Saturday, December 04, 2004

Weekend Warriors, Then and Now

Busy day yesterday. No classes but a lot of time spent meeting with students, including a young Marine Corps reservist who had to take the History of War final exam early because his unit was shipping out--first to California for extended field training, then to Iraq for at least seven months. He had a strong "A" average for the first two midterms, so my final exam question to him was to ask if he would mind if I just gave him an A for the course. After that we talked for about thirty minutes about the situation in Iraq and his feelings about going there. He was very thoughtful and mature--far more than I was at his age. For me there was an air of unreality about the conversation. Maybe it was his unusual degree of gravitas that threw me off, but for the life of me I couldn't wrap my mind around the idea that he was actually going over there.

I thought afterward about the accident of timing that allowed me to spend my eight years in the Army National Guard at the one of the few moments in my country's recent history when I was unlikely to serve in a war. A few years older and I would have been eligible for the draft; I could well have gone to Vietnam. A few years younger and I'd probably be on active duty right now: if not in Iraq then Afghanistan or at a minimum some post in the United States, replacing troops who had been deployed to those regions.

True, I was still in the Guard when Desert Shield/Desert Storm occurred, and in theory I could have been activated for that. But my unit was a field artillery battalion with towed 105 mm howitzers. Our readiness status changed scarcely at all. The sole change to our monthly drill routine was the posting of a single unarmed sentry at the gate to the armory parking lot--apparently to wave hello to a suicide bomber should one happen to come barreling through.

The unit was disbanded soon after the war, but by then I had gotten out. There seemed little point in remaining in the Guard if I'd already gained what I needed from the experience (a modicum of exposure to the armed forces) and the country had no use for my skills as a forward observer. Of course, if I'd had the foresight to enlist in a water purification unit or laundry detachment instead, I might very well have gotten a free trip to Saudi Arabia after all.

Nowadays when people ask me if I've been in the military, I'm always a little puzzled about how to respond. By"military" they invariably mean active duty military, and with the exception of three months of basic combat training and advanced individual training at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, I never spent a day on active duty. I did spend eight years putting up with the strange mix of serious preparation, relaxed sloppiness, and absurd chickenshit that characterizes the National Guard. I did learn to call for fire well enough that my unit kept me on the artillery range whenever it did its annual ARTEP--"Army Readiness Training Evaluation Program," if memory serves. To this day I could do a coordinated illumination mission--or at least, could do it as it was done in the mid-1980s, which probably bears no resemblance to the way it's done today.

Yet what does any of that mean? For me it was a useful life experience; I'm not at all sorry I did it. But to others? Once upon a time at a church I attended it happened to be Veterans Day and the pastor invited everyone who'd been in the service to come down to the chancel rail so the congregation could recognize and thank them. Absently I got up and walked down the aisle--to find myself in the company of grizzled old men who had served in World War II and Korea and a few middle-aged Vietnam veterans. I never did anything like that again.

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