In one of those quirks of personal history, I never registered for the Armed Services. There was never a notice sent to my home requiring registration, so I never did it. I don’t think many of my immediate peers did either. None of my friends ever mentioned getting registered for the military or even being notified about it.
Perhaps there was a window when it wasn’t required. Yet I mentioned that to a friend that did serve in the armed forces and he was quick to tell me that was not true. “Oh, we all had to register,” he told me.
It wasn’t strict avoidance on my part. All I knew about the military when I turned 18 was what I’d heard from the recent conclusion of the Vietnam War. That did not sound like a good gig to me. My older brothers never got drafted for service. I was always grateful for that. The Vietnam War was not really good for anyone. Not for the people who served in it. Nor the nation that chased communist-supported forces all over the jungles and rice patties.
Since that time America has engaged in several more wars. I clearly recall the 1991 Gulf War, and how several colleagues from the newspaper where I worked went off to serve in the invasion. One worked as a refueling pilot flying jets over the Middle East.
I’ve often wondered how I’d have done as a military man. Certainly I had my share of problems with acceptance of authority over the years. But most of that was distrust of authority that was falsely assumed. I loved the relationship between coach and athlete. I trusted my coaches to a flaw. Certainly that would have translated into a motivated sense of duty and devotion to commanders. There was certainly enough anger within me to be channeled toward an enemy.
The discipline of military life would have been no problem either. All those mornings rising at 5:30 a.m. for training runs were an exciting part of my life. I’ve never minded working hard, going to bed early and setting out to achieve a goal. All good traits for a soldier.
Endurance sports naturally draw upon those points of will and dedication. We all find our cause and our goals in life. Many of mine have centered around athletic achievement. It’s a satisfying pursuit to set a goal and make it happen.
The one challenge I might have faced in military service is an absolute dedication to the cause for war. I am deeply suspicious of the motivations of politicians, especially those speaking for God, as if God were in support of any national cause. And if I were sent off to war for ill-defined causes I might have had trouble with the fight.
America also has a nasty history in how it has treated its soldiers and veterans once wars are over. From the time of the Revolutionary War until this day and age, the nation has sent people to die for its cause. But when those soldiers come home we have a bad record of taking care of them. Perhaps I’ve written on this before, but it continues to bother me. The idea that someone should put their life on the line and then be ignored or treated badly by our nation is simply unacceptable. Yet the same people who claim respect for our military are often the people voting against funding for veteran’s benefits.
This morning I stopped by a cemetery near my former home in St. Charles. While walking through the graveyard I discovered a set of small stones set at the very back of the property. These were a line of small white stones engraved with the name and company of the men who served in war. These most likely dated from the Civil War. Then there were a set that bore the simple inscription: Unknown US Soldier.
Their remains had never been identified. Yet they were brought “home” to a quiet spot next to a small stream where they have sat untouched for more than 100 years. Unknown Soldiers. Think about that. They fought and died for their country. No one even knew who they were in the end.
Good for everyone?
I’ve entertained the notion that that some sort of military service would be good for every citizen. It might have been good for me. Yet aren’t we all a bit surprised how many of our current politicians got deferrals in their day? Donald Trump, for example, and to some extent, George W. Bush, who got placed in a pilot’s program only to cease showing up at some point. Perhaps he had better things to do?
Then there are obviously aggressive men such as Dick Cheney, who seemed to love sending people to war but somehow got a deferral himself. Meanwhile, men like John Kerry obviously fought in Vietnam but were excoriated for their service by political zealots who Swift Boated the man’s reputation.
It fits the same pattern of the nation as a while. America loves the notion of fighting, but we tend to show very little gratitude to those who did. It’s the same pattern even with the National Football League, where former players often suffer debilitating side effects from playing the game, including brain injury. Yet the NFL has had trouble admitting this fact. The league for years has behaved with ingratitude toward its former players. Until recently the NFL would not admit that brain injury among its former players was even a problem. it took several suicides by former players due to CTE for the problem to be acknowledged. Up till then, denial ruled the day. How very American.
By contrast, we’re typically shocked when someone dies at a sporting event such as a marathon or triathlon. But with millions of participants each year, the odds are actually pretty high that a traumatic physical event will happen occasionally. There are in fact few rules preventing at-risk people from doing endurance sports. The disclaimers we sign before competitions are not exactly like signing up for the military. We don’t have to disclose much. Even our flat feet get a pass. How telling it is that we’re basically signing our lives away if anything should happen, yet we sign on the line and jump into the fray. How interesting. And perhaps at times, how stupid?
Instead, we seek heroes among those individuals who overcome even greater personal obstacles than our own to achieve athletic glory. “There but for the grace of God, go I…” the saying goes. Athletes fighting cancer or competing with physical disabilities demonstrate the supposedly wondrous spirit of the human race. But what is it that we’re all truly fighting? Is it our personal war against death that all these events signify?
Well, let’s take a look at that.The triumphal music with crowds cheering on competitors looks very like a military parade. It all resembles the adulation once reserved for military champions; armies marching into Rome, Civil War soldiers returning to their homes.
There’s even that triumphal, dirgelike music from the movie Chariots of Fire. It’s like we’re all being called up to heaven! It’s a plain fact of human history. We love our wars more than just about anything. We love to scare ourselves into motivation and expect others to share in our fears. There you have endurance sports in a nutshell.
