Like War and Peace All Over Again
My young friend Alex — in my mind's eye, still a grinning, freckled 10-year-old — is off to join the army. Not the U.S. Army — the Finnish Army, known over there as the Maavoimat. Alex enjoys dual citizenship, having been born to a sparkling and artistic Finnish mom and a soft-spoken Yankee boatbuilder with the soul of a poet. Even by the standards of coastal Maine, where you meet interesting characters all the time, this family has always struck me as particularly wonderful. And now little Alex — today a strapping and muscular twenty-year-old — is about to don a uniform.
It's unlikely, I guess, that he'll ever see combat, unless perhaps on some peacekeeping mission. Things have been relatively quiet for the Maavoimat, a fighting force of legendary tenacity, since it battled Stalin's Red Army to a draw in 1939 and then proceeded to beat up on Hitler's Wehrmacht. But that's not the only worry.
"I don't know what's worse," his dad confides: "the risk to life, limb, and long term psycho damage or just the fact that militarism appeals to him."
I hear you, bro. For those of us who vividly remember Vietnam, and especially those of us whose children are now old enough for military service, these are perplexing times.
The President's observance of Veteran's Day at Arlington National Ceremony this week has gotten a lot of attention, as did his eulogy one day earlier for the thirteen troops killed at Fort Hood — one of his very best speeches, I think. But have you seen this remarkable story about an unscheduled visit by Barack and Michelle Obama to Section 60 at Arlington, where many of the dead from Iraq and Afghanistan are laid to rest? By chance, one of the mourners present that day happened to be a reporter for the New York Daily News, and his account of an accidental meeting with the President is both riveting and moving. And reassuring, too. Read it now — I'll wait.
One of the weirdest aspects of our current national debate over Afghanistan is the way so many people (notably Obama's political foes) are clamoring for a quick decision on whether to commit more troops — as many as 40,000, by most reports. Dick Cheney made a stir a few weeks back when he accused the President of "dithering." Now John McCain has gotten into the act, describing himself as "disappointed and angry" that the man who beat him last November is taking so much damn time to think.
I used to write science fiction for a living, and it is my professional opinion that these gentlemen are living in an alternate universe — one where a rash decision by a war-hungry President to send young people like Alex into deadly combat always works out really well. Or where a relentless build-up of forces over many years — the way things unfolded in Vietnam — inevitably leads to victory and happiness and a Mustang in every garage.
In the universe inhabited by the rest of us, it's comforting to know we have a President who takes things more seriously. Now we can only hope that his decision, when he makes it, turns out to be the right one.
I don't pretend to know how we ought to proceed. But it's hard to get around the stark framing of this issue by Nicholas Kristof at the New York Times:
"President Obama and Congress will soon make defining choices about health care and troops for Afghanistan.
"These two choices have something in common — each has a bill of around $100 billion per year. So one question is whether we’re better off spending that money blowing up things in Helmand Province or building up things in America."
Which brings us to another odd feature of our national debate: There is no peace movement, to speak of. Kristof's argument might gain some traction if anyone (besides the occasional liberal newspaper columnist or Democratic Senator) were really making it. That's one thing that makes the current situation so different from Vietnam — and even from the run-up to the Iraq war in 2003.
Having a volunteer army makes all the difference, apparently. Widespread protest does not arise when the vast majority of young people perceive, correctly, that they themselves are not at imminent risk. This probably wouldn't be the case in a country — like Finland — with a system of compulsory national service. My friend Alex's joining the Maavoimat is a requirement of retaining his Finnish citizenship. Maybe that's something we ought to think about, as these little wars drag on.