Recall the Sinatra song that began…”When I was 17, it was a very good year”? For me, age 17 was not a very good year. I’d just graduated from high school and was looking forward to my freshman year of college.
America was at war and losing badly. The Pearl Harbor attack, as well as the loss of Wake Island and the Philippines, were all crushing defeats. At home, panic and patriotism were at their peak, and recruiting offices were full of young guys eager to join the fight. For the not-so-eager guys ages 18 to 36, local draft boards were turning them into soldiers.
I had a summer job in downtown Philadelphia, and witnessed many patriotic parades, bond drives and rallies. Walking from the subway to my office building, I was often accosted by older men, girls and women angrily asking why I wasn’t in uniform. It made me feel so guilty, to avoid their harassment, I sometimes limped pitifully along the sidewalk.
Then, with my brain feverish with patriotic fervor and guilt, I went to a Navy recruiting office. I was in boot camp a month after my 18th birthday. Of course, in all of my training and throughout the war, I never questioned the need for we good young guys to go out and kill those bad young guys.
Now, after more than 70 years, I’ve finally sorted out the atavistic idiocy of it all. Civilization hasn’t improved much since the Stone Age. Back then, to keep their status as leaders of the tribe, elders needed to send young guys out to fight other tribes. Through speeches, flag-waving and patriotic fervor, hate for the other guys was pounded into their still-evolving young brains.
To add to the trumpted-up glory, the wise, bearded elders ceremoniously gave the young warriors longer spears, sharper knives and fancy animal skins to wear into battle. With today’s young warriors, it isn’t that much different. They’re also given the latest weapons and fancy uniforms.
Many wise elders of today who send young people off to war aren’t that much different. They stride around in long robes, with beady eyes glaring out from bearded faces. Other not-much-more civilized leaders dress up in modern clothing or bemedalled uniforms, ever ready to stand back while the young warriors fight and die for them.
Why am I so cynical about it all? Maybe I still feel the guilt. I recall when the Korean War broke out in 1950 and I was recalled to active duty. One of my first assignments was to wear my dress blue uniform at high school assemblies, and give speeches encouraging students to join the Navy.