Adam Fisher: When a son dons the uniform
The author, a military veteran and Buddhist, considers the decision of his son, Ives Fisher of Northampton, above, to enlist with the Army National Guard. Purchase photo reprints »
NORTHAMPTON — As a parent and as a Buddhist-on-request, I find myself awash in confusions as my younger son undergoes basic training in the Army National Guard. On the one hand, I don’t mind the confusion. On the other, I hate it.
Ives had always wanted to try on the military life. He was not a books-and-classroom kind of guy. Whether his decision was based on incomplete information — the blandishments of TV or manly flag-waving or the cool uniform — hardly makes any difference now. He’s in it, much as any adult might be in it after harboring dreams of some golden fleece and then putting those dreams to the actual-factual test. Golden fleeces exact a price.
But he’s my son! At the same time that Ives was taking his initial steps to join up, I found myself in contact with Michael, a man who had served as a Special Forces medic in Vietnam. Michael had been where the bullets flew and young men were ripped to shreds. One day, Michael sat on the far end of my couch and told me a story — just one incident — that made me weep in its soul-searing horror. But never mind my secondhand tears: Michael himself was haunted so many years later by ... by ... by all of it. It hung on his life like an inescapable case of body odor — reeking and shrieking in ways that no facile peacenik or flag-waving patriot or balm-dispensing spiritual adviser could eradicate.
I had been in the Army for three years at a time when the draft was still in effect. Everyone — except for grad students, those who fled to Canada or those who knew the upper-crust strings to pull — had to go. As it happened, I ended up with the single most intelligent group of people I ever met in my life ... a bunch of German linguists listening secretly to telephone calls in what was then East Germany. The Army dubbed us “Violet Section” ... a group whose manly qualities were suspect, although each of us knew how to shoot and fieldstrip a weapon. Still, because we used our minds, we were the sissies of Violet Section.
But that was another time, a time when our country did not so plainly invent its enemies (think “terrorism”) and then send young men and women into a combat the policy-makers managed not to involve their children in. Today, from an advanced age, I see too many loose cannons willing to sacrifice the nation’s blood. Not their blood, of course, but perhaps my son’s.
Once Ives had made up his mind, well, his mind was made up. I had done what I could to point out the various implications as I saw them, but I had to admit to him candidly that I was not some knee-jerk anti-military guy any more than I was a knee-jerk, scared-to-death, patriotic flag-waver. I could envision positive results just as I could envision negative ones.
And I never mentioned something called “Buddhism” to him. Buddhism, like other spiritual persuasions, suggests that killing is a mistake, but since killing is a mistake that is clearly so popular, the invocation of spiritual nostrums is pretty much a non-starter on the playing field of reality. If you’re going to kill, as everyone does in one way or another, the best approach I can think of is to take responsibility for it.
No, I didn’t burden my son with my own golden fleece of spiritual understanding — the one that compelled me to leap into the maw of in-your-face practicalities. What I learned was what I learned — and laying that off on someone else is both unkind and a fool’s errand in my book.
Ives has made his choice. The Army National Guard is something he has chosen. As much as my heart may long to protect him, I can’t. I can’t and I hate the sense of helplessness that comes with that. He’s my son! a voice calls out. Yes he is ... and about the only thing I can wish for now is that he will be a responsible person, that he will become as good at what he does as possible and in the process not cower behind someone else’s flag-waving. That he will be responsible.
No doubt that is a vain wish as well — another facet in the confused gem that twinkles in my mind, the gem whose facets I could never hope to see fully. The shards of doubt and pride and fear and love are just too numerous. But I would rather writhe in uncertainty than pretend I had some knee-jerk “answer” or resolution — some psychobabbling, pulpit-thumping, Star-Spangled-Banner-singing, hewn-in-granite piece of ultimate advice.
When Ives was little and learning to spell, he once gave me a birthday card he had made in class. On it, he had drawn a rocket ship or a submarine — it wasn’t entirely clear — and beneath it penned the words “Happy birthday, papa. We luv etchuther.”
Yes, we luv etchuther.
Adam Fisher lives in Northampton and is the author of “Answer Your Love Letters: Footnotes to a Zen Practice.”