Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Open Letter to Young People Considering the Miltary

[Readers: This is a grizzly piece, in spots. You might not want to read if you have a loved-one in a combat zone. It is inspired by a few days of my mulling over the loss of so many Americans in Iraq and Afghanistan.]

Dear Young Person:

If you are thinking of joining the military, you should consider a few things.

First, be careful of the sepia-toned TV ads with close-ups of craggy-faced dads in pickup trucks talking to their sons after football practice about joining the army. Yes, it's cute that dad and son are giggling about convincing mom that he should join. Sure, it shows a bond between a son and dad that might be precious if tenuous, but the decision to join up is not something to giggle about. Ever.

Second, be careful of confusing your life with a movie. Movies just end, no matter how grizzly a picture they might seem to paint of war. Sometimes lives are dragged out long after the plot ceases to be interesting and long after the main character forgets all of his lines (because he lost part of his brain to an IED). Sometimes, he survives the war but lives a long, miserable life trying to forget about it. Sometimes he walks onto the set in heroic, shiny-buttoned glory and he rolls off in a wheelchair with a bag connected to it for collecting his feces and urine because he can no longer control his own bowels, let alone an enemy attacker.

Third: Yes, you can get money for college, but you can also get dead. Or insane. If you don't go off to fight, cool. If you do? You might wind up blowing someone's face apart and watching him die a squirming, screaming, horrific death in the hot sand right at your feet. That might make it difficult for you to concentrate in Composition 101 after your discharge. It is hard to focus on topic sentences in between memory-flashes of spattered pieces of bone and muscle clincing to a clay wall.

Don't join until you are willing to give up your freedom -- until you believe in our politicians so much that you are willing to fight whenever and wherever they tell you to, whether or not you believe in the objective; until you are willing to kill people you might otherwise have been friends with -- that is, if you had met them on a backpacking trip across Europe instead of on a battlefield. Don't join until you are willing to shoot someone who is as afraid of dying as you are -- who has parents who love him as much as yours love you. Don't join until you are willing to be killed.

And don't join until you are sure whatever it is that is driving you to join is worth the ruin it will bring to the lives of your mom and dad, if you die.

If, knowing all this, you join, I will pray hard for you. I will also respect your decision. If you know all of the above and you join because you believe, I will believe in you and I will thank you for your service when you return.

But one thing I will never believe is that your life is worth taking a hill or securing a building in a skirmish. I will never believe that some button-pusher in a suit talking about how glorious your sacrifice was is payment enough for the hole your death leaves in the world.

After you're gone, people who love you will try to justify your death. They have to. But I won't be able to.

Just know I -- and lots of people -- think you are more important than push-pins on a battle map.

If you go, I'm behind you -- which is good, because then you won't be able to see my tears. If you go, please be sure you haven't been fooled into it by myth and marketing. Be sure.

I'm not anti-military. I'm pro-you, and I want you to have the whole picture -- even the part outside of the pretty frame they put on it.