I would rather call it Armistice Day, truth be told. I’ve got nothing against veterans. I simply want us to celebrate the coming of peace, even through the horrors of war, rather than celebrate the fighting. I wonder if we called it Armistice Day our “thank you” to vets and troops might not sound so hollow and trite. I wonder if we as civilians might have a better sense of what these men and women have done, what the nation has asked them to do, and what it all has done to them. Today we have heard the stories of vets today, and some have even told the lesser known stories of Conscientious Objectors.
I have been an objector to war for about as long as I have had to think about it. I am a child of the first Gulf War. I can remember the press conferences shown on school televisions where the generals commented on the videos of smart bombs crashing into buildings and bridges. “Here you are about to see the luckiest guy in Iraq,” one general said as a car moved across a bridge that was dust seconds later. I even found myself in debates about the merits of war and the Christian response on the bus rides home.
We are told that today’s army is a professional one. My father’s generation is the last one to see a true draft. Since then all our combat has been carried on the shoulders of those who supposedly choose to fight. Even when I signed up for selective service there was no place to signal my objection to war, no box to check, no line on which I could make my case. Yet I signed up anyway, putting the letters CO in the upper corner in the unlikely event of a draft. It was meaningless really. Two letters out of place would not really signal anything if my number did come up. I know of others who refused to sign up altogether. I calculated the risk, thinking a draft would never come in my lifetime. And so far, several wars later, my calculations have proven true.
And yet, I just spent my late nights writing the story of a soldier. My wife’s grandfather served as in a tank destroyer battalion as a gunner in the last years of World War II. He crossed into France less than six months after the horrific battles of D-Day, and joined the push east towards Berlin. He witnessed the V-2 rockets pulse overhead, saw the trees shatter in the snowy Hurtgen Forest during the Battle of the Buldge, endured shelling and hid from snipers, and even met the Russians as they neared Berlin. After peace came to Europe he stood guard over German Prisoners of War on their way to Nuremberg.
I poured over After Action Reports that calculated the progress of war in map coordinates, shells fired, and the nameless tallies of the wounded. I read unit histories that recounted the decisions of combat and the movement of troops. And I learned the names of the young men of his unit awarded stars for valor and of men killed. Honestly, I tried to tell a war story as a labor of love. I wanted to find out what this gentle and loving man experienced as a soldier in the second great war. And I wanted to do it as an objector.
When I talked to Fritz and asked about his military days I never sensed a spark of pride. It was simply what he did. He seemed never to want thanks or praise. He had fired that large gun on the destroyer, and seen his friends wounded. His story never seemed to be one of glory, just truth. Even the few hand written pages of his service are matter of fact, no details beyond the dates and places. I told a similar story, as a historian, without judgement so that those of us who love him as a milk truck driver, loving father and grandfather, might not lose his story to the passing of time and his memory.
In his book “The Things they Carried,” Vietnam veteran Tim O”Brien says that “in a true war story, if there’s a moral at all, it’s like the thread that makes a cloth. You can’t tease it out. You can’t extract the meaning without unraveling the deeper meaning. And in the end, really, there’s nothing much to say about a true war story, expect maybe ‘Oh.’” (84)
That is how I feel after hearing the war stories of Fritz and the Conscientious Objectors. It is true, I can only say “Oh.” For many on either side of the decision to fight these stories are a rally cry. Through their celebratory moralizing these story tellers try to stir in their hearing a similar passion, for either peace or war. I find no such moral in either story. In fact, I mourn either kind. For there are many whose conscience knows no choice. Some men fought and some others served in other ways. Neither seem to have had the same luxury of choice as I did when I wrote those two simple letters on my selective service card. They did what they thought they had to do when nations fought nations. I don’t know if Fritz would have chosen otherwise had he known the stories of war objectors, just as I don’t know if those objectors would have chosen otherwise if they hadn’t heard of other options. Yet I am not sure if they really had a choice to begin with. All they could do was follow their conscience and pray they came out on the other side when the fighting stopped.
Today, we appear to have a choice. Some serve in other ways while others join up. Yet, it seems that there are still no options. Nations still war against nations, and the threats to life and prosperity still remain. And in it all fear runs deep.
I have three sons who I pray will choose not fight, even when there seems no other option. I pray they too will write those two meaningless letters on their selective service registration. Yet I want them to hear the stories of both kinds of heroes that had no choice— those who objected to fighting and those who fought. For in hearing the moral-less stories of war and alternative service, I want them to choose to conquer with love, and the towel that dries feet, rather than sword. I want them to build rather than destroy. And yet, I know they have no real choice. I want them to ask for another story.