A Veteran of the World

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What's it like to be a pacifist on Veteran's Day? Well, I can only tell you what it's like to be a pacifist with a father who is a Korean War-era veteran who helped to turn me into a pacifist ... on Veteran's Day.

These are some pictures of my Dad, who later found his calling as the cartoonist Eli Stein, at Fort Bragg in North Carolina. He was drafted into the army straight out of Brooklyn during the early years of the Korean War, and it blows my mind to imagine him as an 18 year old on that long bus trip to North Carolina. It was, as far as he remembers, the first time he had ever ventured outside of New York City. As he told the story later, he always emphasized the fact that joining the US Army was not his choice, though it was a choice he felt he had to comply with.

The Army worked out pretty well for my Dad. His work as a photographic reconnaissance specialist helped lead to his later career as a graphic designer. He made good lifelong friends at Fort Bragg. And, let's face it, he must have known he looked pretty fine in uniform.

Later in life he would always recall his military experience with a sardonic smile, and would often sing this song:

The coffee in the army
They say is mighty fine
It's good for cuts and bruises,
But it tastes like turpentine!
I don't want no more of army life
Gee Ma, I wanna go home!

The chicken in the army,
They say is mighty fine,
A drum rolled off the table
And squashed a pal of mine!
I don't want no more of army life
Gee Ma, I wanna go home!

The clothing that they give us
They say is mighty fine
Well, me and half my regiment
Can all fit into mine
I don't want no more of army life
Gee Ma, I wanna go home!

The salary they pay us
They say is mighty fine
They give you thirty dollars
And take back forty-nine
Oh, I don't want no more of army life
Gee Ma, I wanna go,
Oh Ma I gotta go,
Gee Ma, I wanna go home!

I often got the sense that my father's biggest gripe with the military mindset was more cultural than ethical: being a soldier required a commitment to conformity and routine and physical captivity that was hard for his creative and wandering mind to accept. I don't think my father ever shared my taste for abstract debate, nor has he ever been the kind of rabid political junkie I am, but he made his feelings clear when, for instance, he always cited this satirical novel by Joseph Heller as his favorite book:

I was born into the 1960s. The Vietnam War draft loomed large as I grew up. I remember sitting with older kids as we gathered around televisions or radios to hear the announcers call out the birthdates that would determine which 18 year olds were selected to go. The fear of eventually being drafted certainly affected me as a kid, and I remember what my Dad said to me about this: if the Vietnam War was still on when I reached the age of 18, he would support me in dodging the draft.

Fortunately, a strong protest movement in the USA helped to end our involvement in that sorry war. I never had to face the tough choice, and instead lived a cushy American life, going to college and studying philosophy and computer science so I could eventually build a website called Pacifism21.org. And when I launched this website (just a few weeks ago) my Dad was, as he has always been, one of my most enthusiastic supporters. I'd like to thank him for this support on Veteran's Day.

What does Veteran's Day mean to a pacifist? Well, I got in a little bit of trouble trying to answer this question a few years ago, because this was the November that my oldest daughter had just begun her career as a public school teacher in New York City, and was working in one of the grungiest and most dangerous districts in East Brooklyn. I said that I admired the bravery of anybody who faces combat, but that I also admired the bravery of my daughter as she goes to work every day, and that I didn't see that one type of bravery was necessarily different from the other.

I thought this was a great answer, but it didn't get a great reaction from the people I said it too, and I gradually figured out that our reverence for the veterans in our midst really does carry some kind of sacred sense to it, and that it's better for me on Veteran's Day to keep quiet about the fact that I consider veterans to be exactly as brave and admirable and worthy as non-veterans, no more and no less. Nobody really wants to hear that on Veterans Day, so I'll bury the lede right here and leave it at that.

We are all veterans of the world. I do not get to wear the veteran badge of pride myself, though ironically I did find myself a personal witness to one of the most horrific acts of war in American history on September 11, 2001. I was not able to find a way to help anybody on that tragic day, but at least I did get a chance to prove to myself that I don't run from danger when the opportunity comes.

What kind of bravery does it take to be in the US Army in the 1950s and not subscribe wholeheartedly to its conforming power? I guess that's the kind of bravery my Dad and his own private circle of sardonic Army buddies had down at Fort Bragg, as they spit-shone their shoes and sang funny songs about coffee that tastes like turpentine.

I guess it takes bravery just to be alive, too, and I always sensed that general bravery in my Dad. I must have respected his negative opinions about the militarist mindset, because I eventually adopted similar opinions as my own. I respect my Dad because he is a veteran of the US Army. In a deeper sense, I respect him because he is a veteran of the world.
3 Responses to "A Veteran of the World"

by Eli on

Thanx! I'm honored to be so honored by you.
-- Dad

by Sharon on

Ahhhh, Dad's army song... it was a part of our childhood. Love you, Dad. Great tribute, Levi.

by Nessa on

Thanks for this post, Levi. It is hard to be a pacifist in our world. I feel better with your words about us all being veterans of the world. And thank you for your pacifism21.org site, too.

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