My fourth son’s Afghanistan deployment ceremony was in March. It has taken me a while to sort through my still incomplete thoughts.
We missed the actual ceremony. An overnight Kansas City snowstorm dropped eight inches over the seventy-five mile route to Warrensburg, Missouri, where it was held. We waited until late morning to leave, when the highways were reasonably clear. We arrived just after the army rituals were completed.
There was time to take him to dinner, accompanied by one of his three brothers, two of his three sisters, and a young lady scheduled to become one more daughter-in-law, thanks to number three son. (I was prepared to ask her to marry him myself, but ultimately he did it on his own.)
We spent hours in a corner restaurant booth as other families with their soldiers filed in, filling the remaining tables. As the restaurant is located close to Whiteman Air Force Base, its management is accustomed to this and the long farewells that attend such gatherings. Take as much time as you like, we were told, and we took it. It will be a year, give or take, before we see him again.
I cannot tell you what we talked about; I don’t remember much of it really. Mostly, I spent time simply looking at him, wonderingly. Where did this man come from? When did I first meet him? When did this man become the man he is, and why did I not know it before now?
Thoreau’s notion of a “different drummer” is fetching, but I swear this boy came with a whole ‘nother drum set. This was the sixteen-year-old boy I voted most likely to live in the basement watching History Channel. When I once mentioned this to him he asserted, convincingly, “It can be a good life.” All the same I’m glad it wasn’t the one he chose.
Right now, though, that’s where I’d like to find him: in the basement, safe. He originally enlisted in a National Guard unit that was not subject to deployment. His talents with electronics and communication gear brought him to the attention of those paid to pay attention (placing second as the Missouri Guard’s soldier of the year a while back didn’t hurt, either). He was recruited, asked to transfer units, get another stripe, and go on deployment to a war zone.
My son, in a war zone: What an inexpressibly odd thing for a father to think about. Add one more—one of mine—to the 66,000 currently deployed opposing the Taliban, the remainder left following the 2012 drawdown that reduced the American presence by 23,000. As the drawdowns continue we shall read soon of the “last man” killed in Afghanistan.
The Taliban don’t have to “win,” you understand. They have only to wait. So far as I can tell the U.S. is using the same tactics Alexander the Great employed against an “asymmetrical” enemy two millennia and three centuries ago, creating strongholds and garrisons to keep them at bay. They failed. Alexander fought unsuccessfully for three years until he reached a political settlement of sorts by marrying Roxanne, daughter of a top chieftain the Macedonian killed. He declared peace and moved on to India.
We, too, seem prepared to declare peace anyway and move on. That won’t bother me at all. Afghanistan is at the end-point of three decades of conflict, making it one of the world's most dangerous countries and one of the largest exporters of refugees and asylum seekers.
We are waging a lost war; that’s my opinion. That’s what happens to big nations battling smaller nations where many—say, a third—of the indigenous population are disinclined to accept assurances that foreign troops are there for their own good.
Me, I never got to serve; a medical disability. At the pinnacle of the Vietnam era, honestly, that didn’t seem like such a bad thing. My feelings for the military then were ambivalent at best. Later, my disdain of the military lessening, I regretted missing military service. As an Army sergeant told me, though, there are some things worth missing.
There are other sons and daughters leaving distraught parents, spouses, and children at home. There are many who will not see their soldier-child again, except as God will grant. I should not complain any more than they. And I am proud of him; he could have declined but did not. Yet a song, a century and half distant, constantly runs through my mind:
Many are the hearts that are weary tonight, wishing for the war to cease;
Many are the hearts that are longing for the right to see the dawn of peace.
Russell E. Saltzman is dean of the Great Plains Mission District of the North American Lutheran Church, assistant pastor of St. Matthew’s Church in Riverside, Missouri, and an online homilist for the Christian Leadership Center at the University of Mary. His book Speaking of the Dead is nearing completion. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.