The Willing and the Unwilling

Sunday, May 27, 2007

We watched for the mail carrier's car every day for a letter from Uncle Allen who was serving across Western Europe in World War II. Mammy, my grandmother, agonized over the killing and the dying. Granddaddy worried more about the dying. He said the killing was just a part of war.

Two young soldiers that we all knew were killed early in the war. A cousin was hit by a piece of shrapnel and was left with limited use of an arm. Young men who were not called for the draft felt the unspoken envy of military families and volunteered for the Army or Navy. There was no refuge from the war.

I understood the deep anger of World War II veterans as they watched my generation burn flags, shout obscenities, march and carry signs, and question the moral integrity of our President and our Secretaries of State and Defense. The greatest generation watched the news at six and ten and tried to make sense of My Lai and Kent State while their sons and younger brothers were being shipped home in body bags.

For me, joining the Army Reserve was a moral compromise between being a draft- dodger and a draft-evader. After active duty or a weekend Reserve meeting, I couldn't wait to get out of my olive-drab fatigues and get back into a civilian coat and tie. I wondered if the older people were looking at me and remembering a husband or son killed in France or in the Pacific. How could I have told them that the war was a mistake and I was not brave and was not going to die defending freedom, or America, or God or whatever their sons and husbands died for? My conversations and confrontations with college and high school students left mixed impressions of my being an unpatriotic, anti-war, draft-dodging hippie or someone who burned huts and killed babies in Viet Nam.

The horrible conduct of the American people during and following Viet Nam was shameful on both sides. We treated the returning soldiers and campus protestors with hostility and open displays of contempt. I was part of the anger and also a target of that anger. I am proud to have worn a uniform that I never wanted to put on for six years. I pledge allegiance to my country and my flag with the heart and soul of a veteran and an aging flower-child. I am honored to stand when veterans are being recognized, but still feel unworthy to share applause with combat heroes.

I voted against Richard Nixon, and found comfort in his resignation, and questioned the logic and conduct of a war, and did so because I loved my country and my brothers-in-arms.

A relevant question arose recently when one congregation of the United Methodist Church offered sanctuary to military resistors who refused deployment to Iraq. Members of the media were quick to remind us that these men and women took an oath to serve and did so willingly. Does it make a difference when the military is all-volunteer rather than a conscripted military? Do the same rules apply to the willing and the unwilling? Can a young soldier or marine ever say, "This war is a mistake and I am not brave and I am not going to die in Iraq for freedom, or America, or God, or whatever they are dying for"?

Our letters from Uncle Allen continued until the end of the war in Europe. He came home to loving parents and family and an admiring nation. He was greeted with parades and hugs and kisses and never questioned the rightness of the war, nor doubted the necessity of his service.

Mammy loved her God and her country and her only son, and dutifully accepted the thought of his dying. She just never spoke any good feelings about the war or the killing.