“Like a lot of boys I played war when I was young, and like a lot of men I retained an intense and abiding curiosity about it. And like a lot of people, my family was deeply affected by war and probably wouldn’t have existed without it. One of my mother’s ancestors emigrated from Germany in order to fight in the American Revolution and was given a land grant in Ohio in return. His last name was Grimm; he was related to the great folklorists who recorded German fairy tales. One of Grimm’s descendants married into another frontier family, the Carrolls, who were almost wiped out by Indians during a raid on their remote Pennsylvania homestead in 1781. The Carroll wife managed to hide in a cornfield with her four-year-old son, James, while the Indians killed her two teenage sons and her dog. The husband was off in town that day. I’m descended from James.
My father was half Jewish and grew up in Europe. He was thirteen when his family fled the Spanish Civil War and settled in Paris, and seventeen when they left Paris ahead of the German army and emigrated to the United States. He tried to sign up for military service but was turned down due to asthma, so he eventually helped the war effort by working on jet engines in Paterson, New Jersey. Later he got a degree in fluid mechanics and worked on submarine design. When I turned eighteen I received my selective service card in the mail, in case the United States needed to draft me, and I declared that I wasn’t going to sign it. The Vietnam War had just ended and every adult I knew had been against it. I had no problem, personally, with fighting a war; I just didn’t trust my government to send me to one that was completely necessary.
My father’s reaction surprised me. Vietnam had made him vehemently antiwar, so I expected him to applaud my decision, but instead he told me that American soldiers had saved the world from fascism during World War II and that thousands of young Americans were buried in his homeland of France. ‘You don’t owe your country nothing,’ I remember him telling me. ‘You owe it something, and depending on what happens, you might owe it your life.’
The way my father put it completely turned the issue around for me: suddenly the draft card wasn’t so much an obligation as a chance to be part of something bigger than myself. And he’d made it clear that if the United States embarked on a war that I felt was wrong, I could always refuse to go; in his opinion, protesting an immoral war was just as honorable as fighting a moral one. Either way, he made it clear that my country needed help protecting the principles and ideals that I’d benefited from my entire life.”
Pulled from Sebastian Junger’s Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging. I’m descended from James.
That sentence, its ordering in the paragraph and use of the informal contraction where a self-serious “I am” would be tempting, is a reason Junger is a great writer.
- A collection of my posts on Junger
- How the Brits see their legacy in WW2
- The 20th century’s major work of philosophy was written in the trenches