Conversation With a Veteran

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Often,
the conversations that impress us most are those which seem to come
out of nowhere. Such was the recent conversation I had with my father-in-law
while installing a garbage disposer.

My
father-in-law is a good man. He is a mild-mannered schoolteacher
(in the government schools, a story for another time), and one of
the best exemplars of quiet virtue that I know. He isn't given to
sermonizing, yet he loves to teach. He minds his own business, but
fights hard for what is right within his own sphere. He is well-educated,
but best of all is full of practical wisdom about many things. It
was his practical wisdom that I was making use of a few days ago,
when he and his sister were down from Ohio visiting my wife and
myself in our new home.

My
father-in-law is one of those people who can truly do anything handy
around the house, or around a car, or in the yard. Want to fix an
engine? Move a door frame? Rewire your hot water heater? He'll be
done by lunch. For my part, I just try to make use of the opportunity
to learn a thing or two whenever I have the chance to watch (I sometimes
call it "helping") him work. My relative youth combines
with my fatherless upbringing to make me, er, not so handy around
the house. But I try to learn. On this day, we were installing the
aforementioned garbage disposer, while I watched (excuse me, "helped").
In the midst of my slow trip up the plumbing learning curve, our
conversation turned to more serious things.

My
aunt-in-law was watching some news channel or another in the other
room. Probably Fox. I heard somebody (I don't know if it was a "patriotic"
news anchor or a military officer) blurt out for the 10,000th
time that the reason we have dominated in the war in Iraq is because
of the vast superiority of our soldiers, both when compared to the
enemy and when compared to Americans past.

My
father-in-law and I do not talk much politics, and we had never
before spoken of the war with Iraq. But something about the way
that warhawk referred to this recent apex of American military "dominance" – a
dominance which continues to confound, as our "peace-time"
losses in Iraq continue to approach the number of casualties inflicted
on our forces before the administration declared the war over – made
my father-in-law mad. "We always hear," he said as he
turned a wrench, "about how much better our soldiers are today
than in times past. What baloney."

He
was clearly irked by the cavalier way in which our culture –
perhaps under some misguided notion of patriotism – assigns
superiority to whoever fought in the most recent war. This despite
the fact that it is overwhelmingly obvious that it is our technology
that has been keeping us ahead, not our military personnel. Certainly,
the soldiers themselves still have to go through Hell – in
this latest overwhelming "victory," probably more than
we will ever fully know – but this only shows that our military
personnel are made of much the same stuff as the enemy afterall.
Facing off with similar weaponry, we can be ambushed or overrun
as much as the next guy. Yet we inexplicably insist on lionizing
the soldiers themselves as somehow being, not just brave, but of
superior ability to all who have gone before.

My
father-in-law continued. "It's the weapons and the technology.
Their soldiers are as good as our soldiers, but they just don't
have our technology."

Perhaps
this societal forgetfulness is one of the last residues of more
classical times; we still want to sing the praises of the person
(man or woman, of course) on the battlefield, when really we should
be lauding engineers in radar rooms. Suddenly embarrassed by our
technology, we reach back to the days of Spartans and lift up the
soldiers who fight our push-button wars.

At
this, my aunt-in-law thought to encourage. "They never could
have gone through what you went through, Dave." This was a
reference to my father-in-law's tour in Vietnam, and while it was
sensible for her to bring it up I don't think he was fishing for
this recognition. Fishing for accolades for his Vietnam experience
would require him to think about his Vietnam experience, which is
something he clearly does not enjoy doing, yet often does anyway.
He almost never talks about it, save the time he and I were fixing
up his pontoon boat and he told me that the dreams are always worse
in the summer, when it gets so hot outside.

But
still the comparison had been made. He responded somewhat reluctantly,
"I just remember hearing the other day about how one of the
units just found out they will have to stay for another six months
(over the six months they had originally been assigned). In Vietnam,
you knew up front you were going off for a whole year. In World
War II, you knew you had three years." He hadn't brought this
up, though, to compare the personal tortures of different wars.
It was this general issue of technological superiority that really
seemed to interest him.

"I
heard the other day how now we're talking about fighting Iran and
Syria," he said. "If you're going to fight the whole world,
you'd better hope your technology can stay ahead of everyone else's,
or you're in trouble."

This
surprised me most of all, because though we'd never talked about
it I suppose I had him figured as a pretty run-of-the-mill Republican
imperialist. But this particular veteran isn't washed over with
delusions of American exceptionalism. He knows that we have to pay
for our policies, just like everybody else. We simply cannot keep
acting like the aloof emperor, with a divine right to meddle anywhere
we see fit, without accepting the possibility of a backlash from
less cooperative neighbors in the world. At our current rate of
purchase, the hatred of future generations will have to mount against
us at some time. "Superior" troops – even if such
a myth were substantiated – can't hold the world at bay forever.
Eventually someone will come along with more troops, or better-trained
troops, or troops who have more to lose. Our only hope at that point
will be to continue to dominate the technology game.

"Yes,"
I added to his thoughts, "if we're going to act like an empire,
then we'd better always make sure we have the technology to back
it up."

He
glanced at the floor soberly. "And that's impossible to maintain.
Eventually everyone else will have the technology, too. I love the
United States, but we're going to have to pay someday."

My
father-in-law went back to installing the garbage disposer, and
I went back to helping.

August
27, 2003

Xon
Hostetter [send him mail]
is a philosophy major at the University of Georgia.


        
        

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