Friday, October 15, 2010

Good Soldiers

In college, during the 1960s, one guy stood a head above other guys, and he outweighed most of them. Fully grown in the middle, fully rounded in his gifts: he was and perhaps still is agile, imaginative, smart, thoughtful, analytical, and witty. He fell in love with one of the first and most devoted feminists I have ever met, and they married while still in college when most of us questioned traditional commitments and expectations. He also decided not to answer the draft when his lottery number came up; he stood as a conscientious objector, opposed to serving his nation as a soldier, but willing to serve his nation in any other capacity. And he did, sweeping floors in a VA hospital.

Tim O’Brien’s protagonist in The Things They Carried wants to run to Canada when his draft letter arrives. He walks away from work one day and drives north to the Canadian-U. S. border. There, on the Rainy River, with the Canadian shore within reach—just a short, easy swim—Tim, the character, cries for all that he must forsake in order to flee. He cries for the shame his family will bear, he cries for the honor he will sacrifice, and he cries for the life he will put in jeopardy. Tim decides not swim away. He reports for duty, believing himself a coward because he lacks courage to leave his place in the U. S., to turn his back on parents and patriotism.

Tim, the character, called himself a coward for serving, believing that conscientious objectors were the courageous ones. My college friend, so far as I recall, never defined himself as cowardly or courageous, but many attributed both descriptors to him. Those who believed in U. S. causes and military service judged my friend as spineless; young untried, untested college kids put him on a pedestal. He just did what his conscience directed him to do.

Which of the two--my real friend from long ago or Tim, the quasi-fictional soldier--exemplifies courage? Is it brave to serve or just as brave not to serve?

Five soldiers, representing World War II, Vietnam, and conflicts in the Middle East, offer their own answer to the questions I ask. They are the subjects of a documentary film entitled The Good Soldier (, a film I first saw on PBS’ Bill Moyers’ Journal.

Each of the five soldiers picked up weapons and aimed them at an enemy. One was wounded early in his war, World War II, and for that, he, like the character Tim, placed himself on trial and found against himself. Somehow he believed that he did not measure up because he could not march and fight for the duration of the war. Today, he admits that self-loathing stained much of the rest of his life.

Another man, never carried out on stretcher, never required to cry for a medic to save his own life, still bears wounds that may never heal. And that is the point of the film. Each of the five men bleeds as a result of having put on the uniform of a U. S. soldier for causes that the nation deemed necessary and important. Their consciences were troubled, their sleep stolen, their relationships endangered or destroyed, their self-worth rocked, and their understanding of courage challenged; these men were forever, inexorably altered when they put on a uniform. At least one of them will help his own son run away from service or stand firm as a conscientious objector. He does not want his son to face what soldiers must face.

So who is brave? Braver? Bravest? My college friend who did not take up arms? Tim, the boy who lived through Vietnam and writes stories? One or more of those five servants to killing who now need to speak against killing? The answer is not easy, but we must find it.

At a time when friendly fire is at an all-time high (52% according to a recent report and only 21% in WWII), we must ask if every man who volunteers can be trusted with a weapon. We must wonder if separating parent from spouse and children is in the best interest of families. We should examine the alarming number of servicemen, active and veteran, who choose suicide as a means to an end. But above all, we must not be quick to label the path toward courage as a single track that includes military service and any other direction as cowardice.

Applaud and thank those who put on a uniform and pick up a weapon—those who, like Atticus, willingly perform the “unpleasant” tasks that a society needs done.

Withhold your judgment upon those who refuse service for theirs is a different sort of courage, the type that requires them to stand apart, alone. Their unwillingness to uphold tradition, precedent, and custom condemns them, often to a lonely place.

Most important, celebrate those whose consciences insist that they use their talents, whether in or out of uniform, to make their communities better. Such men are what Martin Luther King, Jr. surely had in mind when he said, “An individual who breaks a law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for the law.”