My brother Peter turns 60 this week. That is a singular event that I would like to mark pleasantly – Peter is a kind, handsome, and brilliant man who has made a considerable mark as an educator – but I mention this event only to note this:
Peter turned 18 in 1972. That’s pretty significant, and here’s why: American males who turned 18 in 1972 were the first 18 year olds not subject to the draft lottery, the system by which young men were randomly chosen for service in the military (which at that time likely meant a trip to Vietnam). Prior to 1972, young American men lived with the idea that only a randomly chosen number stood between them and extraordinary hardship, sacrifice, and possible death imposed by the policies of their government.
I want you to take a moment and imagine what it would be like for a young person today if the draft existed; shit, imagine what it would be like for you. What if you were walking around today thinking “Dammit, in eighteen months I could be standing in the desert while someone I never met tries to kill me.”
Also, this week marks three remarkable anniversaries: September 2nd was the 69th anniversary of the official end of the Second World War (on that date aboard the battleship USS Missouri docked in Tokyo Bay, the official Instrument of Surrender was signed by representatives of the Empire of Japan); September 1 was the 75th anniversary of the Invasion of Poland by the armies of the Third Reich, the date usually connected with the beginning of the Second World War; and it was on that same day, 75 years ago today, that the Free City of Danzig was annexed by the Third Reich, marking the first of many foreign cities to fall under the yoke of the Nazis.
As we watch our cat videos, it seems that we are extraordinarily distant from these events. Possibly due to the 42 years we have gone without the draft, possibly due to the overwhelming plurality and ubiquity of the media (which is to say it is everywhere, all the time, dramatically altering our ability to filter the important from the trivial), war seems like some concept that belongs to someone else, or perhaps something we relate to fantasy novels or video games. Touched by the random horror of terrorism, we are certainly aware that there is a world out there that fights and dies for religious and political beliefs; but for 42 years, we have been removed from this reality, the idea that we might have to kill or be killed to defend our way of life, or to defend the choices of the government we live in.
But the extraordinary events of the 20th century are within spitting distance of most of our lives. War is only one burp of history away, one incident in the Balkans away, one over-eager button pusher in the Middle East away, one click of a keyboard from some zealous cyber terrorist away. True: we are a cursor click away from another conflagration that will re-draw our maps, define the lives of our children and grandchildren, and leave a million civilians dead. My draft-less generation were very, very fortunate, which only means that we must work even harder to possess and maintain two very, very crucial characteristics, as individuals and as a culture:
Memory and empathy.
All other factors – education, wisdom, the ability to make a reasonable assessment of the actions of your government and the actions of other nations, the ability to see military action within the context of history, the ability to assess the human cost of military action — all stem from a strong underpinning of memory and empathy.
I was 10 years old when the draft lottery was extinguished. My entire adult life has been led without even the remote fear of conscription, or the idea that I may be called upon, involuntarily, to fight against a foreign (or even domestic) power for the beliefs of my country. If another military event or engagement requires conscription, I will be too old for this. In other words, I, like others of my generation, have lived without any real idea that we were going to have to fight in a war. My deeply fortunate and ultimately unrealistic generation learned to think of war as something distant, something fought by an economic underclass, something fought vaguely “for” us and in far away places, and only representing our interests or protecting our way of life in uncertain ways. But memory can teach us that war is real, was real, will be real, must be real; when it is real, we can have an understanding of the motivations on both sides and compassion for victims and victimizers; when we can relate, say, the assassination of the heir to throne of Austro-Hungary by Bosnian/Serbian freedom fighters in 1914 to what’s going on in the Ukraine today, or when we can relate the atrocities of Isis in Iraq to the siege of Vienna by the Ottoman Empire in 1683, we are at least one baby-step closer to understanding that today’s events are part of history’s community and continuity, and not isolated episodes of cultural narcissism. Likewise, the wisdom of awareness of the past makes us see the human cost of history, and apply this to everyday compassion.
I doubt any other generation in American history will have this privilege, to have lived with no threat of conscription. This underlines the need to somehow establish a strong foundation of empathy and memory within our culture. Our children and our children’s children will almost without a doubt hold weapons and be fired upon, and they will need memory and empathy to negotiate the fear, hatred, and ignorance that are endemic to war. Our children, and our children’s children, will almost certainly know war. It may not be war as us, our parents, or our grandparents considered it; it may involve entire economies or entire electrical grids being shut down via the click of one key on a computer, it may involve shadow armies belonging to no nation threatening civilian lives and infrastructure.
But like any “conventional” war, any reasonable approach will require grounding in memory and empathy, history and compassion.