They Went. I Played Basketball.
Life for a middle-class kid in the suburbs of the SF Bay Area was pretty good, with wonderful memories. I never bought into the hippie thing. I thought it was simply an excuse to defy authority and, quite frankly, get laid without strings attached -- free love and the like. I still think so.
But like the hippies, I didn't want to go to Viet Nam. I was having too much fun and didn't want to get killed. (In truth, the having fun part was the real motivator, because dying wasn't a real clear concept to me then. It is now.) Full-time students were exempt from the draft, but the day of reckoning -- graduation day -- hung over our heads. Some remained exempt by attending grad school. Some went to Canada. I joined the reserves and stayed out of Viet Nam. Admittedly, what annoyed me most was the National Guard's requirement to keep my hair cut short. The close crop just wasn't stylish, and, well, you know -- I liked girls, and I wanted a chance.
Now, I'm not a dumb guy, but when I was young, I wasn't real observant concerning the realities around me. My only realities were socializing and playing basketball. Over the years, however, my subconscious started becoming aware. Maybe it was pictures of men returning from Viet Nam missing body parts. Maybe it was having my own kids. Life was slowly breaking through my innocent veneer.
News clips of guys coming home from Viet Nam and being spit upon -- even when they were in a body bag -- were particularly disturbing. Young men who have done what their country ordered them to do should not be spit upon. That was wrong. I knew it then, but didn't digest it. I was too busy playing basketball.
A very good friend of mine was in Viet Nam, one of the nicest guys you could ever know. Part of him died there. He is responsible and tries hard, but he has serious problems coping with life. Helicopters get him jittery. What's it like to live like that? What's it like to have nightmares about guys popping out at you from the jungle, looking them in the eyes, and then shooting them dead? What's it like to have no one understand when you come home? I can only imagine. (Are your reading this, Brian?)
I'm convinced that I would not have survived Viet Nam. Upon coming face-to-face with an enemy soldier, I doubt that I would have been able to fire without first looking into his eyes and pleading for understanding and forgiveness. Of course, I would be dead before finding the understanding I needed -- I would have returned in a body bag and been spit upon or just been left to rot in the jungle. If I actually did manage to shoot first and save my skin, I would have wound up in a pretty hospital with nice gardens and lots of flowers and people in white coats asking what was wrong with me.
Here at home, we were isolated from all the violence and death of Desert Storm. From where we sat, it was a video game -- smart bombs zeroing in on their targets. But what was it like to have a treasured son or daughter over there, not knowing if you would see him or her again?
And Iraq and Afghanistan. What's it like to go into a house, not sure whether you will find schoolchildren huddling in a corner or a man with a gun waiting to kill you? No, don't think and ask questions. Decide now! Shoot now -- maybe someone innocent -- or get shot, and leave your own child without a father. What's it like?
History has a way of awarding winners the high ground. Still, there is no doubt that American involvement in WWI and WWII (the "Great War") was just and moral. WWII defined modern-day America. Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto is purported to have said, "I fear all we have done is to awaken a sleeping giant and fill him with a terrible resolve." Yes, the sleeping giant awoke, with the fate of the world resting in our hands. At the cost of 416,000 American soldiers, our "terrible resolve" came through. In the war between good and evil, good won. We were The Good. The "Greatest Generation" did it. My parents' generation.
Of course, most of our parents didn't talk much about WWII. Maybe they didn't want us to feel the pain. Or relive the pain themselves. Maybe they hoped it would disappear from their memories and history. Maybe they just wanted us to play basketball without a care in the world.
Saving Private Ryan was a catalyst for my subconscious emotions. It made me cry. It gave me nightmares. The idea that a single military mission would be to find a young man and bring him home because his three brothers had been killed was, by itself, a tragic concept. The violence in the movie delivered the punch.
During those youthful fantasy days of basketball, it was probably good that I was unaware of the suffering caused by war. I couldn't have done anything about it anyway, and if all those men who gave their lives -- or survived but gave up something of their soul -- were working for anything, wasn't it for us? Wasn't it so we could keep our families safe and live in relative freedom and prosperity without fear? And play basketball?
Last month, I visited the Luxembourg American Cemetery and Memorial, one of numerous American cemeteries throughout Europe. Five thousand and seventy-six American soldiers who died in WWII are buried there. This tribute to American soldiers grabbed my heart and soul. It is beautiful, depressing, and powerful. There were more than a few wet cheeks among the visitors. The average age of American soldiers buried there was 26 years old. Twenty-six. Robbed of the prime of their lives. Worse, the average age at the German cemetery nearby was 16. That bastard Hitler had to have known that he was finished, yet he dragged children from their homes and put them out to slaughter and be slaughtered.
Have you ever been to the WWII, Korean War, or the Viet Nam War Memorial in D.C.? Don't go if you can't stand the pain. Or go, and feel the pain. Maybe, if you weren't one of those who went, you need to feel the pain. You need to appreciate the young men and women who never raised a family, had a career, or took care of their parents when they got old. Instead, their heartbroken parents buried them.
A war's winner is determined not by good and evil. Most American wars have been necessary, with honorable intentions. When called, our courageous young men and women answered, and they answered well. Unfortunately, people on both sides will die, be dismembered, suffer psychiatric problems, and leave families in pain.
If you are a young person today, build a career and go skiing. Dance, sing, love, and raise a family. Play basketball. But remember those who gave you the freedom to do what you are doing. Visit Luxembourg. Visit the D.C. memorials. You will appreciate everything America affords you just a little more. If you feel like it, cry; you won't be alone. I cry with you. The families cry with you.
I just signed up with the Wounded Warriors Project. I'm not a rich man, so I'm committing to just a regular monthly amount -- about the cost of a ticket to an NBA game. It's the least I can do for those who have given so much to my family and me. Now, when I am enjoying one of the many blessings this great country has to offer, I think of the men and women who, more than anyone else, make it possible and defend us. I still cry, but I feel a little bit better.
I don't play basketball anymore -- too old. But sometimes I stop when I pass a playground and watch the kids play, and I remember. I thank my lucky stars that I was born in America, and I thank the unsung heroes who sacrificed for...yes...me.