self-indulgent autobiography

I’ve been thinking about the personal effects of war, lately, and even the effects of millitary life in general upon a family. For the first 18 years of my life I lived on or near military posts, moving about every three years. My dad had a 30-year career in the army, serving twice in Vietnam. My sister was born during his first tour of duty, and my dad heard about it in the field over one of those hand-crank radios you see on M*A*S*H. Okay, maybe I’m embellishing the radio part.

When I was 1, during his second tour of duty, we flew to Honolulu to be with him while he enjoyed a little leave time from the war. I have individual pictures of the four of us sitting on the beach in our bathing suits. Not a group picture, mind you. Each of us is pictured separately. My dad is pale, looking off into the distance, and appears to weigh about 98 pounds. My mom, wearing Jackie O sunglasses, looks at the camera, unsmiling. My sister and I are each digging in the sand. What kind of a vacation is that? How do you “relax” when you know that one of you is going back to a war where a great many people are dying? My parents don’t look particularly unhappy, just preoccupied. What must the flight back have been like for my mom?

My Uncle Mike also fought in Vietnam, but while my father escaped serious injury, though he did come home with a Purple Heart medal, my uncle was almost killed. In fact, my uncle was being flown back from Vietnam at the same time my dad was flying over for his second tour of duty. I can only imagine what that must have been like for my grandmother: one son on the way home with life-threatening injuries while another son is sent back into battle.

One of my earliest memories is hearing machine gun fire while sitting at the breakfast table in my grandparents’ house in Columbus, Georgia, just off-post from Fort Benning. It turned out that someone in the neighborhood had just lost it and needed to let off a little steam. As I think abou
t this event now, the weird thing is that to my young mind this event didn’t seem all that frightening. Unusual, to be sure, but not scary. I can’t understand why this would be.

I was about to write, “It’s not like machine guns or violence were a regular part of my life,” by which I meant that I did not hear machine gun fire regularly nor was ever a victim of violence. But really, for most of my childhood I was surrounded by weapons and thus violence. None were allowed in the house, mind you, but handguns, rifles, grenades, helicopters, tanks, and fighter jets were as regular a part of growing up for me as comic books and chewing gum. It’s easy to forget, perhaps, the tensions of the Cold War now, but as a kid, whenever I heard jets overhead, and this was not altogether infrequent, I thought, “Is this it?”

When your father — or mother, I assume — is in the military, it’s not like other jobs, where the nature of the employer doesn’t really matter. There’s a reason for the term “military family.” While it never felt oppressive to me, the army permeated family life while I was growing up. When we lived on post at Fort Benning, Georgia for example, each home in our neighborhood had a plaque on the front with not only the name of the officer who lived there, but also his rank. The crossing guards who stopped traffic when I walked to school wore uniforms and carried handguns. Fourth of July celebrations featured tanks and marching soldiers. When we lived at the Army War College in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, every day at five, when the post flag was lowered, no matter where you were or what you were doing, you stopped and put your hand over your heart. Traffic, soccer games, pedestrians, swimming, and anything else came to a halt for the few minutes this ceremony took. Before every movie was shown in the theater, you stood while the national anthem played over a short film of vaguely patriotic images. At the age of ten, every child is issued a military I.D. card. C
oming on post, you show your I.D. card to the armed guards at the entrance. You buy your groceries at the commissary. You get health care from military doctors. You sometimes attend Department of Defense schools, depending on how large the post is. You are, to borrow a current phrase, embedded in the military.

So one might think that this kind of full and not unpleasant immersion in military life — for 18 years of my life and 30 years of my parents’ — would result in some pro-military bias. And yet, I was never pressured to go into the military. I didn’t feel that strongly about it one way or the other. Guns, even toy guns, were not allowed in our house, as I said. Most amazingly, when I turned down a full, four-year Air Force ROTC scholarship to Georgia Tech, meaning my parents would have to pay for most of my college education themselves instead of having to pay for absolutely none of it, they didn’t say one word to talk me out of my decision. Not at the time, and not once since then. It makes me wonder if, for all the pride I know my parents’ felt in my father’s military career, they knew more than I or my sister did about the personal costs of a life in the military, a life that, as we are all too aware now, includes the possibility of combat.

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2 thoughts on “self-indulgent autobiography

  1. George,
    I wanted to reply to this post for a while, because it strikes me as a very thoughtful reflection on your experiences within a military family. My uncle was in the Navy for twenty years and did a couple of tours in/around Vietnam. He’s now a somewhat reclusive person who is very mistrustful of large government (something beyond even libertarianism, really). In fact, because their politics are so different he and my father barely speak, but it leads me to wonder if he isn’t paying a price (albeit a much different one than your father) for his military experience.

  2. Clearly your uncle is not the only one to have had a bad experience in Vietnam and, as a result, to have had his view of our government completely change. Think of the whole “POW/MIA” movement, people who believe — contrary to the available evidence — that there are still many American soldiers held in Vietnam, but that our government won’t do what it takes to rescue them.
    Insert your own _Rambo_ commentary here.

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