Common Wisdom: Flying High

My son got his college diploma in 1986 as did most of his friends. His reads Columbia, theirs are similarly prestigious. Here, parallels end. His peers flocked to law school, to Wall Street, or to Silicon Valley; he joined the Air Force. He arrived at Lackland Air Force Base in Texas a gentleman and after much academic and physical challenge, left it an officer. Another base, another year, more intensive study and practical application in the air, and he lined up, approached his commanding officer, and received his wings.

As I witnessed the latter quiet, rather subdued ceremony, in contrast to the full military pageantry of his commissioning, a montage of events in the life of this son tumbled through my mind. Considering the odds, it was astonishing for him to take this particular step. Nothing in his history, except his parents’ attitude towards this country, could possibly account for his decision. Quite the contrary: he had a continuous sequence of teachers and professors ill disposed to the military, who held flag waving in obvious disdain. The notion that he, Ivy League graduate, would enter service, would definitely trigger shock or disappointment among that faculty. Both reactions are noticeable when I answer acquaintance inquiries as to what he is “doing.” When I reply “Air Force,” in lieu of investment banking, there is a thinly veiled expression of incredulity.

I remember, not long ago, lamentations in the academy and in periodicals about the dearth of liberal arts graduates in the military service. The credo advanced was that those imbued with humanistic values, gleaned from the university, could rescue the military from its commonly sketched caricature as a collection of uneducated or crazed Rambos itching for combat. But when someone with toper credentials does in fact join, there is not gratification, there is bewilderment. An obvious (but unacknowledged) Catch 22.

This attitude is less acute, I suspect, after eight years of Ronald Reagan’s unembarrassed articulation of admiration for this nation. It did not play well, of course, here in the San Francisco Bay area, or in other pockets of congenital detractors. My son grew up in the late ’60s and early ’70s, an era rife with hot heads whose ire against the military not only ran ROTC off campus but made it dangerous for ten-year-old boys to wear military uniforms on public buses. His private school was attached to a military academy and those boys, for safety’s sake, changed into civvies before boarding public transportation home. Later, in another school, his teachers freely digressed from whatever curriculum to ventilate irritation with U.S. involvement in Vietnam or to grumble about this or that domestic policy. Directly or indirectly, Uncle Sam got a black eye as part of my son’s daily diet.

His teachers weren’t communists, nor fellow travelers. They were liberal academics, suffering from the chronic disease aptly diagnosed by Jeane Kirkpatrick as the “blame America first” syndrome. If anything was wrong, in any part of the world, it was naturally America’s fault. Then too, there was the sin of omission: no teacher in memory explained to my student son that this country has lifted more people from poverty than any other nation in the world, while at the same time conferring on them maximum liberty. As Soviet and mainland Chinese youth abroad were carefully indoctrinated to hate the United States, the best my son could come up with was the occasional teacher who stuck, for instance, to the Lake poets. Sixteen years, nine to three, five days a week, without any positive input. Yet this was the son I saw walk to a podium, ready to serve his country in exchange for Air Force wings.

Let me emphasize our dinner table was not to be compared with the Buckleys or the Buchanans. We touched regularly on national and international events, playing sometimes to uninterested audiences. But we felt constrained to present a balance, to illuminate the conservative perspective against an oppressively liberal bias. And we hoisted the flag on national holidays. That’s about it. Why my son selected the military as a career, or for five years of his life (which will put him financially behind his friends at Merrill Lynch), is hard to figure out. I am left to guess that we succeeded in communicating a point of view that was nurtured nowhere else.

Comparing the benevolence of this country to its citizens against the curious reluctance of most of them to serve it, exemplified in the singularity of my son’s choice, one is tempted to ask, as Christ did of the cured leper, “Where are all the rest?”

This question occurred to each of my children during class discussions when they were aware of peers who shared their unorthodox (contra teacher) views on everything from Vietnam to abortion, but who remained silent. Intimidated? Probably. Worse, perhaps, indifferent. Why bother? It didn’t matter. No sense of urgency. I spot these precise reactions among adults today. “Oh, really? The Air Force? How come?” A sense of quirkiness, a sense of isn’t he, after all, wasting his time? A sense that glasnost is upon us and there is diminishing need for preparedness. No commies under the bed, don’t you know?

The concept of civic virtue, the conviction that if this country with its freedoms and privileges is to survive, it requires vigilance and a willingness to serve, seems passe. Israel and Switzerland demand universal service; some nations combine volunteers and draftees. Others, like ours, are strictly voluntary. We evolved from selective conscription to a lottery to the total volunteer force we have today. So far removed is serving in the military from society’s priorities at present that of all my son’s classmates, through 16 years, I am able to think of just one other young man who is now in the Navy, a product of NROTC.

For my son, joining the Air Force was an idea that jelled during his senior year in college. Officers’ Training School catapulted him into a fiercely rigorous program, academically more demanding than anything he experienced in college, not to mention strenuous physical requirements which made him grateful for years of varsity football in high school and college. He cautioned me constantly not to count on automatic graduation; he witnessed apparently qualified OTS candidates dropped from the program. He took nothing for granted, but his determination never flagged. To see him finally participate in the moving, stylishly formal graduation, with young men and women of exemplary calibre was a total ten.

It is negligent not to record the other reaction from people on hearing he is in the service. Often the response is a wistful “I wish (name) could experience that discipline!” A valid envy. Parents from assorted states were as stunned as I was by the accelerated maturity of their offspring. I learned what “spit and polish” means: one could eat from dormitory floors; clothes were neatly hung; beds, desks, and bureaus in order. Rather a dramatic contrast to dorm and fraternity rooms vacated just yesterday. Whatever their ultimate decisions, careerists or temporarily in service, the discipline and organizational skills learned at OTS will serve them all their days.

This being so, limited obligatory service for young men (and if they are so disposed, women) would seem to be a proposition of substantial merit. Georgia’s Senator Sam Nunn, chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, is in favor of it, to name but one. At least, one thinks, service to the country in some capacity. How this proposal would fare among the young in a USA Today poll is conjectural. Lacking any encouragement in school during their formative years, the idea may be regarded as unappetizing. This, after all, is the generation for whom it was deemed a burden to ask that they begin the day with the Pledge of Allegiance.

So my son, the anomaly, took the path less traveled by. He is now on assignment across the continent and, while good friends agonize over passing the bar, or climbing the corporate ladder, he flies missions over fathoms of the murky Atlantic and other activities his mother is well advised to be ignorant of in advance. Because, for all the pride and respect I feel for him there is, of course, the concern. There are days I wish he had gone to law school.

His last weekend home coincided with the Fourth of July. Our parish is not sufficiently chic to have phased out patriotism, to ignore that among other freedoms religion flourishes in this nation and we owe to it periodic deference. Our recessional hymn that Sunday was “America the Beautiful.” I rose with my son to sing the familiar words and found a lump in my throat. When it was over, the rest of us would go about our business. For the tall young man at my side, however, protecting those “spacious skies” was his business. I prayed with special fervor that God would, indeed, “shed His grace,” not only on this blessed land, but on my son who serves it.

  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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