Tuesday, May 31, 2011


May 31, 2011:

We walked downtown yesterday to watch the Memorial Day parade, as we always do, and as always it was sweet and a little sad. The parade pauses outside the old firehouse and somebody using a weak sound system who's clearly not comfortable with public speaking says something very rapidly that nobody can hear. Then the guards equipped with rifles fire off three blanks in honor of the fallen, and somebody else blows taps. As soon as the weapons are fired, little boys scramble for the ejected shell casings. Years later they'll find them in their bureau drawers as they're packing for college and wonder what to do with them. The antique firetrucks come first in the parade, then antique cars with old, infirm veterans sitting in them, then this year a jeep. The high school band provides the music. We once saw Matt Lauer there with his little children, sitting on the curb, exposing them to this old tradition.

I could march in this parade, I suppose, if I still had my Army uniform, but I don't; and it wouldn't fit anyway. I was in the Reserves, an artillery second lieutenant, product of ROTC. We were trained as forward observers, the men who go into the front lines with the infantry and direct fire on enemy targets. I turned out to be extraordinarily good at this, for reasons I can only speculate about, but I never had to do it in combat. I was lucky, served between two wars, Korea and Vietnam, too young for the first and too old, besides being married and a father, for the second. Plus the Army had the proper line on me. I was a lousy officer, very good at the thing I loved to do, direct artillery fire, but totally impatient with rules and regulations, and mostly contemptuous of the brass. I am not a fan of rank but do respect competence; and for all too many of the officers I met, from major on up, they seldom went together. I spent my time at Ft. Sill on active duty as part of a training battalion, training cannoneers to fire 105 howitzers. I loved those deadly little monsters. You could stand behind them when they fired and watch the shells climb into the sky. Very pretty sight. Many of the cannoneers were afraid of them, however. Every ten years or so one or two of them will die from a muzzle blast: the shell explodes as soon as it leaves the muzzle of the weapon. They knew this: the company sergeants made sure they knew it, because they liked stoking fear; and I once saw a kid pull the lanyard that fires the weapon and take off in a dead run for the woods.

So am I a war lover? To a degree, yes. It surprises me, but, much as I hated military life, I did love the weapons, and firing them. I was talking last Saturday night at a party with a new friend of mine, a pilot who works for one of the major airlines and also flies C-130s in the Air National Guard and recently spent five months in Afghanistan dodging enemy fire while dropping supplies by parachute to units scattered over the country, and did the same thing in Iraq. We must have spent close to an hour talking about flying these surprisingly agile airborne trucks, and the big jets he flies as well. I'm drawn to these people. Another friend, this one my age, served in the military about the same time I did, and he, too, is fascinated by military history and military affairs. Right now I'm writing a piece for Military History about Thomas Jefferson's war against the Barbary pirates in the early 1800s. I wrote a piece years ago about my time in the military for the Atlantic.

Most of my friends have no experience with the military at all and tend to deplore the need for it. I don't. I think war is pretty much eternal, built into human nature. Has there ever been a completely pacifistic society? How would such a society survive in today's world, in anybody's world? I was a little boy during World War II, two of my uncles had gone into the service, and one of them served in New Guinea, where he was made Captain and rebuilt airfields the Japs had bombed. He brought back a Japanese rifle as a souvenir. It was in our basement for years. I still remember him coming home, walking in the front door in full uniform, service bars pinned to his chest. I thought he was some kind of living god. As time went on he became a functioning alcoholic, but he already had tendencies in that direction; I don't think it had anything to do with the war. And my brother and I grew up on war news, mostly in Life magazine, and we went to the movies with our parents and watched war movies and newsreels of the war, and war came to seem perfectly natural. If the twentieth century was about anything, it was about war. My guess is the twenty-first century will be the same.

So there it is, the paradox of ourselves. I'm basically a gentle person, polite, thoughtful, loving to those I love, and generous when I can be. But when my son was young and a woman charged into our yard and threatened him (he and a friend had been exchanging stones, so to speak, with her son and one or two of his friends) I happened to be in the garden and picked up the shovel on the ground beside me and peremptorily ordered her off my property, shovel in hand, ready to use it. We may be the kindest people in the world, but it pays to have that edge, that capacity for violence. Our closest relatives, chimpanzees, throw stones just like little boys do; they approach the borders of their territory and throw them across those borders. They kill other chimpanzees as well, gang up on them and kill them.

This is what we are, we apes: capable of altruism, capable of murder. War, then? If war is inevitable, we might as well be good at it. I would have been good at it, the actual fighting part, that is. Artillery was perfect for me--you fight at a distance. It's all about superior skill.

At the same time I'm very grateful that I never had to prove it.