Why do young men want to go to war?
This is a question that has stuck with me for a long time. When I was a kid I played all the regular games: cops and robbers, cowboys and indians, and the U.S. versus the Commies. I read Captain America, I said the Pledge of Allegiance, I even wrote fan fiction based on the movie Red Dawn. My senior year of high school I even submitted one of those interest cards to the Air Force.
I never joined up; never served my country on the front lines, or even the line behind the front line. I stayed home during the early 90's when some of my friends were signing up and fighting in the Gulf War.
There's a distinction that has to be made between those who want to fight for their country and those that actually do.
What I don't understand is: what is it?
I've decided to try and figure out the answer to this question because in my mind there are essentially, though maybe not exclusively, three levels of national participation: Citizen, Patriot and Soldier.
We're all citizens, although I guess even that term is getting fuzzy these days, but for the sake of argument let's say the minimum participation level is citizenship. A citizen pays taxes, supports the economy, benefits from the accomplishments, and suffers from the failures of the nation. They don't have to like it, or support it intellectually. In other words, the U.S. Citizen has the right and the freedom to not care at all about the United States of America.
Patriots are also citizens, but they've taken it one step further. They pay taxes, support the economy, benefit from the accomplishments and suffer from the failures of the nation, but they also want to do something about it. A Patriot wants to see America succeed in the best way possible and they will take action to do so either by voting, or running for office, or running an honorable business, or raising a good family. I think a prime example of a good patriot is someone who raises their children to be good citizens and teaches them to be thankful for what they have rather than taking it for granted.
I have to ask forgiveness here; when I use the term soldier I'm referring to anyone in the armed forces.
Soldiers are an entirely different breed. They are patriots and citizens. A soldier cherishes citizenship so much that they are willing to put their lives on the line to protect and defend the rest of the citizens.
Maybe my definitions are overly simplistic, but that’s my starting point. I know what it takes to be a citizen and a patriot; I’m still trying to answer the soldier question.
Last year my son played football for the Livingston County Knights and as an assistant coach, I had the honor of meeting a young man named Matt Iceberg. Matt enlisted in the Marines before the football season even started and he will be leaving for boot camp June 18th, 2012. Even though he missed some practices and I believe a couple of games due to obligations with the Marines he was still a stand out player.
I had a short email conversation with him recently to see if he could help me understand.
Matt grew up in Hartland, Michigan. He earned 3.0 GPA and considered himself an average student. He found school to be kind of boring and in his opinion, he didn’t learn anything that applied to real life. Matt loves the outdoors; hunting and camping make more sense than algebra and government. He enlisted because, as he says, he has a strong sense of adventure.
So far, I’m right there with him. I get all this and that’s a lot how I felt about school and the military. I wanted the adventure.
Digging a little deeper I asked Matt about America; is she worth fighting for? The answer was unexpected to me, but profound. He said, “I don’t really have strong feelings for America, just its people. I do feel there are some parts worth fighting for.” Putting the people before the nation; that’s a lesson worth remembering.
One of the last questions I asked Matt was about honor. Honor is one of those traits that far too often we define for ourselves. We hold our honor the same way we hold our integrity, which is to say we often fall into the “at least I’m not as bad as that guy” defense. To be honorable is to rise to a higher standard outside one’s self. So what did it mean to Matt to serve with honor?
“Living with honor as a marine would be fulfilling my duty in times of need and defending my [friends and] family and America with a sacrifice that needs to be made.”
Yep, I’d say that qualifies as honorable.
In a couple of weeks Matt will be headed off to boot camp. He’ll be taken up a weapon and for the next few years will willingly risk his life to protect ours. I’m still asking questions, Matt is taking action. We can honor him by not taking our rights for granted.
My journey doesn't end here becaues I’ve got a lot more questions. Keep an eye for Part 2.
What do you think it takes to be a soldier? If you have any questions you’d like me to ask please leave a note in the comments.
follow Cliff Richardson on Twitter (@Cliffymania)