war. When his mother told me he was going ROTC, the only thing I said was that I hoped we would be at peace by the time he graduates. Four years ago that didn't seem an unreasonable wish. We were, after all, going into our current theaters of occupation with "Shock and Awe," to be greeted as liberators, and we would make quick work of these two fronts. So now I'm not sure it is worth bothering to wish for peace. I thought we already fought the "War to End All Wars," but, if my count is anywhere near correct, we have seen at least ten conflicts since then.

 I came out of the Viet Nam era, and believed that war was a mistake. I never thought it was ok to blame the soldiers for the things they did-soldiers serve at the pleasure of the Commander in Chief, and they do their jobs. It is part of the oath they take when they are sworn in that they will obey the orders of the Commander in Chief without question. I recently watched a PBS special on the My Lai massacre, and all those raw feelings of seeing civilians-women, babies, elderly villagers, slaughtered when they were unarmed and no threat to the soldiers came rushing back. I also just saw a commercial for the HBO mini-series, "The Pacific," showing a young marine, just back from the Pacific, looking for a job. The young woman helping him says, "Didn't the Marines teach you anything that can help you in your civilian life?" He responds, teeth gritted into a sneering grin, "They taught me how to kill Japs. And I'm damned good at it." All these things coming at me just as my nephew is beginning his military career has discomfited me.

We do teach our soldiers how to kill, and be good at it. We teach them how to dehumanize 'the enemy' so they don't stop to think about that guy at the end of their gun being a son, father, husband, brother. This is why the nicknames for people of other countries are so important-what is a "gook?" It is not someone like me, with a loving family at home hoping he will come back from this war alive and unmaimed in body or spirit. The same is true of "krauts" or "camel jockeys." They are not human-they are our enemies. But when we dehumanize our fellow humans, we diminish our own humanity. How else could the soldiers of C Company not have seen the people of My Lai as non-combatants, and not as threats? Why else would that fictional Marine, looking for civilian work, not be able to put his soldier persona aside after the war? Why would there be stories of Viet Nam veterans, unable to readjust to civilian life, moving up to the Kenai Peninsula in Alaska so that they could be away from populated areas and the memories that haunt them?

I was against the invasion of Iraq before it happened, and I said so. Yes, I know the Iraqi people are better off without Saddam-but that is not the reason for my opposition. I was for the invasion of Afghanistan then, but I am against continuing in that theater any more. Not because I don't wish that the funder of the attacks on the US on September 11, 2001, could be caught. But because it is a silly war. It is hard to use a word like "silly" to describe an action in which our soldiers, and the innocent civilians of Afghanistan and Pakistan might be killed. But it is a wholly silly notion that shooting at those people, and bombing their cities and towns will fight terrorism. I don't choose the word "silly" casually, or to trivialize the suffering of all the people on both sides of any war. But the nature of terrorism is that they practice guerrilla warfare-sneak attacks that make people "terrified." You can't hit them by tossing bombs around indiscriminately. You can't just aim and shoot and hit a terrorist. Yes, we've hit some terrorist leaders and training camps, but like the character Mel Gibson played in "The Patriot," they move and hit again. By definition, Benjamin Martin/Francis Marion could have been described by the British as "terrorists," as that is the tactic they used for attacking conventional forces that out-manned and out-gunned them. Conventional warfare is designed to fight conventional soldiers. This makes it even harder for me to think that Ian will be going into the military as we enter the tenth year of a conflict that we only banter about seeing the end of.

College graduation is a time when we think of all the wishes we've held dear for our children. After twenty-two or so years of hopes and dreams have been invested, it is time to think of the return. Ian has more than fulfilled the dreams of his family. We hope our kids will do well-Ian has done far better than that. He is a good person, an excellent student, and he will be an excellent Air Force officer. While he will make mistakes in his life, and have trials and sorrow, I think he has developed the skills to get through them with grace.

So for Ian, and all the sons and daughters, nieces and nephews, wives and husbands, brothers and sisters out there getting ready to head into war, I wish for peace. Peace that lasts. Peace in our time. War to end all wars.

1 comment:

Ian said...

Thanks for mentioning me in this thoughtful and provocative post. I too wish and hope for peace, but I also know that our nation's military, made up of millions of smart, well-trained, individuals like me is can also be a global force for good. Yes, we are trained to defeat our enemies, but through the years we have become quite proficient at "waging peace" as well. The training we are providing for the Afghan National Police and the schools and roads we are building can be seen as evidence of this. I read a quote once (the author escapes me at the moment) that said "The only thing more immoral than fighting a war, is losing one." War is a terrible thing, but I can only hope that our nation's leaders will listen to the advice of our military commanders (trained professionals all) and commit us only to those conflicts that are 1) winnable and 2) absolutely vital to the national security interests of the United States. I feel we can, and are, winning the war in Afghanistan and are doing right by the Iraqi people ("You break it, you own it"). You're absolutely right though, this is an extremely controversial and important discussion to have. And thanks for supporting me and all the other troops out there!