In conversation recently at the Pacific Northwest Writers Conference, a woman asked me if I was relieved to be retired from the military right now. I answered that actually I felt a bit guilty at times. She didn’t understand, and I couldn’t explain it easily in casual conversation. I’m not even sure I understand it myself.
In a way, military service is traditional in our family. A grandfather, two uncles, and both my father and mother were in the service. Both of my brothers and I enlisted, although my youngest brother’s knee gave out in basic and he couldn’t complete his term. Grandpa, Uncle D., and I were the only ones to serve as a career.
But I can’t recall it ever being discussed much. There was no expectation imposed or implied. We weren’t raised that this was our duty. It was just a choice each of us made, accepted by the rest as unexceptional. (Well, Uncle D. had a fit when I joined up, because I was “taking a job away from a man”, but that doesn’t count.)
So this war in Iraq isn’t evoking some family ethos that we should rush to the aid of our nation. And this odd regret isn’t because I want to do my part — this isn’t a cause I agree with. Nor is it because I would have anything of value to contribute; I have no special skills of use in this conflict, and if I were still on active duty, the chance of being deployed would have been extremely remote. The first time I was stationed at Travis AFB, the SAC commander began the newcomers’ orientation by thundering, “Our job is war!” Even less popular to say publicly back then than it is now, but it really is the bottom line of the military. I served in the military for twenty years. I was never in combat, not even in a region of conflict for support purposes. I never did our real job.