Military Service and Left-Hand Paths

Veterans Day will be observed this year on Monday, Nov. 11, and as I do every year, I’ll first spend some time fretting over whether there should be an apostrophe somewhere in that name, and then about what it means to honor our veterans.

(One thing it absolutely does NOT mean, by the way, is slashing their food stamp payments.)

My feelings on military service are conflicted, if you’ll pardon the pun. There are times when I feel warfare is the least bad option. It would have been unacceptable to do nothing after Pearl Harbor, for example, and I feel the same applies to the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, though the latter points out the importance of doing the RIGHT thing.

(Attacking a country totally uninvolved in the attack on your people? That’s doing it wrong.)

I’m not a hawk. I think our military budget is too big. We could cut it in half and still be as secure as possible; even if we cut it in half, we’d outspend the rest of the world on the military.

(And note that I use the phrase “military budget” there, not “defense budget.” The original title of the “War Department” was the most truthful, but we’ve been out of a purely defensive stance since at least Vietnam.)

I’m not a complete dove, either. Again, see Pearl Harbor or the bit of the 9/11 response that actually involved al-Qaida. I felt there were valid arguments for military action in Syria, though I didn’t favor it. And I don’t fall into the trap that has snared too many people on the left, thinking that Bush’s lies about Iraq invalidate all arguments for military force hereafter from any president.

(If you believe that, then your copy of “The Boy Who Cried Wolf” ends a few pages early, with the young rascal pulling his pranks. You missed the part where, spoiler alert, a real wolf shows up, no one believes him, and bad things ensue.)

When military recruiters started calling me, I started spinning tales because they wouldn’t take “No” for an answer. I told one recruiter, “I’ll only join if you guarantee I’ll get to kill some people, and I don’t even care who.” I told another that my true calling was the writing of sonnets, but what broke them from calling was the story about how I was getting on an airplane the next day to fly to Japan, move into a Buddhist monastery, shave my head, and devote my life to the art of Zen archery.

(If that didn’t work, I was going to tell them I was gay and hoped to meet a lot of other handsome boys. That excuse wouldn’t work now, and I’m glad it wouldn’t.)

And if by some chance I ever have a child, I like to think that I would teach the child that there are other ways — in my opinion, better ways — of “serving the country” than by putting on a uniform and strapping on a weapon.

(I think the military and police are the only people who should have guns beyond shotguns or bolt-action rifles, but that’s a whole ‘nother issue.)

But I’m proud as can be of the fact that my late great-uncle fought in World War II. And I’ll admit that I was not immune to the confident bearing of another late uncle who was in the Marine Corps. I try to assume the best of people until proven otherwise, and my parents raised me to be polite, but I’m especially deferential to people who I know are veterans.

(This respect also extends to nuns and rabbis, despite my never having been in the military and never having been Catholic or Jewish.)

My family ties had helped me to separate the individuals at the micro level from the imperial or corporate powers that exploit them at the macro level. But my two late uncles were both out of uniform by the time I came along. It took coming to seminary, meeting classmates who aspire to military chaplaincy, that helped me see the active-duty personnel as people.

Eastern religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism traditionally stress a life habit of renunciation and austerity as the path toward their destinations. But there are esoteric offshoots that go in the other direction to circle around to the same outcome. So while most Hindu sages practice celibacy, others follow the Kama Sutra and indulge deeply in carnal relations. While Buddhism views intoxication as an obstacle to clarity, there are tales of drunken masters whose foolishness contains deep wisdom. Western occultists dubbed this approach the “left-hand path,” which is insulting to left-handed persons, but that’s beside the point.

Pacifism is not an absolute necessity in most religions; we can’t all be Jains sweeping the ground before us to push away insects before taking our next step. But it’s certainly held up as the ideal in most of them.

I propose that our siblings in spirit who don the uniform are akin to our Sikh neighbors, whatever their religion (if they have one). Their willingness to fight and die — or fight and kill — puts their loyalty in a very tangible shape.

A willingness to lay down one’s life for the ones held dear is no small thing. There probably is no greater love. And our military people have this willingness, as proven time and time again.

But everyone in an all-volunteer military is also signing up for the potential of having to kill other human beings. And while those making decisions on where to fight may have other motives, those on the ground go in thinking their cause will be noble, that they will be defending friends and loved ones, God and country.

In addition to the risk of death or physical injury, the veteran risks post-traumatic stress disorder, grief and survivor’s guilt, regrets and guilt over blood shed, a loss of one’s sense of humanity. Our troops are willing to lay down their souls. How can we NOT thank them?

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