It’s often said that our military exists to protect our freedoms and way of life. Even though I’ve never served, I believe in the American military. I admire those who do serve.
I also respect the idea that our military should be used judiciously, not as an extension of some aggressive ideology or lashing out in fear. That exposes our flaws more than it affirms our strengths. In recent years, our military has been asked to fight wars that have no clear mission. We’ve seen scenes from Iraq and Afghanistan where there was no real way to win and no real mission to accomplish. The soldiers there were torn between keeping the peace and whacking all those who threaten them. No wonder so many came home with Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. And let’s remember: those efforts in the Middle East are not over.
Protecting the public, from what?
It’s the same way back at home. Our police are being asked to fight wars on the streets of America. They’re often outgunned in the process. There are military-grade weapons easily available and the police know it. Now guns outnumber people in America. It’s no wonder the police are responding so aggressively to public threats. They’re being asked to fight the same kind of war in America that our soldiers experienced in Iraq.
America is largely ungrateful in both cases. For years, while our soldiers went door-to-door fighting in Iraq, we knew little about their missions or daily life. And when dead bodies were sent home, the Bush administration banned the practice of photographing the coffins as they arrived on American soil. America was a nation in denial, yet 4000 soldiers gave their lives. Tens of thousands more were wounded, often losing limbs or mind in the process. And all along, we are being protected from the folly of our own conflicted policies at home and abroad.
War at home
It’s a fact: More Americans have died from gun violence and suicide than all the soldiers that have ever died on foreign soils. I believe this is the result of a deeply conflicted belief system developed and promoted around an ideology of aggression and fear. It also makes some people a lot of money.
This brand of propaganda drives highly profitable gun sales and leads to a mentality that it is impossible to safely live in America without owning a gun. Last week I heard a representative of a leading gun manufacturer interviewed on AM 560, a conservative radio station here in Chicago. The gun rep proudly outlined his company’s history of supplying military weapons to our armed forces. Then he quickly proclaimed that more than one hundred million guns have been sold in America since President Obama took office. And why? Because the gun lobby has convinced fearful Americans that the President would take away their guns. He said that.
Connect the dots
Do you get the connection here? It is fear that drives this perceived need for such prolific weaponry across the face of America. It’s not going to change anytime soon because it has too long been the fabric of American life. And let’s be clear: it is no coincidence that America’s baseline racism also emerged with aggression and public expression during this time period. Aggression and fear go quite well together with racism, nationalism, and protectionism. All the things that lead America to war also drive war here at home.
So let’s connect the dots. We have a tradition of selfishly abandoning our soldiers once they serve no military purpose. We have also abandoned our citizenry to gun violence of many forms. Every time there is a military-style mass shooting, the NRA waits a few days and then casts blame on something other than the guns for causing the shooting.
But be honest about this trend. It’s the guns now, and it’s always been the guns that cause domestic shootings. These are further driven by selfish priorities of all those promulgating a fear-driven ideology that makes mass shootings actionable in the minds of those disenfranchised with society. That’s how gun crimes have become so possible and relatively common in America. This aligns with the daily deaths vexing cities across America.
So let’s complete the algorithm.
We’re a nation of ingrates living selfishly off the sacrifices of our wounded and dead soldiers while selfishly clinging to a lifestyle that imitates military culture. Yet even the military bans the practice of carrying weapons concealed or otherwise around bases. Gun proponents not only deny this fact, they flaunt it with requests for so-called Open Carry. is nothing more than vigilante rule. This is the definition of insanity.
Cause and effect
It’s this denial of cause and effect that has led to the massive proliferation of guns in society. The cynical maxim that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people” is the product of ingrates whose imagination is stimulated only by the ability to kill at will. It’s all couched in the language of personal defense, but in truth it denies the fact that guns were invented for one thing, and one thing only. That is killing.
There’s an interesting trend among our nation’s politicians that it is often the people who never served in the military that most want to take America to war. They say the only way we can protect our freedoms is by fighting wars overseas. In similar fashion, America has been taken over by a bunch of people who likewise claim that you can only be a true American if you own and carry a gun. The parallels are spooky. But perhaps not surprising.
If we truly appreciated the rights of those who wield guns on behalf of national defense, we’d treat our soldiers better, would we not? Yet the very people who vote so proudly to defend gun rights are the same cabal voting against better funding of veteran’s benefits and support for our wounded soldiers. They do this on budgetary grounds as if this were a conservative thing to do. That means the real work of caring for soldiers is being left to non-profits and people with the liberal bent of showing compassion for those who have served.
So if you’re asked to run or ride in a benefit event for an organization such as Wounded Warriors, stop for a moment to consider why it is even necessary. Consider your freedoms as well, and think what it might feel like to run in an event where everyone in the crowd cheering you on has a gun visibly strapped to their hip, or is openly carrying a rifle or a machine gun over their shoulder. Is this the America we want to create?
Is that really what those soldiers fought and died for? Is that really the America in which we all want to live? Do we truly exist in freedom if everyone feels forced to protect themselves because the other guy has a gun?
There’s no running or riding away at that point in time. It would require a grand procession of denial to pretend that’s a better world.