Listening to Obama at Ford Hood, I am struck by his praise for all those soldiers who willingly put themselves in harm’s way. Of course, I’ve heard it before, but the tragedy and the sheer length of our continuing conflicts, put it in a different light.
I am a child of the 60s (even more than Obama. He was simply born in the 60’s; I could walk and talk throughout that whole decade.) I was a teen of the 70’s. I remember Kent State well. I was actually present when Nixon’s helicopter took off from the South Lawn. My brother had a lottery number and, though my father was a veteran of two wars, Sweden was not an absolutely unthinkable option.
As a result of these factors, and despite spending a significant and very pleasant part of my childhood recreational life at officer’s club pools, a discomfort with the military runs deep in me.
I’ll add, in my personal defense, (i) that I’ve frequently been impressed by individual soldiers; (ii) that I deeply loved the stiff attention of checkpoint guards at air force bases, and the guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. I also feel great sympathy for the economic and human strain felt by military families.
But there’s always been this 60’s thing going on in the back of my head. Distance. Discomfort. The praise of politicians for our men and women in uniform sounded artificial to me. I’ve felt, or imagined, the distance in many of those politicians too, both conservative and liberal ones.
Reading and thinking about the Fort Hood victims has brought me up short.
For one thing, it’s made me remember a couple of busloads of GIs we ran into in Chinatown (NYC) a few months after 9/11. It was late on a Friday night, and a great line of very young men and women in combat fatigues, with a large automatic weapon slung on each back, trooped down the stairs of each bus, and continued on down the stairwell of the Canal Street subway stop.
We had been about to say good night to a ninth grade friend of my daughter’s who had planned to take the train at that same station. But, hey, I’m a New Yorker. So I stopped one of the soldiers, and asked why they were there.
“We’re here to keep you safe,” she said, without missing a beat.
We walked our young friend to the next station on that line. Not exactly because I doubted the soldiers, but because I didn’t feel great about putting our young friend in a train car in which every other passenger carried an M-16. But what I worry that I truly wanted was to put more distance between him and them, between me and them.
I’m still not convinced of the helpfulness of a bunch of M-16s on a subway car. But tonight I feel a much more present and intense gratitude to those soldiers. I doubt if many were New Yorkers; the subway system alone must have felt alien to them, and, after both 9/11 and the anthrax scare, threatening.
But there they were, trooping earnestly down the stairs. Some, I’m sure, trooped on to Afghanistan, Iraq. Some may still be there; or some remnant of them may be.
Putting aside questions of policy—it makes me sorely regret my distance, and theirs.