An Offering in Blood?
I am a product of war, a war-baby and war-horse rolled into one. My father fought his way through the hedgerows of Normandy. My grandfather was gassed in the trenches of the Argonne. I took this patrimony, along with an M-16 rifle, into the bloody hills around Ca Lu and Dong Ha. Our family history, in other words, includes several long chapters on the subjects of service and sacrifice.
For the past three years, I have been researching a book on the early days of World War II in the Pacific, a time of great uncertainty for America and a period of overwhelming sacrifice. For the past two weeks, this theme of sacrifice has echoed across America. President Bush, members of the Cabinet and a chorus of Congress members have insisted that, as Senator John McCain of Arizona put it, "Americans know now that we are at war and will make the sacrifices and show the resolve necessary to prevail."
McCain, a former prisoner of war, was, I suspect, not really speaking his mind. He knows, I am sure, that the American concept of sacrifice has changed. Even though we continue to celebrate it in current books and movies, the traditional spirit that is summoned by McCains language is from another time.
It is one thing to send clothes and food to those dispossessed by the attacks; to write checks to help the families of the missing; to house and feed the rescue workers; to take time from the day to stand in prayer and remembrance for the dead. It is quite another to queue up at a recruiting station ready to stand shoulder-to-shoulder alongside those who savaged us.
"I say to our enemies: We are coming," said Senator McCain in this same speech. I wonder: whos the "we"?
Polls show that 90 percent of Americans support a military strike at "our enemies," but few, among the hundreds of thousands of young men and women waving American flags and singing "God Bless America," have made their way to an Army, Navy, Air Force or Marine Corps enlistment center.
In the weeks after the attack on Pearl Harbor, there were long lines at the recruiting stations; thousands of young men and old men, eager to get into uniform, were volunteering for services. This week the armed services reported that there has been no increase at all in armed forces enlistment. One young man, who went against the grain and enlisted in the army, told the New York Times that he tried to persuade his friends to follow him, unsuccessfully. "They are all cowards, self-centered and afraid. They just wanted to get an education, get women and get drunk."
A week ago Saturday, at dinner with old friends, a woman at our table said, "We should kill those who did this, kill them." When my wife asked her whether the "we" included her two sons of draft age, she said that if the government ever called them into service, she would "put them in the car and drive them to Canada. No way theyre going to war."
Sacrifice has, like most ideas in the postmodern age, taken on a new meaning, at least in the culture of the West. Even as our squadrons of aircraft scrambled and our fleet sallied forth, professors at New York University, where I work, sat in a forum, easing student fears about being drafted; fears, it seemed to me, that were drowned out by the death throes that continued in the rubble of the World Trade Center, a stones throw from where those students were sitting.
The 19 men who hijacked four jetliners and crashed them into our buildings and hearts knew well the meaning of sacrifice. They reminded me instantly of the Oka and Kamikaze pilots who were sent on suicide missions by the Japanese, near the end of WWII. In the West the Kamikazes were seen as mindless fanatics?ignorant young men, brainwashed to die for the emperor and given just enough training to carry out their mission.
Author Ivan Morris reports that, on the contrary, "the typical kamikaze fighter was a university student," usually a humanities or law major, without any military training. These men were "far from being the fierce, superstitious, jingoistic fanatics that foreigners have usually imagined," writes Morris. They were free of "any visceral loathing for the enemy." They sacrificed their lives because they believed they were serving their country and their families.
"We shall plunge into enemy ships cherishing the conviction that Japan has been and will be a place where only lovely homes, brave women and beautiful friendships are allowed to exist," wrote one doomed pilot.
To the pilots, sacrifice was an act of devotion. We live in different times, of course, and have a more complicated view of the world, but our postmodern ways, our constant state of redefinition, could lead us to great loss in this hour of crisis.
We should not call for sacrifice, should not wave the flag, without knowing what sacrifice means. The notions of sacrifice that we carried from WWII led in part to the 10 years of madness that was Vietnam. The truth is, my comrades in Vietnam did not die for the flag, did not sacrifice themselves for their country. They died for one another, for me. The question is: Should any of us have been sacrificed in the first place?
We have learned that sacrifice without meaning is simply waste, a criminal and immoral act, but the lesson is incomplete because we seem to have trouble fixing that meaning and agreeing on the cost. Sacrifice is an offering. In times of war it is an offering in blood. The first battle in Americas "war" against terrorism has cost more than 6,500 casualties. Will we be willing to take that many in the next battle?
For now, the war will be fought by volunteers, our "professional" military. We expect them, and pay them, to be prepared to make the ultimate sacrifice. But what will happen if the war drags on and their ranks grow thin? It is one thing to sacrifice a few of our inalienable rights, or even our paychecks. It is something else to offer our children to the cause.
I have two sons. The oldest is in the Peace Corps, serving in Muslim West Africa. The youngest, Ben, is in high school in Montclair. "Can I be drafted?" he asked me this week.
"Yes," I said, "in theory."
"Would I have to go?"
I think he was really asking another question. Would I, his father, be willing to sacrifice him? I remembered a conversation Id had with my own father, some 20 years after Vietnam. We had been separated since my childhood and had only recently reunited as father and son.
"I missed a lot of years with you," he said. "A lot of your life. What was the war like for you?"
I reckoned he knew, I said, since hed seen combat himself. Then I asked, "If we had been together during those years, would you have tried to keep me out of the war?"
"No," he said. "Im sure I would have thought, if war was good enough for me, it was good enough for my son."
In other words, he would have expected me to sacrifice.
I do not expect the same from my boys. And yet, I do not know how we can win this war without them.
Michael Norman, a professor of journalism at New York
University, is working on Tears In The Darkness, to be published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux in the spring of 2003. This piece originally appeared in the Newark Star-Ledger.