Monday, February 9, 2009

Duty



THE DESERTER

`What sound awakened me, I wonder,
For now 'tis dumb.'
`Wheels on the road most like, or thunder:
Lie down; 'twas not the drum.'

Toil at sea and two in haven
And trouble far;
Fly, crow, away, and follow, raven,
And all that croaks for war.

`Hark, I heard the bugle crying,
And where am I?
My friends are up and dressed and dying,
And I will dress and die.'

`Oh love is rare and trouble plenty
And carrion cheap,
And daylight dear at four-and-twenty:
Lie down again and sleep.'

`Reach me my belt and leave your prattle:
Your hour is gone;
But my day is the day of battle,
And that comes dawning on.

`They mow the field of man in season:
Farewell, my fair,
And, call it truth or call it treason,
Farewell the vows that were.'

`Ay, false heart, forsake me lightly:
'Tis like the brave.
They find no bed to joy in rightly
Before they find the grave.

`Their love is for their own undoing,
And east and west
They scour about the world a-wooing
The bullet to their breast.

`Sail away the ocean over,
Oh sail away,
And lie there with your leaden lover
For ever and a day.'

-A.E. Housman


Someone I knew in the Navy, who is now retired, sent me one of those emails that are eventually circulated throughout what is known as the military community. It related how, at the Pentagon, an unusual ritual was begun a few years into the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. On Friday afternoons, just before everyone quits work for the weekend, a soldier or marine who has come back from action with one leg, or both, missing, or with some disfigurement from an IED, hostile or friendly fire, is escorted past the offices in the Pentagon. The escort pushes his wheelchair, and the generals and the strategists come out of their offices to watch him and applaud as he passes by. The email closes on the noise of the applause rising to a crescendo. . . .

A startling picture. Quite frankly, I found the story, true or invented, repulsive. And my repulsion increased when I expressed it to some fellow veterans on an online message board. I was met with some quite hostile responses. When I wondered aloud to them that it should be coffins wheeled through the Pentagon, one of them suggested that perhaps it should be my coffin.

The story was repulsive to me because what it failed to point out was that the wounded soldier or marine was most likely somewhere between 18 and 25 years of age, and that the people who applauded him, with his missing limbs, were middle aged or old men. But what further repulsed me was the assumption that. as a military veteran, I should have been delighted by the story, that it should have filled me with some sort of pride and that something much deeper, like patriotism (assuming that patriotism is something deep within oneself), should have come to the fore.

So what was so objectionable about the story and why did those other veterans get so hostile when I objected to it? What are commonly known as military virtues, and are now being called core values, include such things as loyalty, or what the marines use as their motto, semper fi - semper fidelis (always faithful). This carries the implication, which is a kind of promise in the military, that one's service in never-ending, that once a serviceman, always a serviceman.

As a disabled veteran, I suppose I am particularly obliged to be loyal to the service and to my country. The trouble with this notion is that it takes into account all of the terms of my oath of service except one - that it is limited to the length of the term itself. If this were not the case, I would not have had to take the oath four times during my eleven-and-a-half years of service. Eric Hoffer wrote that "pensions are pay for the work we keep on doing in our dreams after we retire." But no matter how often I may dream of re-enlisting, which I still do every now and then, I am by now hopelessly unfit for duty.

When I was in the service, I bore some resentment towards civilians because they were oblivious of the values by which I was obliged to live. But, I must admit, I was also a little envious of them. But therein lies the whole point: they were free to be oblivious of the military virtues because my service was making it possible for them to do so. And now that I am a civilian, enjoying civilian virtues, I can be sympathetic to those on active duty without either envying or pitying them. It is, after all, their continued service that makes my freedom to think and to speak as I please - and be repulsed by the story in that email - possible.

No comments: