Wisdom wherever you find it
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I only killed one human being in Vietnam, and that was the first man I ever killed. I was sick with guilt about killing that guy and thinking, “I’m gonna do this for the next 13 months, I’m gonna go crazy.” Then I saw a Marine step on a “bouncing betty” mine. And that’s when I made my deal with the devil, in that I said, “I will never kill another human being as long as I am in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I will waste as many dinks as I can find. I will smoke as many zips as I can find. But I ain’t gonna kill anybody.” Turn a subject into an object. It’s Racism 101. And it turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars for them to stay sane doing their work.
I spend some time each week tending to people in public service. It’s the least I can do. I am a devoted patriot, and I subscribe to the notion that the blessings and freedoms we enjoy as Americans are secure only as long as they are defended. So I pay my taxes without complaint. I vote in every election, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. I join with others to seek redress of grievances. I defend the rights that are ours as citizens.
But I would not serve in the military, and I recognize that, all my life, that meant sending someone else to do my job.
I have known a lot of people who served honorably – my dad, an uncle, many friends and colleagues, and now, even some of my friends’ kids. But I am a coward, and cowards have no place in a circumstance that makes people dependent on each other to survive.
I am not bragging, by the way. I am just being honest. I have enough courage to speak truth to power, to say aloud uncomfortable facts and to hold to unpopular opinions even when surrounded by those who disagree. I have handled firearms. I have been in fights, though few and far between. But I would be no good in combat.
Part of it, most certainly, is self-preservation. I do not wish to be shot or blown up. I do not think that people in the military disagree with me, but I know that I actively imagine myself in harm’s way whenever I think about service, and it is paralyzing.
But part of it, too, is a conscious decision not to become the person John Musgrave describes in discussing his Vietnam experience in the Ken Burns documentary about that war. More than a fear of injury, I think I was afraid to lose my moral compass.
When I was a kid, my father would not discuss his service in World War II. He acknowledged that he shot and killed enemy soldiers, but only in a brief answer to a direct question. When I was a college student, I asked him if he ever thought he was shooting some other mother’s son during the war. He replied, without irony, “I wasn’t shooting anybody’s son. I was shooting Nazis.”
Turn a subject into an object. It is a necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars.
As I said, I have known a lot of people who served honorably. One was a high-ranking officer in Vietnam. He was one of the kindest people I ever met. Another was a combat-proven officer who eventually served as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He holds every casualty in his heart. It is not necessarily the case that you lose your moral compass in battle. On the contrary – sometimes, it is the only place you can be sure you have it.
And I am not a pacifist. War may be obscene, but there are times it is a necessary obscenity.
Call it my moral shortcoming or my self-indulgent privilege or my character flaw, but I know myself well enough that I could not carry heavy arms and do my duty. My fear – rational or not – was that I would lose myself on the back end of a weapon. And that makes me a coward.
It makes me more grateful for those who serve. And more concerned.
Rabbi Jack Moline spent 40 years in the pulpit, another 7 at an interfaith non-profit, and all of them gleaning wisdom where he found it.