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Veteran’s Day

I’m a US military veteran, and the son of one, brother of one, and uncle of one. I thought I’d muse a bit today, Veteran’s Day, on what that does and doesn’t mean to me.

(Be warned, I don’t intend to polish this one and I’ll probably ramble a bit.)

My father joined as a new immigrant, and served out an honorable career including combat in Vietnam, a war whose justice he was ambivalent about and whose horror marked the rest of his life and cut it short. I grew up overseas, and when as a young adult I decided to move to America I joined the military for much the same reasons as my Da; it was a practical expression of our belief in the ideals of America, a way to earn both a living and our right to call ourselves Americans, the only difference being that I was a US citizen from birth.

I never had to face combat, by luck of the draw, but I could have, and was keenly aware of the possibility before I joined and until I left. I have every reason to believe the same of my brother and niece, but those are their stories to tell. Speaking only for myself, I gave a lot of thought, or at least what my twenty year old self thought of as a lot of thought, to the possibility that I’d be called upon to kill in the service, and quite possibly in a war I didn’t want to support. I wasn’t too badly fazed by the possibility of being killed or injured, seeing that part simply in terms of risk/benefit, but I felt offering myself up to be the one who killed was a weighty matter, not to be done lightly.

Some of my fellow recruits were a lot more blase about that possibility, either giving it virtually no thought or in a few cases actually hoping they’d have the opportunity. The characters and motives of military people are mixed, make no mistake about that… and even the best of us are in brutal cold fact agreeing to be killers for hire at need.

Unlike my father I did not choose to make a career of the military; the lifestyle didn’t suit me as well, mostly because I lacked my father’s knack for teamwork. Nevertheless I do take pride in my service, and I do think it an honorable profession – even when, perhaps especially when, the job entails subjugating some of your own judgment and independence of action for the sake of the group – by which I mean not only the military unit you belong to, but also the military as a whole, and most of all the country it serves. It is no easy thing to do, to follow orders you think are less than optimal or even outright foolish, but it is in cold hard fact a hallmark of an effective military to have soldiers capable of doing so. It would be a severe mistake to think that that is only achievable, or best achieved, by training soldiers not to think for themselves, and the US military does not do that, but it does train you to largely suspend trust in your own judgement and substitute that of your commanders, and enforces that training with strong discipline.

In boot camp about a hundred of us were in attendance at a series of lectures on the benefits of service – financial, educational, and so on. At the beginning of one such, the officer lecturing asked, “Who here joined the military primarily out of patriotism?” I raised my arm, but I was one of only a handful who did. Most, I would guess 95% of those there, would have said they were there primarily for the benefits of employment, or out of a simple taste for adventure. That’s the danger of polling, though, because though their answers would have been consciously honest in denying patriotism as a primary cause, though they would have been quite seriously intent on taking advantage of all the real benefits that their society offers in exchange for risking the firing line, as I was too, most did in fact have a real pragmatically idealistic patriotism informing their decision to join the military. They considered America – not the landmass, but what each of them saw as the culture and ideals of the nation (that varied one to another) – worthy of sacrificing for.

Americans do, frankly, fawn a bit excessively over the ideal of “the troops”; to join the military does not automatically make a person superior by default. It is an honorable and sometimes even noble profession, one which requires a lot of its members, and it does deserve respect, but it’s not the only one. I don’t know why we don’t have a day honoring firefighters, for example. who brave life-threatening dangers all the time.

Perhaps the reason military veterans are treated better than firefighters (and why police officers fall somewhere between) is paradoxically because the dangers they face are less intrinsically necessary. Fires are going to happen, and there is no getting around the need for lives to be risked fighting them. Wars are far less inevitable.

My father was the only one of the veterans in my family who saw real combat. He served in the Vietnam War; he was a logistics expert and I don’t actually know if he ever directly killed anyone, but he came under fire many times and he saw horrors. His life was deeply damaged by the experience, and cut short through the drinking he used as a coping mechanism. He was keenly aware, in any case, that he was part of a massive operation that was destroying a horrific number of lives on both sides… but he’d signed up for it, and people were depending on him, and he endured at great cost.

The rest of us Murtagh veterans took the risks of that happening to us, and maybe we did suffer some inconveniences in service to the country. My father paid a much bigger price, and he’d be the first to tell you if you brought it up that others paid and were and are paying more (and then he’d change from the jolly raconteur who brought smiles to everyone around him, to the silent man with lumps and shards of pain sticking out).

It’s nice to be thanked for being a veteran, but some of us paid a lot more than others; please push your government to look after those ones who have been damaged in their bodies and minds, and their families, and the families of the ones who paid it all.

And please, push them also to stop making so many of those shattered lives.

My father, sadly missed.

My father, MSgt. James Murtagh USAF, sadly missed.

~ by BT Murtagh on November 11, 2013.

musings, Personal