Did I Serve? I’ve Never Been Under Fire

February 24, 2015

There’s a certain luster in having served in the military. Members of Congress like to claim it, journalists, too, even when these claims don’t turn out to be accurate. Having served in an elite branch of the military or been under fire only increases the luster.

There’s a heroic glow to combat, a stature that comes with participation in violence.

I take this to be a feature of the Chickenhawk Nation that James Fallows talks about in the Tragedy of the American Military. Most of us don’t serve—don’t care to serve—so we give ourselves a free pass by ‘honoring’ those who did serve, even if the honor accorded is cheaply given.

We’re seeing this play out in a series of mini-scandals over false claims. No, Brian Williams never came under fire during the 2003 invasion of Iraq. No, Bill O’Reilly never faced combat. No, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Chief Robert McDonald didn’t serve in the Special Forces. Each has claimed a status never earned.

The truthfulness of such claims by journalists or government officials are worth taking seriously.

But let’s also consider whether we want to pay this homage to war. Are these our principal heroes, those who participate in violence? I would rather we especially honor those who enrich life and seek peace. I like the Edna St. Vincent Millay poem that begins “I shall die, but that is all I shall do for Death.”

For the record, I applied for recognition as a conscientious objector, was denied (reasons not given), and twice refused induction into the military. I was arrested but never tried. I’m reluctant to say I never served; I’d rather say I made a different, life-affirming choice.

Conscientious Objector by Edna St. Vincent Millay

I shall die, but
that is all that I shall do for Death.
I hear him leading his horse out of the stall;
I hear the clatter on the barn-floor.
He is in haste; he has business in Cuba,
business in the Balkans, many calls to make this morning.
But I will not hold the bridle
while he clinches the girth.
And he may mount by himself:
I will not give him a leg up.

Though he flick my shoulders with his whip,
I will not tell him which way the fox ran.
With his hoof on my breast, I will not tell him where
the black boy hides in the swamp.
I shall die, but that is all that I shall do for Death;
I am not on his pay-roll.

I will not tell him the whereabout of my friends
nor of my enemies either.
Though he promise me much,
I will not map him the route to any man’s door.
Am I a spy in the land of the living,
that I should deliver men to Death?
Brother, the password and the plans of our city
are safe with me; never through me Shall you be overcome.

About Doug Bennett

Doug Bennett is Emeritus President and Professor of Politics at Earlham College. He has a wife, Ellen, and two sons, Tommy (born 1984) and Robbie (born 2003).
This entry was posted in Peace and War, Poem and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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