May 16, 2008
If in some smothering dreams, you too could…
…watch the white eyes writhing in his face…
My friend, you would not tell with such high zest
To children ardent for some desperate glory,
The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est
Pro patria mori.
—Wilfred Owen, 1893-1918
The Latin means, roughly, “It is noble and gracious to lay down your life for your homeland.” Wilfred Owen was writing about watching another soldier die from mustard gas, as ignoble a death as can be imagined. Owen also died young, days before the Armistice, but not before he was able to write down his experience of war.
My own experience of war was much less wrenching, but I’ve been thinking about it ever since John McCain began fantasizing regularly about conventional military “victory” in Iraq. This morning, I did a Google search for my old outfit, the 509th Bomb Wing.
In 2008, the wing is located at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri. It has a website and a public relations staff. In 1945, the 509th, then known as the 509th Composite Group, flew the Enola Gay to Japan and dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima. Since then, wing members have been entitled (read “required”) to wear the Presidential Unit Citation ribbon on their dress uniforms. I never could bring myself to wear the ribbon.
Thirty-five years ago, when I belonged to it, the 509th was headquartered at Pease Air Force Base in New Hampshire. We flew KC-135’s (still flying!) and FB-111b’s—then the most advanced aircraft in service. The 509th flies B-2’s these days—stealth bombers, and perhaps the most advanced aircraft in service now.
I spent my entire Air Force active duty, after training, at Pease except for a few days in the summer of 1972 when I was inexplicably sent to Whiteman! It was a Minuteman missile base in those days, and there was absolutely nothing for me to do there. I was supposed to stay there for 90 days, but by pleading with my commanding officer I was sent back to Pease after only three or four days.
What I remember about Whiteman is chiefly Missouri’s suffocating July heat. Yet somehow that short temporary assignment to Whiteman was about the most exciting thing that happened to me in four years of service.
After all the agony and anxiety I went through before I enlisted (the draft notice I had received motivated me to make other arrangements), the most striking feature of my actual service was its astonishing banality. There was neither nobility nor graciousness in it. It was an unsatisfying job at low pay that I was forbidden to quit.
Four years is nevertheless a long time for a young man, and military service changed me in ways I didn’t notice until later. When I was discharged on January 15, 1973, I drove home to our off-base apartment and carefully hung my uniform in the closet, as if I were going to wear it again.
I sat in a disoriented fog—neither soldier nor citizen—for a couple of weeks and then began graduate school at the University of New Hampshire, just a few miles up the road. I quickly learned that on campus there was no sympathy for the military or for veterans. For the whole time I was a grad student, I kept a resentful silence about where I had been and what I had been required to do.
The experience taught me the difference between supporting the troops and supporting the war the troops have been ordered to fight. The former really is dulce et decorum; the latter, almost without exception, is not. The little video below lays out some of the reasons why this is so.