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Are You Willing to Send Your Children to Die?

Two of my sons ran off and joined the Navy.  They exhibited this acute rationality near the end of one of their college semesters a couple years ago.   They had survived past midterms, each done sufficiently well and were a … Read More

By / October 7, 2009

Two of my sons ran off and joined the Navy.  They exhibited this acute rationality near the end of one of their college semesters a couple years ago.   They had survived past midterms, each done sufficiently well and were a few weeks from finals.  Our government, toying with my sons as the Coachman to Pinocchio with promises of Pleasure Island but offering the risk of death, hooked them with a choreography of career enticement and, for one of my boys, a promise of providing for the needs of his infant daughter. 

A couple years ago, the war we’re conducting in Iraq was far more in view than the war we’d "already won" in Afghanistan.  Now the two are switching place.  Administrations have changed, resources are being refocused.  Americans are more aware that we’ve actually been at war in Afghanistan for eight years. 

I’m not a policy expert.  I’m not much focused on international affairs.  I do think about responsibility, justice, compassion and the sweep of history.  The Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan the day before Christmas, 1979.  And did poorly. The British earlier invaded twice, 1838 to 1842 and 1878 to 1880, neither time well. Genghis Khan came earlier from the north and Timur Lung from the east.  Neither conqueror truly prevailed.  Arab Muslims came earlier from the west – they at least have the enduring legacy of Islam.  Alexander the Great, cruising through Iran, ground to a three-year halt battling in Afghanistan.  That was a long time ago.

Juan and William, two of our five "bigger boys" and two of our seven sons, announced earlier that semester that they’d been contacted by a Navy recruiter, had met and thought his promises of military service pretty good.  They were each then attending the Borough of Manhattan Community College, BMCC.  They’d started a year earlier (together with Philippe, a third of our "bigger boys") at a community college Upstate, but missed home and returned.  And William’s girlfriend was pregnant-he wanted to be close to his expected daughter.  My wife and I tried to convince William that he and his girlfriend were too young (in all ways) to raise a child.  Then we tried to convince him to best provide for his daughter by remaining in college Upstate, more quickly earning a degree and a better living than he could as an unskilled high school graduate. 

But William and Juan returned home to New York. 

We badgered and convinced them the following autumn to enroll at BMCC , the third college for William, the second for Juan.  Nothing in starting again was smooth.  They lost courses.  But at least they were back in college, what we considered crucial because the average earnings for a college graduate are significantly higher than for someone without.  My wife and I had long planned that the way out of "the ghetto" (their term) and its oppression for our five "bigger boys," the kids we’d met on that baseball field, who’d moved into our home and become sons, was to gain a solid enough footing in America by earning a college degree.

William explained that the Navy would train him as a firefighter, he’d serve a few years then be honorably discharged and fully qualified to join New York’s fire department, a steady job for a dad.  He’d have extraordinary health benefits, as would his daughter.  Juan said he’d be trained as a guard.  The two young men would be stationed together-the "buddy system"-in Norfolk, Virginia, for the whole of their service, perhaps the Military’s marketing solution for boys too reticent to head off to Paradise Island alone. 

I told them my sons that they’d be sent to Iraq. They said the Navy didn’t send men to Iraq.  I searched "Navy Iraq" and showed them the top result:  the US Navy was sending more troops to Iraq.  They told me that Google and I were wrong.  William and Juan never told me, my wife or any of our other sons that they’d already enlisted.  The two disappeared the week after Thanksgiving. Neither responded to our calls or texts. William was supposed to go to the gym with Ripton, our oldest, and didn’t show up.

Each of their mothers, when I phoned, explained what had happened. William and Juan were in basic training in the Great Lakes Naval Training Center, in Illinois.  Their recruiter had reached them a few days after Thanksgiving to explain that to remain in the "buddy system" they had to agree to change their enlistment contracts, to be reassigned from fireman and guard to Navy Corpsmen

Staying together was crucial; two young men, nearly boys, one Dominican, the other Puerto Rican, both poorly educated, certainly not sophisticated, from hard backgrounds.  The recruiter didn’t explain what my father, a veteran of Korea, instantly understood:  Navy Corpsman are medics for the Marines.  "Ninety-nine percent of you are going to Iraq," my sons were told when they landed in Illinois. 

William and Juan didn’t want to die or be maimed there.   They resisted.  The Navy tried to break their resistance, and didn’t.  My sons eventually came home, shaken but ultimately fine.  Except that only now, years later, have they returned to BMCC. They are again taking remedial and introductory courses. They are twenty-three and twenty-four years old.  Their chances for earning Bachelor degrees are now enormously slim-though we don’t discuss this fact.  Their risks of recreating the lives their parents gave them are that much larger; which they would offer to their children.   Our military has conned chances from them.

I can’t speak for foreign policy.  I know that for nearly 2500 years, among the world’s greatest armies have fought in Afghanistan and hardly prevailed.  Our government has been sending soldiers there for almost a decade, killing and being killed, maiming and being maimed.  We are a democracy, yet have kept the social, cultural and moral costs of war far from wide discussion by putting so much of the burden on the young and not-so-young men compelled through National Guard contract, and on other young and vulnerable men, often of color and poor, channeled through recruiters. Some of these recruiters, I don’t know how many but I doubt few, are dishonest, as we experienced  with William and Juan.  And war is kept from public view also by employing private companies to supply and conduct it. 

A far more just way forward is to bring war into national focus through compulsory conscription of the young – either a universal national service or draft.  The Vietnam and Civil Wars saw draft riots, and thus widespread consideration of the ways of military engagement.  I don’t know of such resistance in the First, Second and Korean Wars. 

I do know that the Iraq and Afghanistan wars are conducted by exploiting our most vulnerable, sending them to face and suffer death and disturbance. And for their loved ones to similarly suffer, often for their lifetimes.  Let the waging of war or not be an integral part of our national debate, closer to Athenian democracy than to continuing a tyranny too easily approached.

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