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Did You Serve?

Amy and I attended an Association of University Women pot luck where we were the only non-retired people. I learned that I was also the only non-veteran there as well. One of the attendees is a semi-retired colonel with the Corps of Engineers, and over dinner, war stories started floating around the table. These weren't stories of heroics or high ideals, but the dumb crap that every soldier in the history of the world has experienced. The Colonel mentioned that when City Councilwoman Barbara Clark complained about the scale and size of the flagpole the local VFW planned to erect on Main Street, her criticism attracted more than enough money to erect the abomination. (Not, obviously, his word.) My word, which accurately describes a flagpole (and it's flag) which are so out of scale to the space. Tinkertoy in a Lego landscape. Grossly outsized and, because of that, obscene in its context.

I commented that I agreed with Commissioner Clark, the flagpole IS out of scale and that it should not have been allowed to be built for aesthetic reasons. That the sponsors seemed to have mistaken size of the monument for the size of the feelings it represents. (A common male problem for which no handy blue pill has been devised.) I said that I preferred to keep my patriotism in my pocket. The Colonel looked up at me from across the table, as if I just didn't get it. (You see, to his mind erecting the grossly out of scale flagpole was a win for the forces of the right. To my mind it was the equivalent of someone painting their house bright purple to show that they are free to paint their house purple. Most people who pass by will not celebrate the painter's freedom, but question his sanity---or at least his taste). The Colonel asked, "So, you didn't serve?" To which I answered, as I slipped out to the kitchen to help Amy dish up the mango and sticky rice dessert, "No."

The conversation swerved back into less controversial territory when we returned, but my response bothered me then and has been poking at me since. Did I serve? I thought then, and still think today, that service is an important part of citizenship. I shovel my neighbor's walk. When I was drafted, I refused to appear because I had been denied my due process under the law, an oversight the local draft board acknowledged by inviting me to appear before them and plead my case. My case for being designated a non-military conscientious objector. A case I apparently successfully argued, since I was designated 1-CO, or whatever the military designation was at the time. (Thanks in no small part to a raft of patriots who wrote letters supporting my case, including Federal District Court Judge Dale Green --- one reason I attended his memorial last year).

My service was to be two years of service changing bed pans in an approved military hospital at less than minimum wage. The regulation governing my service required me to move at least sixty miles from my designated home, Walla Walla, to work in an approved military facility. The rub was that I had to find such a facility that was willing to hire me.

The following three years were my service. They included writing letters to approved facilities seeking employment and proving to the draft board that I was diligently seeking such work. It was kinda like being on unemployment except it didn't pay anything and it prevented me from actually being employed or going to school, because I could at any time be selected to move myself somewhere to change bed pans. I worked casual labor, day jobs like shoveling out horse stalls (a job for which I had to wear a friend's short hair wig because the labor contractor wouldn't hire long hairs.) I learned a lot about holding unpopular convictions.

No one ever responded to any of my requests for employment. Finally, Ford did away with the draft and my obligation evaporated. Did I serve? Well, I managed to prevent one person from getting ground up in that senseless folly called the Vietnam War. I proved that this is a country sometimes ruled by law and not jingoism. I proved that a man could stand on principles, and learned that if he did, he might well have to stand alone.

Even today, when a veteran asks if I served, I usually opt for the short answer, and just say, "No." I wonder why I do that.

I served to show that our might can be found in something other than our readiness to fight. To give peace a real chance, an alternative we forfeit whenever we decide to wage war. Whomever the adversary. Whatever the situation. Mine was not an uncourageous choice. It brought with it uncataloged inconvenience. It was my choice, choice being the principle democracy thrives upon.

I wonder in my lucid moments how military service would have worked had others who served been offered the same terms I'd been offered. Compelled to serve, but also compelled to find an outfit willing to have you serve with them. Pay your own transportation to get there.

Find your own housing and pay for it, along with food et al, out of a salary, a fraction of the minimum wage. I wonder how many other's service would have been spent failing to find anyplace to serve. It's an interesting idea.

So, I conclude that I did serve. To demonstrate that the ideals this country was founded to preserve have been preserved. No medals to line the bottom of my sock drawer (I like that) and no public recognition of the dedication to principle (I like that, too), and, importantly for me, no bragging rights. I keep my patriotism in my pocket. It fits comfortably there. I don't wave red (or even red, white, and blue) flags because they incite bullies, offend friends, and misrepresent the quiet confidence that anyone living in a representative democracy really should have. I believe that our public square now overwhelmed by that Tinkertoy flagpole was better without it, when the citizens used to gather there to dance on summer evenings. And that service is a principle one must choose to satisfy.

God Bless Us, everyone. Especially those who disagree with us. Pray that we learn to love our enemies as ourselves, for the alternative seems to insist that we hate ourselves so that we might hate our enemies.

What about WWII? A time of insanity, induced, perhaps by the Peace To End All Peace armistice "ending" WWI, which was fought to defend honor, but sacrificed all honor. WWII rose out of a sort of payback. Cut off the opposition, squeeze the loser. Before the Germans chose evil, they were desperate, hopeless, rendered powerless. Had we treated them with respect following the mutual humiliation in the trenches, what reason would they have had to militarize? The French, between the wars, saw the whole thing coming. The British pacifists insisted upon getting their pound of emaciated flesh by collecting reparations. WWII stands as a testament to the ultimate cost of humiliation. Everyone loses.

The war itself was neither masterfully planned nor competently executed. It was a mud wrestle, the outcome more ruled by chance and brutality than clever strategy. More innocents died than designated combatants. A lot of unnecessary engagements occurred simply because armed forces were available to fight. Many of the South Pacific battles were unnecessary and terribly costly, but they made good PR at the time.

I will argue that there are more effective ways to defeat terrorism than send armies out to fight it. Many of our allies concur. They are not fighting it with overwhelming military might because in their calculation, military might has little effect in such conflicts. One might co-opt insurgencies, but never in the history of the world so far, militarily defeat one. This humbling fact might well encourage a less militaristic, more strategic response, though it might encourage criticism from people so used to hammering every opponent that every one automatically looks like a nail.

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